It's time to take a look at the 2011 MLB season from a wagering perspective.
About 15 years ago I walked into the Imperial Palace sportsbook in Las Vegas and noticed you could bet on the individual win totals for MLB teams.
I figured with such a long period before the bet ended and with so many variables going into the prediction that this would be one area where a stat geek like myself could get an edge.
That edge may have narrowed recently with the development of complex mathematical forecasts (thanks to organizations such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, Tom Tango and Fangraphs) and an almost real-time market for team win total bets.
But I think it's still a good exercise before the start of each season not only to make predictions on where you think the teams will finish, but also test those against the conventional wisdom expressed through money wagered in sportsbooks.
While this is a wagering exercise, I think keeping score has helped me realize places where I've been right and wrong about players and teams, which can help in fantasy baseball as well.
I've done really well the past 11 years on these bets. My overall record is 29 for 48 (with one push) - an impressive 60.4 percent. My best bet each season is 12-7 (I had multiple biggest bets some years).
I'm most impressive on a weighted or cash basis, where I've been correct 70 percent ($2,225 in winning bets, $950 in losers - not factoring in the vig).
I'm at my absolute best on bets of $100 or more (I vary my bet size to emphasize how strongly I feel about the pick) where I'm 11-4.
But I lost my best bet of $150 last season. And for all my success, 48 bets is still a small sample size even if over 11 years.
After a woeful 1-4 performance in 2009, I finally got back on track last season by winning two of three bets (although a push on total money). [Here's last year's story
I should have got every bet correct except for a back door cover. I've tried to avoid bad beat stories in this column, but I think this one helps explain some of my picks for 2011.
I took the under on the Astros last season (74.5 wins) figuring that the team was in a decline phase and in denial.
They'd been selling their soul to stay in contention the prior three seasons while mortgaging their future.
For example, before the 2010 season they signed Brandon Lyon
to a three-year, $15 million deal, picked up Brad Moehler's $3 million option and signed Pedro Feliz
to a one-year, $4.5 million contract.
Signing mediocre players in their late 30s and overpaying for middle relievers was a recipe for disaster.
And the farm system was neglected to the point where ESPN's Keith Law
and Baseball America rated it a year ago as the worst farm system in baseball. And with GM Ed Wade signed to a two-year contract extension before 2011, I figured it would take awhile before the team finally decided to rebuild.
The Astros started 17-34 the first two months and I looked on easy street.
But the team finally decided to rebuild in July when Roy Oswalt
was traded to Philadelphia and later Lance Berkman
was traded to the Yankees.
The Astros then went on a 31-15 run in August and September and were on pace for about 80 wins. The bet seemed totally lost.
They had 74 wins with four games to go in the regular season. All hope was lost. But then they lost three games in a row.
The bet came down to the final game of the season. Nelson Figueroa
(36-year-old Nelson Figueroa
!) threw six scoreless innings to lead the Astros to a 4-0 over the heartless Cubs.
It was a meaningless game for everyone else, but for me it was like a Game 163 play-in contest.
It was the ultimate back door cover as I correctly predicted the trend for the Astros, but they rallied late with a crop of rookies and younger players.
This tale of woe sums up the fun of these bets and the inherent risks associated with making a bet on a roster that's largely unknown in April.
For this exercise, I'm using SportsBook.com
for these odds, which I grabbed on March 28.
The Sportsbook.com win totals seem to stay about the same while the vig/juice has moved the last few weeks. Other places may adjust the win totals and leave the vig the same (usually about 15 percent).
Here are my picks for every team, but there are only a few I feel confident enough about to place a bet on (in bold).
