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With no bubble, MLB engages in risky business

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

July 28, 2020 07:53 PM

By this time next week, the NBA’s return and the NHL postseason will be the top priorities for most sports bettors. What’s new is always hot.

And chances are increasing that the baseball season will be old news soon. It took only four days to see that any return-to-play plan that does not include a bubble is risky business in 2020.

But let’s appreciate some of the highlights from last weekend because we have had too many lowlights and too few wild weekends since early March.

It was nearing midnight Friday on the West Coast when Matt Olson’s grand slam in Oakland put bookmakers from coast to coast on tilt. The baseball season had just begun, and it was already a nightmare for some.

“After the first two days,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said, “we were crying like most bookmakers do.”

Favorites had won 14 of the first 16 games, much to the thrill of the betting public. Olson’s slam in the 10th inning put the score Over the total of 8½ and lifted the favored A’s to a 7-3 victory over the Angels. Parlays were cashing, and Twitter was buzzing about baseball.

By Sunday night, when the Giants upset the heavily favored Dodgers in Los Angeles, the script had flipped. Bookmakers were no longer crying about baseball.

“Activity was very strong, and the handle was enormous,” BetMGM book director Jason Scott said. “The (bettors) won opening day with the Yankees and Dodgers, but bookmakers finished in front over the weekend.”

Underdogs went 17-12 Saturday and Sunday with one pick-’em game — a harsh reminder to bettors that winning rarely is easy.

The opening weekend of MLB action offered just about everything. Starting pitchers were scratched, closers blew ninth-inning leads, the Marlins, Orioles and Tigers each won twice on the road, the Dodgers lost twice at home — and a coronavirus outbreak within the Marlins’ clubhouse led to two games being postponed Monday.

“We lost pretty good the first two days and won pretty good the last two days to come out ahead,” Bogdanovich said. “It’s just fun watching baseball again. It was so busy this weekend. It was insane, but it was fun.”

Bettors had plenty of action aside from 46 baseball games. The UFC put on a 15-fight card in Abu Dhabi, the PGA Tour continued in Minnesota, English soccer staged its version of NFL Week 17 and more. There was some fun for everyone. On most days this summer, there was nothing for everyone.

Underdog stories are always fascinating, even when you had no piece of the action. Michael Thompson’s golf win at 125-1 odds was a Cinderella story out of nowhere. BetMGM took a $500 wager on Thompson that paid $62,500. By comparison, the Westgate SuperBook had only two tickets — one for $20 and the other for $2 — at the same odds.

The year’s first golf major is a week away. Hopefully, we’re still watching baseball. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred does not seem to have a firm grasp on controlling the COVID-19 situation. Instead, it appears he’s slamming the brakes and whipping the steering wheel on an icy road.

It’s difficult to bet on Manfred and MLB doing the right thing. It’s also unwise to wager on big baseball favorites, which is always true but especially so in a bizarre season such as this.

Mookie Betts’ debut in blue was a Hollywood flop. The Dodgers, hyped as the best team in the National League, were -380 favorites Saturday and -340 favorites Sunday in consecutive losses to the Giants. (Those were William Hill’s closing lines. The Saturday price on the Dodgers reached a staggering -480 at DraftKings.) After signing a 12-year, $365 million contract extension, Betts batted .150 (3-for-20) with one RBI.

The lowly Orioles took two games in Boston to share first in the American League East with the Yankees and Rays. The Yankees scored only nine runs in three games yet won twice in Washington while Giancarlo Stanton homered twice.

Dr. Anthony Fauci’s feeble ceremonial first pitch in D.C. made him a candidate to join the White Sox’s staff. A popular pick as an AL team on the rise, the White Sox trotted out pitchers who allowed 27 runs in three games, including two lopsided losses.

Remember the speculation about starting pitchers not going deep into games early in the season? Kyle Hendricks threw a three-hit complete game with nine strikeouts and no walks in the Cubs’ 3-0 victory over the Brewers at Wrigley Field, where a small group of fans practiced social distancing on roofs across the street.

Hendricks did not leave his fate to a closer. The Mets handed a ninth-inning lead to closer Edwin Diaz on Saturday and regretted it as the Braves rallied for a 5-3 win in 10 innings. Diaz is a bad beat waiting to happen. The Mets’ starter on Sunday, Rick Porcello, was bombed in a 14-1 loss.

Porcello was slightly better than the Angels’ starter, Shohei Ohtani, who allowed the first six batters to reach base before getting pulled. Ohtani surrendered five runs in a 6-4 loss in Oakland.

Pitcher injuries were another storyline. After the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw was scratched from an opening-day start with a bad back, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was scratched with a nerve issue in his right hand. Rangers starter Corey Kluber lasted one inning before leaving with a shoulder injury. Astros ace Justin Verlander was shut down with a strained forearm, though Verlander denied reports he’s out for the season.

Verlander’s injury status was enough for William Hill oddsmakers to boost the Yankees to + 175 favorites to win the AL, with the Astros falling to 5-1.

Road teams improved to 23-23 after winning Sunday’s final two games. It’s important for handicappers to realize the relevance of that record and adjust to what the home field truly means — little to nothing — in baseball games with no fans.

“We’re seeing something come down quickly, and it’s that home-field advantage is not the same with cardboard fans,” said Dave Cokin, a Las Vegas baseball handicapper.

Four days into the season, no undefeated teams remained. It was the first time since 1954 that no team had started 3-0, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

A shortened season promised to be strange and it’s already delivering, with the Marlins’ coronavirus problems delivering the worst news. The NBA and NHL have intelligent, sustainable plans. It will be extremely challenging to complete a season without a bubble, and the NFL is next to test that theory.

“Betting is through the roof,” Bogdanovich said. “Baseball is strong, and let’s hope it stays that way.”

 

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