The Major League Baseball playoffs have arrived! The best-of-three Wild Card Round starts today with four games, as we’ll have Rays/Guardians, Phillies/Cardinals, Mariners/Blue Jays and Padres/Mets in that order.
Betting on the MLB playoffs is a much different beast than the regular season. It is a much tighter run environment and the game is managed more aggressively. Starting pitchers don’t work as far into games and prominent relievers are sometimes deployed earlier depending on the importance of the situation. Handicapping the bullpen is always important, but it is magnified at this time of the year.
Pregame wagers are less about making a bet and more about taking a position. Think about it like a starting point. Because these games often feature a lot of different high-leverage situations and pitching changes, live betting is a good strategy. There will be huge momentum swings and game-changing home runs that create in-game betting equity. The games are staggered in a way that makes them easy to follow. Every single pitch matters and that’s true of betting on these games as well.
I’ll be back to doing the daily MLB article for the duration of the postseason. Don’t expect a ton of pregame picks, but I’ll tell you what I’m looking for in terms of live bets, series prices and other wagering tips. I also won’t be using the sheet to track these. As I mentioned, a lot of pregame wagers will simply be positions to take in hopes that they gain equity before the game.
You can read my series previews for the AL Wild Card and NL Wild Card before these games get underway.
Lines are from DraftKings, but shopping around for the best odds is always the best policy.
Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Guardians (-120, 6)
Shane McClanahan and Shane Bieber get this coin-flip series underway at Progressive Field on a cool and crisp day with a pretty stiff breeze forecasted to be blowing in. That had some early impact on the total, but what really impacted the total was the announcement that Doug Eddings will be the home plate umpire. Eddings is a well-known under ump and we’ve even got some Under 6 at -125 here.
The starting point with this handicap is McClanahan, who missed a couple of weeks with a shoulder impingement in late August. Since returning from the IL, he’s only faced the Blue Jays and Astros, but has allowed 11 runs on 19 hits in 19 innings with 12 strikeouts against eight walks. It’s a small sample and Cleveland’s offense is absolutely not on that level, but he hasn’t been nearly as sharp and that is concerning.
We know that Kevin Cash has a quick trigger finger as the skipper of the Rays, so it’s fair to wonder how far McClanahan goes in this game. The Guardians finished the regular season 27th in wOBA and 29th in SLG against lefties, so the Rays are hoping to get a long outing from their ace. However, Cash has a full pen at his disposal as well.
There seems to be a negative perception about Bieber in some circles of the investment community. While his strikeout rate is down, he still posted just his second FIP under 3.00, with the other coming in the shortened 2020 season against a bunch of poor Central Division offenses. He still had a very respectable K% of 25% and the lowest BB% of his career at 4.6%. I think the velocity decrease and the depressed K% unjustly took too much shine off of him.
Both of these bullpens are good, which is what makes this series so hard to handicap. These two offenses are below average and neither team hits for power. This series will come down to a few high-leverage plate appearances with men in scoring position and Game 1 is likely to follow that path. Cleveland’s bullpen does have a higher strikeout rate and has allowed a lower home run rate, but the Rays faced better offenses throughout the season. Cleveland actually had the best second-half bullpen in baseball in ERA, FIP and fWAR.
At 6.5, the play was the under here, but with Eddings behind the plate, those are long gone. The more I handicap the game, the more I think Cleveland is the Game 1 side, but sharp money is against that, likely because of Cleveland’s low offensive output against lefties. No pregame play from me in this one, but I’ll be very interested to see how the relievers are deployed.
Philadelphia Phillies at St. Louis Cardinals (-110, 7)
We’ve got -110 both ways here with surprise starter Jose Quintana going for the Cardinals and Zack Wheeler going for the Phillies. I’d have preferred to see Aaron Nola in Game 1 so that the Phillies gave themselves the best chance at getting ahead in the series, but Wheeler is very good in his own right.
The first thing you need to know about this game and this series is that Busch Stadium is an extreme pitcher’s park. On an annual basis, Cardinals pitchers have better numbers at home than on the road. Quintana’s dominant final month saw opposing batters hit .183/.217/.226 with a 28/4 K/BB ratio. He faced the Nationals, Pirates twice, Reds, Dodgers and Brewers in that stretch. He did have four of those six starts on the road, but he was pretty good this season regardless of where he pitched.
What makes Quintana a surprise to me is that the Phillies were a top-five offense in wOBA against lefties, as it was clearly their better offensive split. The Cardinals are carrying several multi-inning relievers plus all five of their starters, so they do have a lot of flexibility if Quintana gets in trouble early.
It’s tough to get a read on what to expect from Wheeler because he’s only made three starts since missing a month from August 21-September 20. He’s allowed one run on nine hits in 15 innings since returning, but that was against the Blue Jays, Cubs and Nationals. Wheeler finished the season with a 2.82 ERA and a 2.89 FIP in 153 innings.
I think the Phillies are quite live in this series, but it will come down to their bullpen. This is a group that had a 5.10 ERA in the second half, but fell victim to a lot of bad luck with a 3.64 FIP and a 3.93 xFIP. They had to endure a 66.1% LOB% and that drove up the ERA. Keep in mind that bad relievers don’t pitch in the playoffs, so every bullpen (in theory) should be better now than it was in the regular season. Of the top six in appearances in the second half, the highest FIP was 4.23. Teams “shorten the bench”, so to speak.
