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My approach to betting MLB awards futures

May 12, 2022 08:30 PM
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It’s time to take our first look at the in-season MLB awards futures market. 

A large part of playing this market is monitoring the odds board in the pursuit of value and trying to anticipate the changes sportsbooks will make over the course of a long season. 

Six weeks into the MLB season, here is an early assessment.

Be aware of the favorites

One of the main points I stress regarding awards futures is how few preseason favorites actually cash in the end. 

Just look at the NBA. Of the awards already handed out, Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year did not go to the preseason favorite. Regardless of where you stand on the Nikola Jokic-Joel Embiid MVP debate, neither was preseason chalk.

When the NHL starts announcing its awards, the trend should continue. 

Yes, the favorites are there for a reason: recognizable names with an established record of performance that will get a bettor’s attention and dollars. That’s why sportsbooks place them at such low odds. Don’t let the books’ desire to limit liability direct your betting attention. 

How does that relate to the current MLB awards futures market? Any bettor who took the approach of banking on a favorite and stashing away the ticket until October should reconsider that strategy. It often takes multiple plays to stay profitable in this market. 

Using BetMGM’s numbers for the preseason favorites of the six major races (MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in both leagues), only Max Scherzer’s current + 500 to win the NL Cy Young is lower than the odds posted on April 7. 

Reputation versus production

The best way to deal with preseason favorites (now early-season favorites) is not to bet them but to understand why they reside so high on the odds board. 

Are they up there because of reputation/book’s fear of liability or because of statistical output? 

When it’s the former of the two choices, bettors must take note since it creates value on other players further down the board. 

So far in the MVP races, the AL’s Shohei Ohtani (+ 350 BetMGM) and the NL’s Juan Soto (+ 700 BetMGM) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (+ 1000 BetMGM) remain some of the shortest odds on the board. 

None of them look like the 2022 MVP. 

Of course, those three are more than capable of changing course and getting back into the race. Sportsbooks, though, are pushing them as favorites mainly because of name recognition. On the side of the counter where we reside, it makes no sense to bet on any of these three at the moment. 

The preferred course of action is to identify other candidates worthy of those spots who books will soon replace the favorites with. Wagering in the futures market is so often about being proactive and getting a ticket on a player before the books — more focused on the daily action — make their adjustments. Credit should go to BetMGM and BetRivers, two books that tend to keep their awards futures posted at all times. 

In the NL, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado are the two who have played like MVPs. Both have seen a considerable change in their odds at DraftKings, which now lists them as co-favorites at + 600. Prior to Opening Day, they were in the 30-1 range. 

Even though they carry the title of early-season favorites, they are still appealing, especially Machado, from a value standpoint. 

Another odds reduction is soon to occur. 

Right now, Machado looks like the NL MVP. He is the league’s leading hitter, excelling in both traditional and advanced-metric statistics, and has an MVP pedigree (he has received votes for the award five different times). His work in April and May is not an aberration and he has the ability to sustain it through the summer. 

A Machado or Arenado NL MVP bet should be made soon. Anything lower than 6-1 at this point is not beneficial to a futures portfolio. More wagers are likely to come later in the season — once the winner becomes clearer — and those bets will be made at a much lower price with a bigger stake. 

Any bet now should have enough of an odds cushion to help facilitate a hedge. Machado and Arenado are close to that tipping point. 

In the AL MVP race, a pair of recognizable Angels are the favorites. There’s every reason to believe both Ohtani (+ 350 BetMGM) and Mike Trout (+ 400) can win another award, but that doesn’t mean you should bet them now. 

Ohtani’s current production is way off from last year, and the media narrative may actually work against the likable Trout. The three-time MVP has never had a partner in the lineup as dynamic as Ohtani. Trout has received credit in the past for being a one-man show, but voters could change their perspective now that he has more protection. 

Next at BetMGM comes Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at + 450, about where he belongs. Then there is Aaron Judge at + 850, Byron Buxton at + 1200 and Jose Ramirez at + 1200. Of this trio, Ramirez is currently the best option. 

Buxton’s injury history is a concern and Judge has a track record of missing games as well. When healthy, Judge is a true MVP candidate and so far he looks that way (he finished fourth in the voting last season). For those inclined to bet on the elite Buxton, be conservative in regard to the amount of units wagered. 

Here is the best way to approach Judge: wait. Sometimes futures bettors should trade odds and ROI in exchange for time and information. A bet on Judge around + 200 in August, after he has proven he can stay in the lineup, is a wiser one than + 850 now. Tracking the production and health of Judge should be a priority for futures bettors. 

May play

If a bettor was looking to make just one awards wager right now — either for an initial play or as an addition to an existing portfolio — Machado for NL MVP is a sound option. Machado is on pace to become the clear favorite and will stay in the national media spotlight all season as a focal point of the Padres-Dodgers rivalry. 

Also, keep an eye on Pete Alonso (+ 2500 BetMGM). There’s no need to make a bet on him now, but he already has seven home runs and the potential to lead the league. 

