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Preseason football just around the corner

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer (3) are under the gun after a disappointing 2016.
© USA Today Sports Images

Ready for the NFL? The Hall of Fame Game is a week from Thursday! The South Point has already posted the line and total. That plus CFL, NBA and MLB today in VSiN City.

NFL Preseason: Dallas Cowboys open -1 with a total of 34 vs. Arizona Cardinals

If you were listening to “My Guys in the Desert” Monday, you heard Jimmy Vaccaro tell Vinny Magliulo and Amal Shah that South Point sports book director Chris Andrews had just posted a betting line in the NFL Hall of Fame game. That’s the official warning shot that 2017 football is about to begin!

Did you realize that the NFL preseason starts a week from Thursday? The league is busting tradition with a Thursday night exhibition opener rather than the traditional Sunday night. Another change, the standard AFC vs. NFC matchup will instead feature a pair of NFC teams when the Dallas Cowboys take on the Arizona Cardinals.

Chris posted the Cowboys as a 1-point favorite, with the Over/Under at 34. If you’re new to NFL Preseason betting, Over/Unders are typically in the mid 30s in the first week because so many backup skill position players are on the field.  

When trying to handicap exhibition action, it’s often best just to throw your regular-season perceptions of teams out the window. With so many regulars playing limited minutes, many results are random. To the degree games resemble the past…it’s past exhibition games that matter more than the regular season because some coaches may have expressed their priorities (or lack of priorities) in prior preseasons. 

Here’s a quick peek at last year’s results for these two teams. Remember that Week 3 is typically most important…because that’s the “dress rehearsal” game that often sees starters play well into the second half. 

Dallas ‘16 Preseason (1-3 straight up, 2-2 ATS)

  • Dallas (plus 5) lost at the LA Rams 28-24 (cover)
  • Dallas (pick-em) beat Miami 41-14
  • Dallas (plus 5.5) lost at Seattle 27-17
  • Dallas (plus 3) lost at home to Houston 28-17

No sign there that we were about to see one of the biggest surprise stories of the regular season. Dallas lost its dress rehearsal game by double digits (at an admittedly tough site). You can see that the market had little respect for the Cowboys last August. Any point spreads over a field goal are “big” numbers in exhibitions. Dallas was plus 5 and plus 5.5 in their two road games. They didn’t close as a favorite a single time. We can reasonably deduce from those numbers that sharp bettors were aware this coaching regime didn’t prioritize August results. (Quick research shows the Cowboys were 1-3 straight up and ATS the prior preseason.) 

Arizona ‘16 Preseason (1-3 straight up, 1-3 ATS)

  • Arizona (-2.5) lost to Oakland 31-10
  • Arizona (pick-em) lost at San Diego 19-3
  • Arizona (pick-em) lost at Houston 34-24
  • Arizona (-4) beat Denver 38-17

Another 1-3 mark straight up. But you can see that Arizona was getting respect from the market. The Cards were pick-em on the ROAD vs. San Diego and Houston. Pick-em on the road in a dress rehearsal reflects even more respect. Arizona only laid eggs until avoiding a winless preseason by bullying disinterested Denver. 

Head coach Bruce Arians is on the hot seat after a disappointing regular-season campaign. It will be interesting to see if the Cards have more of a sense of urgency this month. Having a week head start on the field may really help them in the weeks after the Cowboys collision too. 

Let’s see how early money hits the board. There’s a good chance Arizona will be on the short list of sharps who bet exhibition action in the coming weeks. 

CFL: Toronto beats Ottawa on last-second field goal, plus early Week 6 lines and “market” Power Ratings

We start CFL coverage with a look Monday night’s Week 5 finale. Toronto maintained a slight edge most of the night. The Argos failed to lock down a 24-17 decision with a late failure on third and inches (only three downs in the CFL). Ottawa used that great field position to score the tying TD. Toronto drove the field to kick the game winner as time ran out. 

Toronto 27, Ottawa 24

  • Total Yards: Ottawa 284, Toronto 418
  • Yards-per-Play: Ottawa 5.8, Toronto 6.1
  • New Records: Ottawa 1-4-1, Toronto 3-2
  • Against the spread: Ottawa 5-1, Toronto 2-3

Another heartbreaker for the Redblacks. Tough to go 1-4-1 straight up and 5-1 ATS! Toronto’s big edge in yardage was a reflection of play count (68-49 for the Argos). On a per-play basis, yardage was in line with the final score. Pass-heavy teams like Toronto are prone to rack up “yards to nowhere” whether you’re talking about football north or south of the border. 

We’re not sure how much time we’ll get to spend on the CFL here in VSiN City once college and pro action in the USA really gets rolling. We noticed something we wanted to pass along to you now…so you hardcore handicappers and bettors can study it through the full season. 

