Experience helps in any profession. Joe Maddon is a veteran manager who has seen almost everything there is to see in baseball, including the end of the Chicago Cubs’ championship curse. But he has never experienced anything like this.
The coronavirus pandemic — parts fantasy, horror and science fiction — is pulling Major League Baseball into “The Twilight Zone” this year. Several players are opting out of the shortened 60-game season because of health concerns, and about 10 days from opening day, we have no clue if a World Series will actually happen.
After five years in Chicago, Maddon has moved on to Los Angeles, where he now manages the best player in the game, Mike Trout. The Angels’ star center fielder plans to leave the team sometime in August when his wife delivers a baby. If and when Trout would return, pending a COVID-19 test and family matters, is a mystery.
David Ross is a first-time manager who’s replacing Maddon in the Cubs’ dugout. Ross, coaching several players he was teammates with in the 2016 World Series, missed Monday’s practice while awaiting virus test results.
No handicapping playbook exists for the baseball riddle we are about to witness. Bookmakers and bettors face similar challenges, which are enormous.
“It’s going to be crazy,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “I think it’s an impossible thing to handicap. These guys are structured creatures of habit and they are used to playing 162 games. Are the pitchers going three innings or five innings? You never know when six players could be out. I might get called up. I may be playing shortstop for the Angels.
“I think it’s a complete mystery.”
Countless things could go wrong for any team. Season win totals are set with best-case scenarios in mind, especially for the elite teams. The Dodgers and Yankees look best on paper, but don’t count on this season following a predictable script.
“I would look toward the underdog or nothing every time,” Bogdanovich said.
One option is to sit out this season, which no bettors will do. We will look for angles and come up with plays because that’s what we do. Sports betting is always a tremendous intellectual challenge, and this mystery is especially intriguing.
So here’s a six-pack of futures bets I’m playing on a smaller-than-normal scale.
New York Yankees Under 37.5, -110 (William Hill)
The Yankees won 63.6% of their games last year, and winning 38 of 60 is 63.3%, so it’s obvious how this year’s win total was set. But in the competitive American League East, where only Baltimore is an easy out, the Yankees are not benefiting from an unbalanced schedule. The Yankees play 33 of their first 36 games against teams that finished .500 or better in 2019. Yes, their schedule gets soft in September, but injury and illness could take a toll by then. A lot of things can go wrong, so I made this win total 35.5.
“If you handicap a team near an Under, you should do it,” Bogdanovich said.
The Yankees had the third-best home record (57-24) in the majors last year, but home-field advantage should be less of a factor with no fans. And this is mainly a gut feeling, but I doubt the Yankees’ new ace, Gerrit Cole, will be as dominant as he was with Houston. While the Yankees’ bullpen is deep and outstanding, I do question the depth of their starting rotation.
(It’s important to note that William Hill requires at least 58 games to be played for action.)
San Francisco Giants Under 25.5, -143 (DraftKings)
Buster Posey is opting out of this season, and the Giants were going to be bad even with their star catcher. With Madison Bumgarner gone to Arizona, San Francisco’s starting pitching will be weak. The Giants will spend the year developing young players and planning for the future. This might be the worst team in baseball. DraftKings’ odds for the National League West tell the story: Dodgers -715, Padres + 750, Diamondbacks 9/1, Rockies 30/1, Giants 80/1.
Washington Nationals Under 33.5, -107 (DraftKings)
Maybe slow starts are a trend for the Nationals, who opened 19-31 last year. This is not the same team that rebounded and won the World Series. Washington’s best offensive player, Anthony Rendon, is now playing third base for the Angels and batting behind Trout. Rendon hit .319 with 34 home runs and 126 RBIs last year, and he will surely be missed more than Bryce Harper was the previous year. The Nationals open against the Yankees and must navigate a tough NL East-heavy schedule. I would be surprised if this team tops .500.
Ronald Acuna Jr. to win NL MVP 9/1 (DraftKings)
The top three favorites are the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger and Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich. Acuna is a breakout star who nearly went 40/40 last year, posting 41 homers and 37 stolen bases for the Braves, who won 97 games and the NL East. Acuna, 22, is a young player with a point to prove, and he figures to take few days off.
Walker Buehler to win NL Cy Young 8/1 (William Hill)
The Dodgers have the depth across the board to win 40 games. Buehler has become their ace, not Clayton Kershaw. Buehler went 14-4 with a 1.04 WHIP last year. He will have to beat the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer to win this award.
Mike Trout Under 15.5 home runs, + 100 (DraftKings)
Trout averaged 42 homers and 137 games played the last two years, so this total looks low. But accounting for expected time missed with the birth of a child and potential injury, it’s reasonable to project Trout to play in about 50 games. This angle is no secret, and sharp money has pushed the number down from 16.5 in the last week. I also will look to bet against Trout to win AL MVP — he’s the 2/1 favorite at William Hill — if a fair price becomes available.