It’s amazing that more people don’t bet on baseball. More importantly, it’s surprising that so many otherwise experienced sports gamblers are intimidated by the moneylines, the absence of pointspreads, and the sheer number of wagering opportunities presented by the sport. Just considering sides and total plays on each game, there are nearly 5000 wagering opportunities over the course of the season. That number doesn’t include runline plays, series wagers (which are offered by a growing number of sportsbooks), futures bets, over/under season win totals, etc. Compounding the confusion that the neophyte baseball gambler faces is the abundance of baseball statistics, few of which are geared toward wagering on the sport. While the football handicapper is inundated with publications featuring matchups and pointspread statistics, there are few such resources for the baseball bettor.
This is a shame because baseball is a great moneymaking opportunity for the sports gambler. The overwhelming majority of profitable sports bettors are “grinders”—they focus more on grinding out small profits that add up over the long term rather than trying to make a big killing. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the way that most serious professionals approach sports wagering. Baseball is a great sport for grinding out small profits day after day and week after week for a number of reasons. These include the sheer number of wagering opportunities, and the ability to turn a profit while winning less than 50% of your wagers by betting underdogs. Considering that the best teams lose 1/3 of their games, and the worst teams win a third of theirs it is clear that there are ample opportunities to find value for the astute baseball handicapper.
The purpose of this article is to introduce some “quick and dirty concepts” for baseball handicapping that will increase your chances of profitability. These are general “rules of thumb” that require no technical or statistical analysis or even an understanding of the nuance of the game. Assuming a fair amount of luck you’d have a good chance at a profitable season by using these ‘Rules of Baseball Engagement”exclusively.
1) Look to play underdogs whenever possible: As noted above, the best teams lose at least sixty games a year and the worst teams win about the same number. The rest of the league falls somewhere in the middle. Now consider the fact that the more favorites you bet, the higher your breakeven percentage that you need to win to make money. For example, if your average bet is a –150 favorite you’ll need to hit 60% winners just to break even. At –170, that number increases to 63% and so on. If you lay the ungodly numbers you’ll see on big name starting pitchers in certain situations, you better hope they don’t suffer a reversal of form. At –300, which is common for a top starter against a weak team, you’ll have to win 75% of your bets just to break even.
Now consider the opposite equation. If your average bet is a +120 underdog, your break-even percentage drops to approximately 45.5%. At +140, its down to just over 42% and the higher you go the lower the breakeven percentage. Keeping in mind that even the shabbiest baseball team seldom wins fewer than 37% of its games (for example, a team posting a 62-100 record would win exactly 37% of the time) it is apparent that looking for opportunities to bet on underdogs is essential to profitable baseball wagering.
View the baseball wagering equation from the bookmaker’s standpoint for a moment, and you’ll see another argument for emphasizing underdogs in your wagering mix. It’s pretty common knowledge that you have to lay 11/10 on most pointspread wagers, and ideally the “vig” represents the bookmaker profit. In a moneyline sports like baseball, however, things are a little different. Say you’re booking a baseball game where the Braves are –140 favorites over the Phillies. If you offer a dime line, a bettor on the Phils can lay 100 to win 130, a twenty cent line a winning underdog bet will get back 120. For the purpose of this example, let’s assume that your book is perfectly balanced on this game with an equal amount of money on each team. Now consider what happens if each team wins: if the Braves win, the folks that bet on them will get their –140 back, plus the $100 they won. Since your book is balanced, the money that came in on the Phillies covers that and you don’t make any profit. Now think about what happens if the Phillies win—winning bettors will get their $100 back, plus 120 or 130 bucks in profit (depending on your payback). Since your book is balanced, you’ll pay the winners with the –140 laid by the losing Braves backers. The difference between the +120 or +130 payback and the –140 you took in is your profit.
Since most bookmakers are in the business to make money, and they only turn a profit when the underdog wins, whose side do you want to be on? Over the long haul, no one ever went broke getting on the same side that the bookmaker needs to win. In the real world, of course, books are seldom balanced and it’s not so cut and dried. Still, that doesn’t dispel the reality that underdogs are very attractive wagering propositions for the baseball bettor.
2) Implement a strict ceiling for what you’ll wager on a favorite and follow it religiously: Though many successful baseball handicappers look to play underdogs first, small favorites can frequently present good value as well. Frequently, you can get the elite teams on the road as small favorites and other situations will present themselves where small favorites are a good play. If you play totals at all, you’ll just about always need to lay –110 or –120. To bet baseball successfully,it’s helpful to implement a strict limit on how much you’ll lay on a favorite.
Once you establish your “cut off” for wagering favorites, do NOT wager more than that. Ever. Regardless of the circumstance or situation. Even if Cy Young comes back from the dead against the Houston Astros with a pitcher fresh from AA making his first major league start. Over the long haul, it’s just not worth it. The most under-emphasized quality required for profitable sports wagering is disciplined money management. Without discipline, it just doesn’t matter how well you do at picking winners: you’ll probably lose money in the long run.
3) Starting pitching is overrated: When handicapping baseball games, too much emphasis is given to the starting pitcher. It’s understandable, of course, since the linesmakers consider the starting pitcher in setting the price for the game. If you pay any attention to baseball, however, you’ll know full well that the quality of starting pitching has reached a state of parity at best, mediocrity bordering on incompetence at worst. There’s only a handful of starting pitchers that can be considered dominant. Everyone else is a cut below and since you’ll never get the big name guys anywhere near your favorite cut off point, don’t worry about them.
One important consideration about the starting pitching matchups, at least during an initial analysis of a game, is whether they’re lefthanded or righthanded. Clearly some teams hit southpaws better than others, and vice versa and this is important to know.
4) Realize that baseball is a streaky game: This is no secret, of course, but it is something to be cognizant of when betting baseball. No matter what else you find relevant about a game, you should think twice about betting against a team that has won three or more games in a row or on a team that has lost three or more games in a row. This may sound more superstitious than anything else, but you’ll find that it’s a valuable rule to follow. The dynamic of long winning or losing streaks—more than ten games—is different, but you’ll be better off not going against a winning or losing streak the majority of the time.
5) Home field advantage just isn’t that important: Of all major sports, there may be less intrinsic advantage to playing at home in baseball than in any other. This is particularly true during the regular season. Granted there are teams that do better in certain ballparks than others, but this is more a function of the design of the ballpark and the personnel of the team than any sort of “home field advantage”. Some parks are clearly “pitchers parks” or “hitters parks”, but it works both ways—the opposing pitchers and/or hitters often have the same advantage as the home team’s players. Furthermore, bad teams are frequently overvalued at home, which results in good value on the visitor. Over the course of season, most teams will probably do better at home than on the road but the higher prices you’ll have to pay will negate this fact. In most circumstances “home field advantage” shouldn’t be a consideration in handicapping a game. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be aware of a ballpark’s dimensions and tendencies, particularly if you’re playing totals. Just don’t think that the home team has an “edge” simply because they’re in their own ballpark.
These are just a few basic concepts for baseball bettors that will help you realize success in the long run. You can make your baseball handicapping analysis as complex as you’d like, but you’ll probably find it helpful to keep these underlying philosophies in mind as your handicapping becomes more advanced. The old adage that it is “easy to see the trees and miss the forest” is definitely true in handicapping America’s national pastime.
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