“Sharpness” of execution generally correlates with success on offense, and a great way to measure that is to compute what percentage of a team’s total offensive plays are incomplete passes. Scanning the boxscores, it doesn’t always hit the eye because most CFL teams throw around 10-15 incompletions per game. (The numbers this week from low to high were 9- 9-10-10-10-12-12-14-15-15.) A passing line of 27-37 doesn’t look that different from 22-36. But, in this league, 27-37 is likely a team that knows what it’s doing, while 22-36 is a team that’s pretty sloppy. 

Here are some numbers from the past two weeks…

Percentage of plays that were Incompletions

  • Toronto 32% and 22% (pass-happy team)
  • Hamilton 29% and 27% (horrible team)
  • Edmonton 20% and 18% (contender)
  • Montreal 10% and 16% (conservative grinder)

If you’re trying to find a shortcut for understanding what helps separate teams in this very condensed league, there's a quick and easy way to get started. We’re not saying you’ll do nothing but pick winners by compiling this data. You’ll see things you hadn’t been seeing before, which makes it worth the effort. You could make the case that the main reason Calgary (the projected champ) isn’t playing to market expectations is that they’ve been much sloppier on offense than expected (marks of 28%, 24%, 21%, 26%, and 21% so far). 

The early point spreads are up for Week 6…

  • Montreal at Winnipeg (-4.5, total of 55)
  • British Columbia at Edmonton (-3, total of 54.5)
  • Toronto at Saskatchewan (-2, total of 52.5)
  • Hamilton at Calgary (-12, total of 54.5) 

We have a new threshold for “biggest spread,” as Hamilton is finally being priced like the worst team in the CFL. Those yield the following estimates for how “the market” has Power Rated the nine league teams…

CFL Estimated “market” Power Ratings (ATS in parenthesis) 

  • Calgary 83…(2-3 ATS)
  • Edmonton 82…(1-3 ATS)
  • British Columbia 82…(3-2 ATS)
  • Ottawa 79…(5-1 ATS)
  • Winnipeg 78…(3-1 ATS)
  • Toronto 77…(2-3 ATS)
  • Montreal 77…(2-3 ATS)
  • Saskatchewan 75…(2-2 ATS)
  • Hamilton 74…(1-3 ATS)

The numbers above would show Saskatchewan at -1 over Toronto rather than -2. We believe the market is giving the Roughriders a one-point bonus in the line for Toronto’s short preparation week.

For you newcomers, this isn’t how “we” rate the teams ourselves. This is our estimate of how “the market” has rated teams based on this week’s pointspreads and past indicators. We’re using a standard three points for home field advantage.

NBA: Derrick Rose signs late Monday with the Cleveland Cavaliers

You’d have thought Michael Jordan had come out of retirement to sign with the Cavs based on media buzz Monday night. Sure, Derrick Rose is a former MVP…but he hasn’t been a significant factor in the league for a few seasons. The betting markets yawned, realizing that this signing by itself doesn’t mean much. Now, if Kyrie Irving is traded away for less than fair value, THAT will have an impact. 

The quickest way to see the current difference between Rose and Irving in likely production is to study these future projections tabulated by analytics website 538. 

Click here to see Kyrie Irving (5.9 wins above replacement in ‘18)

Click here to Derrick Rose (-0.1 wins above replacement in ’18)

Rose’s game has deteriorated so much that he’s a spot filler on the roster right now. He can be better than that if he stays healthy, if he starts dedicating more energy on defense, and if he stops taking shots outside of his shooting range. Maybe he’ll embrace his role in Cleveland. 538 won't give him credit for that until it happens. 

Irving reportedly is tired of playing in LeBron James’s shadow, and is more interested in having a “Russell Westbrook” type position where he racks up scoring stats relatively outside a championship chase. If Cleveland signed Rose to “replace” Kyrie because another trade is in the works…an informed betting market may slide Cleveland behind Boston in NBA futures. 

Entering the day at the South Point

  • Cleveland was -140 to win the East, plus 325 to win the NBA title
  • Boston was plus 300 to win the East, plus 800 to win the NBA title

You can be sure that Mitch and Pauly will discuss this signing in greater depth Tuesday on “Follow the Money” beginning at 2 p.m. ET, 11 a.m. in Las Vegas. 

MLB: A quick study of NL Central starting pitching rotations

As we get closer to the crunch time of baseball’s pennant chase, we’ll periodically check in on key stats for the starting rotations of relevant teams. An awareness of starting pitching depth will help you understand futures prices more clearly. There’s often a very strong correlation between “teams the market respects” and “depth of quality starters.” You might be surprised to find that it’s often the BACK of rotations that prove to be the tie-breaker. Most teams have quality up top. Quality throughout makes it easier to string together success in the season’s final months. 