|Team||Over/Under Win Total||My Selection|
| Arizona Diamondbacks || 72.5 || Under |
| Atlanta Braves || 88 || Over |
| Baltimore Orioles || 76.5 || Under |
| Boston Red Sox || 95.5 || Over |
| Chicago Cubs || 82 || Under |
| Chicago White Sox || 85.5 || Over |
| Cincinnati Reds || 86.5 || Under |
| Cleveland Indians || 72 || Over |
| Colorado Rockies || 87 || Over |
| Detroit Tigers || 84.5 || Over |
| Florida Marlins || 82.5 || Under |
| Houston Astros || 72 || Under |
| Kansas City Royals || 68 || Under |
| Los Angeles Angels || 82.5 || Under |
| Los Angeles Dodgers || 83.5 || Over |
| Milwaukee Brewers || 86.5 || Over |
| Minnesota Twins || 86 || Over |
| New York Mets || 76 || Under |
| New York Yankees || 91.5 || Over |
| Oakland Athletics || 84 || Over |
| Philadelphia Phillies || 96.5 || Under |
| Pittsburgh Pirates || 67 || Under |
| San Diego Padres || 75.5 || Under |
| San Francisco Giants || 88 || Under |
| Seattle Mariners || 70 || Over |
| St. Louis Cardinals || 83.5 || Under |
| Tampa Bay Devil Rays || 84 || Over |
| Texas Rangers || 86.5 || Over |
| Toronto Blue Jays || 76.5 || Over |
| Washington Nationals || 72.5 || Under |
When I look at a upcoming baseball season, there are eight methods I use to judge which teams might be a good bet: Three are statistical, four are observations I've had watching the bookies set season-long lines for MLB and other sports and lately I've thrown in a wild card pick with no particular theoretical basis.
Here's the breakdown on these theories and the teams I decided to actually wager on.
The Johnson Effect
The Johnson Effect argues that a team that scores more runs or allows fewer runs than most statistical formulas would suggest, is bound to regress the next season. For example, if one team scores more runs than sabrmetrical formulas such as Runs Created or OPS might suggest, then it will score less the next season. The theory works based on the fact that sometimes a team has more success than it should just based on pure luck. A bad bounce here, a fluke play here - they can add up in one season and make a team look more powerful than it should be.
My favorite type of statistic for this analysis is a tool called the Pythagorean Theory. You probably learned the Pythagorean theory in trigonometry, but in baseball it means that the ratio of a team's wins and losses will be similar to the relationship between the square of its runs scored and the square of its runs allowed. If the runs a team scores and gives up in any given season don't translate into the expected win total from the Pythagorean Theory, that means something odd took place that should turn around next season.
Using the Johnson Effect and applying the Pythagorean Theory, who looks like they'll rebound in 2011? Here are the top teams that should have seen more or less wins based on their 2010 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:
|St. Louis Cardinals||-5|
This isn't a good year for this metric as typically there's a team or two in double digits.
But I think this is another sign that the Astros overperformed in the second half last season.
From July 27 when they went on a 36-17 run, they we're still outscored by their opponents.
Their Pythagorean projection over that 53 game span would be 29 wins, so almost all the the team's "luck" for the season was during this hot stretch.
and Jason Castro
had hot Septembers, but neither are considered elite prospects. And Castro will miss the 2011 season with a knee injury.
The pitching staff wasn't as much over its head with Wandy Rodriguez
, Bud Norris
, Brett Myers
, Felipe Paulino
and Figueroa (who killed me by going 4-2 in Sept./Oct.), but it was hardly an elite staff.
The Astros are returning largely the same lineup and pitching staff as the end of last season (Castro is gone, but Bill Hall
comes in at 2B).
Maybe Carlos Lee
rebounds from a subpar season to improve the lineup, but he may also get traded to help the rebuliding project.
And if he or any of the starters are traded, there's not an impact player in the high minors to fill in.
As a result, it's a good bet to think they won't repeat last year's late success and may even do worse.
I'll bet $50 the Astros don't win 72 games.
The Plexiglas Principle
This theory says that any team that improves dramatically in one season is likely to decline the next season.
What teams made such dramatic moves from 2009 to 2010?
|San Diego Padres||+15|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+12|
This isn't a good year for Plexiglas Principle candidates. Usually we're looking for teams who've improved by 19 or more games.
Since 1969 there have been 52 teams that have improved 19 or more games in the standings. Those teams have declined by an average of 7.4 games the next season.
No team last year had a historically impressive increase in its yearly win total. And the team with the largest increase, the Padres, is expected to decline 14.5 games (largely to the Adrian Gonzalez
So there's no value here for this kind of bet in 2011.
The Reverse Plexiglas Principle
When a team has consistently been a winner and then experiences a sudden drop off, there is a strong likelihood that its win total will rebound. The Plexiglas Principle doesn't happen as often in reverse, but there is evidence it works.
Here are the teams that declined the most in 2009:
|Los Angeles Angels||-17|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||-15|
None of these three teams look like great candidates.
The Mariners scored an AL worst 3.17 runs per game last season and it's not clear their offense has improved at all for 2011.
Maybe Justin Smoak
has a breakout season and becomes the star many envisioned before 2010 (remember when everyone loved his plate discipline and power potential? He was RotoWire's No. 15 prospect before 2010).