The game being lined as a toss-up makes sense. I do have a lean towards Under 7 here. As mentioned, this ballpark suppresses offense and I do like the primary relievers for each team. I’m hoping for an early run or two and then a live under when everything settles in a bit.
Lean: Under 7; look for a live under opportunity
Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays (-130, 7)
This is going to be a phenomenal atmosphere at Rogers Centre. There are a lot of Mariners fans that have never seen the team play in the postseason and things are always crazy north of the border with the Toronto fans. This should be an excellent series and it is also the highest-variance series in my opinion. There’s a lot to like about both offenses and there are some things to be concerned with on the pitching side.
One guy I’m not concerned about is Luis Castillo. The Mariners ace just signed an extension to stay in the Pacific Northwest this past month and was excellent for the Mariners with a 3.17 ERA and a 2.91 FIP in 11 starts over 65.1 innings. His K% perked up, but not really at the expense of his ground ball rate, which is something I really like to see.
Something else that really stands out about Castillo is his dominance against righties. Right-handed batters slashed .217/.272/.317 with a .262 wOBA in 313 plate appearances this season. For his career, Castillo has held righties to a .220/.278/.345 slash in 1,767 plate appearances and has only surrendered 43 homers. He is very hard to manufacture innings against with a higher strikeout rate and a high ground ball rate. Compare that with a .233/.319/.407 slash from lefties in his career with a double-digit BB% of 10.3%.
The reason his splits against righties matter so much is because the Blue Jays have one of the lowest Platoon% of all-time. They have a ton of righty vs. righty plate appearances. And while they’re done well and lead the league in R vs. R OPS, not all pitchers are like Castillo.
I’m also partial to Seattle’s bullpen, which is loaded with right-handed arms. Seattle ranked seventh in ERA and eighth in FIP in the second half. The Blue Jays were 17th in reliever FIP, so there does appear to be a bullpen advantage for the visitors in this series.
Don’t get me wrong. Alek Manoah is really good and he rides into the playoffs having allowed six earned runs in his last eight starts covering 54 innings of work. There is a lot to like about him and there are some worries about the Mariners lineup with Jesse Winker out hurt and the bad back that Julio Rodriguez has been battling. There will be a lot of jitters on the Seattle side as well. An early run would calm those, but I’m not sure we’re going to get that.
I do have some interest in Under 3.5 for the 1st 5. I also like the Mariners at a plus-money price. If you followed my advice and took Mariners + 140 or + 130 for the series, I’m not sure you want to double down and take Seattle Game 1. However, if you’re betting in a vacuum and don’t take the series price, I think there’s some equity to Seattle as a dog. They’ve got the better bullpen. I think the starters are pretty even. Toronto’s lineup was certainly more productive, but they play in much better hitter’s parks. The Mariners had a top-10 offense by wRC +, which is a park-adjusted metric.
With seven or eight righties awaiting Castillo, my belief is that Mariners can get ahead or stay tied, where they’ll then have the bullpen advantage late. Like I said, if you bet the series price, I wouldn’t double down, but I think Seattle can win this game. DraftKings has the worst line in the market on them, so look for a better number elsewhere.
Pick: Mariners at the best price you can find
San Diego Padres at New York Mets (-150, 6)
Another game with a very low total as the Padres and Mets square off at Citi Field. This will be Max Scherzer’s 22nd playoff start and the eighth for Yu Darvish. This is also maybe the toughest handicap of Friday’s slate. The reason is because Scherzer is not right. He’s only made three starts since September 3 while dealing with an oblique injury that he seems to be managing as best as he can. He allowed four runs on nine hits in his final game of the regular season to the Braves and gave up a lot of hard-hit contact.
The truth is that we don’t know how healthy he is. He’s had spectacular numbers yet again this season with a 2.29 ERA and a 2.62 FIP over 145.1 innings, but he’s missed two chunks of time and the most recent injury is probably one that would’ve kept other guys out longer. I just don’t know how effective he will be or how long he can go.
The final month of the season was an excellent one for Darvish, who only allowed eight runs on 23 hits over 39 innings to round out the regular season. Five of those eight runs scored on home runs, but Darvish yielded little else and had 44 strikeouts against just eight walks. He draws a Mets lineup that actually led MLB in wRC + in the second half, posting a 124 mark that means they were 24% better than league average. The Padres were 6% better and wRC + does take into account park factor.
You have to get to Darvish early. Most pitchers have what we call a “times through the order” penalty. As hitters see more of them, they tend to have more success. Usually, a pitcher’s worst split will be the third time facing a hitter in a game. For Darvish, he was actually at his worst the first time he saw a hitter. Interestingly, Darvish allowed 13 of his 22 home runs and 21 of his 37 walks the first time through the order. In other words, the Mets need to jump on him early. If he gets to settle in, the task becomes harder.
I think that’s a key betting angle here. The Padres look to have one of the more suspect bullpens of the teams playing in this round. If the Mets can jump ahead, I feel like they can stay ahead. If they don’t, I feel like they may be live deeper into the game as the Padres bullpen takes the reins. So, I’d be looking for an opportunity to take the Mets in-game.
Look to live bet the Mets