On-base percentage unlocks key to baseball handicapping

April 28, 2019 10:58 PM

In Major League Baseball, team on-base percentage is arguably the single best indicator for evaluating offense. You can’t score runs by making outs!

Analytics has always emphasized on-base percentage (or more intense variations that incorporate all the different ways a hitter can get on base). Though fans love the long ball, there’s historically a better correlation between on-base percentage and run production than there is for slugging percentage. Baserunners are required fuel for a run-scoring engine.

It naturally follows that bettors should study this stat if they want to make smart bets. Too many baseball bettors fall into the trap of trying to bet who’s hot or fade who’s cold, while hoping to catch a streak along the way. Focus on skill sets, not imaginary team “temperatures.”

Among the offensive benefits of a high on-base percentage…

  • Hitting stats improve with runners on base. Opposing defenses must use their first baseman to hold any runner on first, creating more space for batted balls to sneak through the infield. Some pitchers implode with multiple runners on. So far in 2019, Major League batting averages are about 10 points higher with runners on than with the bases empty, while on-base percentages are about 20 points higher. In short, getting on base makes it easier for the next guy to also get on base.
  • Pitch counts for opposing hurlers rise more quickly when hitters are working counts to draw walks or otherwise cause trouble. The sooner you knock a starting pitcher out of the game, the sooner you get to face typically more vulnerable middle relievers. 
  • With home runs flying out of ballparks at breakneck pace in 2019, any walk or hit in front of a dinger magnifies its value. It’s easier to win games with two-run and three-run homers than it is with solo shots. 

Many statistical websites allow you to monitor team and individual player on-base percentages on a daily basis. It’s a good habit for bettors to develop.

While no single betting strategy will work all the time in any sport, these are good rules of thumb for baseball bettors…

  • Bet on offenses with high on-base percentages, particularly against vulnerable pitchers. They will give you a chance to win big. They’ll also give you a chance to rally from behind against poor bullpens.
  • Fade teams with low on-base percentages, particularly against elite pitchers. These teams will struggle to put runs on the board, and will be bullied by contenders with elite rotations and bullpens. 

Don’t worry about “hot” or “cold” teams. Learn the difference between good and bad offenses. And before any new series begins, compare the teams' on-base percentages.

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