Today we’re going to look at the tight NL Central race. You know it’s been a logjam lately. The market is very confident that the Cubs are going to start pulling away soon. And St. Louis is getting more respect than you might expect for a team that’s three games below .500 this deep into the season.

The stats you see below are standard ERA and WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). In parenthesis for each pitcher is xFIP, which is a fielding independent pitching stat that follows the same scale as ERA. Studies have shown that “future” performances for pitchers will more closely track their current xFIP than their current ERA.  

Chicago Cubs (ranked in order of xFIP)

  • Jon Lester: 3.95 ERA, 1.24 WHIP (3.54 xFIP)
  • Jose Quintana: 4.22 ERA, 1.26 WHIP (3.90 xFIP)
  • Kyle Hendricks: 4.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP (3.90 xFIP)
  • Jake Arrieta: 4.11 ERA, 1.26 WHIP (4.03 xFIP)
  • Mike Montgomery: 3.83 ERA, 1.33 WHIP (4.40 xFIP)
  • John Lackey: 5.04 ERA, 1.33 WHIP (4.64 xFIP)

There are six pitchers listed because Hendricks just returned Monday from the Disabled List. You see three pitchers who are better than 4.00 in xFIP, and another knocking on the door. That’s not exactly the LA Dodgers. But, it’s quality in this division. Plus, the Cubs have an offense that’s overdue to carry the team some distance. 

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Jimmy Nelson: 3.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP (3.24 xFIP)
  • Brent Suter: 2.84 ERA, 1.23 WHIP (3.98 xFIP) (only 5 starts)
  • Zach Davies: 4.76 ERA, 1.49 WHIP (4.65 xFIP)
  • Matt Garza: 3.83 ERA, 1.26 WHIP (4.72 xFIP)
  • Junior Guerra: 5.22 ERA, 1.53 WHIP (5.92 xFIP)

Note that Chase Anderson will likely return from the Disabled List in early August. His ERA of 2.89 is stellar. But, that’s with an xFIP of only 4.33…which means he’s due to regress from pitching over his head. You can see the trouble. Milwaukee’s mediocre or worse from the third spot down. And, Suter’s sample size is such that you can’t trust him to keep delivering. 

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Jameson Taillon: 3.08 ERA, 1.37 WHIP (3.48 xFIP)
  • Gerrit Cole: 4.18 ERA, 1.24 WHIP (3.79 xFIP)
  • Ivan Nova: 3.62 ERA, 1.16 WHIP (4.08 xFIP)
  • Trevor Williams: 4.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP (4.47 xFIP)
  • Chad Kuhl: 4.92 ERA, 1.47 WHIP (4.61 xFIP)

Also trouble here, particularly for a team trying to chase down the Cubs from behind. Pittsburgh will probably outperform Milwaukee from this point forward. But, they’ll be lucky to get much above .500 unless the offense really ignites. 

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Carlos Martinez: 3.34 ERA, 1.18 WHIP (3.71 xFIP)
  • Michael Wacha: 3.93 ERA, 1.31 WHIP (3.75 xFIP)
  • Mike Leake: 3.39 ERA, 1.28 WHIP (3.99 xFIP)
  • Adam Wainwright: 4.89 ERA, 1.42 WHIP (4.05 xFIP)
  • Lance Lynn: 3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP (4.54 xFIP)

St. Louis traditionally has great pitching depth. In years when the Cardinals have a good offense, they’re a very serious pennant contender because there aren’t any dead spots in the rotation. Here, Lynn has been pitching over his head, but Wainwright is likely to settle his ERA ship and contribute more. Believe it or not, respected analytics site Fangraphs has St. Louis ranked as third best in “rest of season” performance in the whole National League (rosW% in this chart). 

We’ll try to squeeze in looks at teams in the American League divisional and Wildcard races soon in this helpful format. Look for more baseball handicapping from an analytics perspective today on "A Numbers Game" with Gill Alexander. Please check out Monday's replay for details on Chris Andrews' recent health scare (welcome back Chris!) and an interesting discussion on the history of baseball betting with Roxy Roxborough.

Thanks for your Tuesday visit. Wednesday brings our weekly baseball tutorial. This week we’ll talk about the fundamentals for handicapping Over/Unders. If you haven’t already subscribed to VSiN City, you can do so by clicking here. (Don’t forget that all subscribers are eligible for a drawing to win a free entry into the Westgate SuperContest, a $1,500 value!). Follow us on twitter by clicking here. If you have any comments or questions about programming or the newsletter, please drop us a note.

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