I have to admit that many traditional betting strategies in Major League Baseball don’t really apply any more. Though all sports are seeing evolution during this era of analytics, it’s arguably more extreme in baseball than anywhere else:
*Managers are pulling starting pitchers faster than ever, and are even finding success using relief pitchers as starters.
*More pitchers are throwing HARD. There have always been a few flamethrowers across the Majors…but now franchises are looking for heat at the expense of anything else. Pitch speeds you used to see only from closers in the ninth inning are now common throughout a game.
*Hitters are swinging for the fences like never before, even during the height of the steroid era. (This is partly a reaction to all the fastballs…you can’t get cute with bunting, the hit and run, or “bat control” when everything’s coming at you at 98 mph). Handicapping offenses basically means handicapping home runs.
*Defenses are using shifts more effectively than ever, lining up defenders in the areas where hard-hit balls are most likely to land. I’m still amazed at how many hitters don’t even try to “beat the shift” by going the other way. Their swings have been grooved for so long that they don’t know how to adjust.
So, what made sense as a handicapping strategy in 1978, or 1992, or 2005 may have very little connection to what’s happening today. My tried-and-true elements of PLAYMAKERS AND GAMEBREAKERS and THE MOTIVATION FACTOR are still relevant. But, figuring out who the most important players are is different than it used to be. Five years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that an “opener” pitcher from the relief corps might be one of the most important players on a roster. Same with a big slugger who doesn’t do anything BUT hit a couple of home runs a week.
My points of emphasis right now for all bettors would simply be the following:
OFFENSE: Look at which teams are most likely to hit home runs, and which are mostly likely to draw walks in advance of home runs to multiply their scoreboard value.
PITCHING: Look at which starting pitchers and key bullpen contributors are difficult to take deep, and which have enough control to get strikeouts instead of walks.
It’s all about home runs and home run prevention. At least until more hitters start focusing on beating the shift and other “sequential” factors that can create big innings.
We’ll talk a lot more about these factors through the season. And, I’ll continue to keep my eye on evolutionary developments. Things are still changing as we speak! I’m confident there will be a new innovation this season that will allow a surprise team to contend. Last year, it was Tampa Bay’s use of its bullpen in the starting rotation. Betting markets never caught on to how effective that was. In fact, they kept pricing Tampa Bay like a doormat with horrible pitching whenever an “opener” was used. The Rays earned a profit of 23.5 betting units last season, third best in baseball behind Oakland and Boston.
I have some homework for you. First, pin down what teams, divisions, or leagues you want to focus on this season. I would advise against trying to beat the market with just a general awareness of all 30 teams. Stick with your favorite teams…those you’ll be watching on TV several times a week. Or, maybe the entire division of your favorite team.
Next, for every game in your area of focus, evaluate each offense for its ability to draw walks and hit home runs (looking at career norms for the guys in the lineup)...and use a stat site like fangraphs.com to look at key stats for projected starting pitchers. You want to know how often they allow home runs, their strikeout-to-walk data, and their xFIP, which is a “fielding independent pitching” measure that is similar to ERA but has better predictive value.
I’d also encourage you to read the weather report for the game(s) you’re handicapping. You don’t want to ask for too much offense in cool temperatures with the wind blowing in...but it’s smart to anticipate big blasts in warmer temperatures with the wind blowing out, particular in the good home run parks.
Do you have time to do THAT for 15 games a day?! Probably not. But, you do have time to do that for the games involving your favorite team or its divisional rivals. Start there and build up to a larger appetite.
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Our next class get-together will be Friday, when I’ll talk about how to handicap college basketball’s Final Four. I expect that next Monday’s class will focus on that night’s championship game. But, it’s possible that the NBA or MLB will barge in if there’s nothing “new” for me to say about the NCAA survivors. Through the rest of April, it will be a mix of NBA and MLB.
The Dean of Sports Handicapping greatly appreciates your attendance and hard work. You’ll really need to be sharp to stay on top of baseball developments this season. I have faith in you! You’re already proved your bona fides with your devotion to my coursework. I trust you’ll do a better job than the oddsmakers of adjusting to baseball’s analytical challenges.