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Short season leads to AL betting opportunities

By William Hill  () 

While a 60-game season is disappointing to baseball fans, even more frustrating is how we arrived here. Months of haggling led to nothing except more haggling. July 4 was an ideal target date for many reasons. The sports calendar was free and clear, allowing baseball to emerge on center stage. While an agreement was ultimately salvaged, a great opportunity was lost. However, we are hopefully just days from the start of a unique season, one primed with opportunities for bettors. 

 

The benefits of a 60-game season are the same as the potential pitfalls — unpredictability. Injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 make this a crapshoot unlike any season we’ve seen. Usually, over 162 games, the best show to be the best. Over six months, with games every day, the truth gets discovered. With a reduced season, however, anything is possible — unless you’re the Orioles. Better luck next year, Baltimore. 

 

The 2019 Giants illustrate the potential madness that could ensue in the coming months. In mid-June, the ’19 Giants looked poised to trade anyone with value, sitting 11 games under .500 and on pace to lose close to 100 games. However, they ripped off an 18-5 run, convinced themselves they were contenders and held on to Madison Bumgarner, among others. Ultimately that was a damning decision, and that hot streak cost them a chance to retool a barren farm system while finishing 77-85. They were a bad team, but for a brief time they were outstanding. 

 

Baseball is a fluky game by nature. The average game total is set at about nine runs, meaning a fly ball to the warning track with men on base can be enough to win the game on certain days if it clears the fence, or it can be an out. NBA game totals are routinely set in the 220s, with NFL and college football games in the mid-50s or higher. Most points do not come on one play in the other sports. Baseball is simply different, which is why such a large sample size is necessary to discern who’s worthy of moving on to the postseason. 

 

The wackiness displayed by the ’19 Giants is one of many examples of what can happen over an abbreviated sample size. Last year the Nationals famously started 19-31 before rallying to make the postseason, capped by a Game 7 World Series victory. They won all five elimination games they faced. The Mariners were one of the worst teams in baseball, losing 94 games. They started the season at a blistering 14-3 pace. The Dodgers in ’18 were 17-26 yet won the division and made the World Series. In ’17 the Dodgers won 104 games but had to endure a late 1-16 swoon. Strange stuff happens in baseball, and in a 60-game season, brace yourself: It’s about to get weird. So, bettors, heed the words of Walter White and tread lightly.  

 

Rays to win AL East (+ 275): I have a type. I’m looking to play on teams with long odds and good starting pitching, regardless of the length of season. Yes, the Yankees are better. But the Yankees also have marquee players who have had difficulty staying healthy. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and James Paxton were going to miss the start of the season in late March. Gary Sanchez was battling a nagging injury, Luis Severino is out for the year and DJ LeMahieu and Aroldis Chapman are being treated for COVID-19. A small sample size could shine a light on these injuries. Missing 25 games of 162 is manageable. Missing that number over 60 might not be. The Rays have three pitchers in the top six for Cy Young Award odds, including former winner Blake Snell and recent third-place finisher Charlie Morton. Tyler Glasnow was on track to start the All-Star Game a year ago, dominating the league in the first half of the season before being sidelined with an elbow injury. Glasnow finished with a sparkling 1.78 ERA. The pitching is real, and if the Rays could have won one game in Houston last October, they would have been in the ALCS. (The offseason suggested why many teams had trouble winning in Houston.) The Rays are similar to the Patriots: They adjust to what they don’t have and accentuate what they do have, as evidenced by their invention of the “opener” strategy, which has been mimicked throughout the majors. The Rays, and this staff, are worth a flier. The Rays also have an excellent bullpen, one that led the majors in strikeout rate last year at nearly 29%.

 

Rangers to win AL West (+ 2000): The theme continues. Of all the teams to have two of MLB’s top three pitchers in WAR, according to Baseball Reference, the Rangers would be down very low on most people’s list of guesses. But Lance Lynn and Mike Minor were first and second most of last season, with Lynn ultimately finishing third. Poor infield defense and an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark led to ERAs higher than their performance deserved. In the offseason, the Rangers added two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. He was hurt most of last season after being on the wrong end of a line drive against the Marlins. His handful of outings in ’19 were not promising, but the pedigree is there. Kluber is 34 but has been one of the league’s best pitchers since 2014. If he can regain anything resembling his Cy Young form, this rotation can be dominant. The climate of playing in Texas, as well the dimensions of the ballpark, typically make run prevention difficult. The heat and the humidity cause the ball to carry, making life tough on pitchers. Now the Rangers have a staff that can perhaps mitigate the high-scoring nature of their games and give them a shot to steal this division. The Astros have dominated the AL West since 2017, winning three straight divisions, two pennants and a world championship. However, that dominance is now in question. They were outed as cheaters, they lost Gerrit Cole to free agency and their two best pitchers are 36 and 37. In a 60-game season, the Rangers, who flirted with a postseason berth last year, might be poised for an upset. 

 

Tigers to win AL Central (+ 150000). The Tigers? Really? Hear me out. It’s not a division with a powerhouse like the Yankees, Dodgers or Astros. The Twins won the division last year. They were a good story and a good team. But they were swept swiftly and decisively by the Yankees, extending their postseason losing streak to 16 games. The Twins lack an elite rotation and are not unimpeachable. Now, over 162 games, I would not entertain taking the Tigers even at this lofty price. But over 60 games? Who knows? The Tigers actually possess some talented young pitchers. Matthew Boyd was ninth in strikeout rate last year, ahead of some impressive names such as Stephen Strasburg and Walker Buehler. Michael Fulmer is coming off an injury, and maybe that explains his poor performance before his Tommy John surgery. In 2016, Fulmer looked the part of a future ace, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and posting a 3.06 era. In ’17 he was an All-Star. He is back and healthy. Casey Mize was the first pick in the ’18 draft. It’s unclear whether he’ll start the year in the rotation, but at 23, I would think if not now, then soon. The Twins’ division title last year came at 4-1. They got off to a big lead and were as high as -1500 before the Indians stormed back from 10-1 odds to even the division. If you played it right, you could have had both teams in a two-team race at huge numbers. If the Tigers were somehow to get off to a hot start, it’s always possible to hedge the bet. Is it possible this is a ticket that you rip up halfway through the season? Yes, but with the Tigers’ pitching potential and in a short season with a wide-open division, this is worth a shot as a lottery ticket investment. 

 

Orioles Under 20.5 wins. This is a 100-win team — if you combine the last two seasons. Going 54-108 in ’19 was actually a seven-game improvement for a team that was mathematically eliminated with over a week left in August. A 60-game division-centric schedule is bad news for the Orioles. The AL East is probably the best division in baseball. The Red Sox are a year removed from a 108-win season and World Series title yet are a distant third in division projections. The fourth-place Blue Jays have one of the more dynamic young lineups in the sport. The Orioles went 2-17 against the Yankees and simply do not have the pitching to compete at the big-league level. Not only are the Orioles bad, but the schedule is unkind. Their opponents had a .532 winning percentage, second highest in baseball. Take the Under and enjoy the free money.

 

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