More importantly, though, looking at the awards futures market with media narratives in mind, Alonso could play a central role in one of MLB’s ongoing storylines. Scoring and home runs are down amidst speculation about the baseball. ESPN has repeatedly covered this issue and will continue to do so. Alonso has the strength to do damage to any ball, and if he stands apart in the power categories, the New York and national media will be on his side. 

With odds around 30-1 in early April and still 25-1 now, the market has yet to fully recognize Alonso.

Navigating the crowd

In a season when scoring is down, there’s no shortage of leading Cy Young candidates in both leagues. 

According to DraftKings, there are a combined 14 pitchers with odds lower than 20-1. 

Playing this volatile market is always difficult as just a few missed starts or subpar outings can have major ramifications. There’s an added level of risk making a wager this early on a pitcher at a reduced price. 

Last year at this time, Corbin Burnes was still available at higher than 30-1 and Robbie Ray wasn’t even listed at many books. 

I feel good about my two preflop Cy Young bets of Walker Buehler and Dylan Cease, but I’m in no hurry to double up either. 

When handicapping this field prior to Memorial Day, it’s less complicated to make a case against some of the top choices than for them.

Burnes’ Brewers teammate Brandon Woodruff has an ERA pushing 6.00, yet he remains + 2000 at DraftKings. Blue Jays pitchers Kevin Gausman (+ 650 BetMGM) and Alek Manoah (+ 1100 BetMGM) need to first beat out a teammate for media support then do the same against the rest of the league. 

There’s an even larger crowd in Queens on the DraftKings board. Bettors, and more importantly voters, must decide between Mets pitchers Scherzer (+ 500), Tylor Megill (+ 2500) and Chris Bassitt (+ 3000). And, somewhere, Jacob deGrom (+ 5000) is trying to get ready to pitch again. 

If bettors are contemplating a possible Cy Young bet, most of their attention first must be directed toward the odds available. Then comes the statistical breakdown on the mound. 

Taking a flier on Ohtani, as high as + 2500 a month ago, sounds reasonable. The tune changes with the current + 1000 (BetMGM). That wiggle room needed for hedging purposes is gone. 

At this point, bettors have two options regarding Cy Young futures: Wait until the All-Star break or try to find a long enough shot for a small, speculative play. Easier said than done, since many of those more attractive longer shots now come with much different odds. 

The Marlins’ Pablo Lopez fits the profile of a long shot bettors tend to add to portfolios in May. However, he is now down to + 2000 (DraftKings) even though he has never started more than 21 games due to injuries. 

Other options who looked much better at a higher price than they do now are the Giants’ Carlos Rodon (from + 2100 to + 600 at DraftKings) and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (from + 5500 to + 1650). 

Even the two NL co-favorites, Scherzer and Burnes at + 500, come with nearly a 40% price reduction after just six starts. In the AL, the favorite, Justin Verlander, is available at a value-deficient price of + 650 (BetMGM). 

Here are a couple of pitchers to keep an eye on moving forward. The Mariners’ Logan Gilbert (+ 1900 DraftKings) has dominated so far while maintaining a lower profile. The Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen (+ 6000 BetRivers) has a sub 1.00 ERA and WHIP while his team remains surprisingly competitive, and the market is starting to move in his favor.  

Rookie of the Year market 

Seiya Suzuki of the Cubs is the only player with a minus number for any awards future. His current -140 (DraftKings) is absolutely unplayable. 

Because of the speculation needed to set ROY odds for a group of players without an MLB resume, this award tends to have the most price variance. 

The Padres’ MacKenzie Gore can be had at BetRivers for + 950 (+ 500 DraftKings and BetMGM). As a sign of how quickly the odds boards can change, he was 25-1 just more than a week ago.

The popular choices of CJ Abrams (+ 1200), Hunter Greene (+ 2500) and Oneil Cruz (+ 2500), who has yet to make an MLB appearance, are all dropping quickly.  

In the AL, BetRivers still has Bobby Witt Jr. (+ 275) as the favorite and Jeremy Pena (+ 500) behind him. Most other books have Pena as the favorite since Witt has struggled so far. Another hot name over the winter, Spencer Torkelson (+ 575), has had similar issues at the plate. The Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez (+ 500) has done enough to stay in the race. 

Expect the focus of the ROY market to shift to Balimore once heralded catching prospect Adley Rutschman (+ 1800 BetMGM, + 1600 BetRivers) makes his debut. Media reports out of Baltimore speculate he will be called up sometime in the next two weeks. 

Consider making a small play now on Rutschman. This very well could be the last stage of his buy-low period. As a catcher, Rutschman has a slight advantage over some of the others since he can receive praise for his defense and handling the young Baltimore pitching staff instead of having to rely solely on his offensive numbers. 

Once Rutschman makes it to the majors, there will be no shortage of comparisons to Buster Posey. That’s exactly the type of media narrative those with Rutschman ROY tickets want to hear.

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