Even that may not be enough as there have been no impact players on offense added elsewhere. And the odds of Milton Bradley
, Chone Figgins
and Jack Cust
all having flashbacks to late last decade seems remote.
Still, Seattle has been on a roller coaster the past four years with win totals of (in order) 88, 61, 85 and 61.
A bounceback to over 70 wins seems very reasonable, but there's just not much to love on offense. I'll pass.
The Bottom Feeder Bet
This is totally from a non-scientific study of watching the bookies set the lines on expected wins the past few years. People tend to care less about the bad teams in any sport, so the line is set a bit lower to entice folks to bet on these doormats.
Let's look at this year's candidates.
|Kansas City Royals||68|
I don't see a good bet here based on this theory as all five of these organizations don't seem to have turned the corner.
Washington could certainly be better the next few seasons when Stephen Strasburg
h returns from Tommy John surgery and when top overall pick Bryce Harper
But starting mediocre veterans like Rick Ankiel
in center field doesn't bode well for an improvement in 2011.
Pittsburgh wouldn't seem to have to do much to beat 67 wins, but then I thought that last season and they declined by five games.
, Jose Tabata
and Andrew McCutchen
should improve and make the offense better, but it's hard to invest in them until they get some semblance of a rotation that's anywhere near league average.
And with the sportsbooks predicting a 10-game improvement, there's not much margin for error.
Cleveland's roster isn't much different than last season, so a one game improvement could happen with just a little luck.
But there just are not many impact prospects set to make a move in 2011 to get excited.
The Book's Biggest Movers
The last thing I look at is what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline in 2009.
|Tampa Bay Rays||-12|
|San Diego Padres||-14.5|
I'm tempted to bet against the Orioles. I actually like their young pitching staff and think Brian Matusz
, Jake Arrieta
and Chris Tillman
(and later Zach Britton
) could develop into a solid staff.
I'm just not sure it happens in 2011. And while the upgrades on offense will help, there are enough injury risks (Brian Roberts
, Vladimir Guerrero
, Derrek Lee
, J.J. Hardy
) that a 10-win upgrade seems too high - especially in the brutal AL East.
The Orioles have won more than 76 games just three times in the last 13 years (and all three times they still won less than 80 games). It's amazing the Orioles haven't won more than 80 games since 1997.
When I first looked at the over/under totals at the start of spring training
, the Brewers jumped out at me at an over/under of 84.5 wins.
The Brewers were fourth in the NL in runs scored last year, but 14th in runs allowed with starting pitching being the primary problem.
Acquiring Zack Greinke
and Shaun Marcum
is worth about eight wins based on their WORP at Fangraphs from last season compared to the pitchers they're replacing (David Bush
, Doug Davis
, Manny Parra
, Chris Capuano
I also think there's hidden upside when the Brewers realize early in the season that any shortstop they call up from the minors or grab off waivers will be better than Yuniesky Betancourt
Meanwhile, the lineup is almost the same as last season and should continue to produce. The problem is that the Brewers are paper thin when it comes to depth.
And losing Greinke for at least three starts due to a rib injury (and casting doubt on a healthy season) plus Shaun Marcum
's spring elbow woes raises some doubts.
Unfortunately the line didn't move lower late in spring training despite all the injuries (Corey Hart
will also start the year on the DL as well with an oblique strain).
So I'm less excited by this bet than I was in early March, but I still see the Brewers winning the NL Central and winning close to 90 games. I just won't wager as much as I would have in early March.
I'll bet $25 the Brewers win more than 86.5 games.
The Book's Non Movers
|Kansas City Royals||+1|
|Chicago White Sox||-2.5|
|New York Mets||-2.5|
How can the Royals be projected to be one game better than 2010? On paper, this may be the worst team of the last decade.
Here are Kansas City's wins the last seven seasons: 67, 65, 75, 69, 62, 56, 58.
They've only reached 68 games in two of the last eight seasons.
And the Royals traded away their top pitcher, Zack Greinke
, in the offseason (worth 5.2 WORP last year according to Fangraphs
Their current rotation may be one of the worst in recent baseball memory: Luke Hochevar
, Jeff Francis
, Kyle Davies
, Bruce Chen
, Vincent Mazzaro
If the current 25-man roster played a full season, this squad may lose 110+ games.
However, behind this team is one of the top farm systems in baseball. The Royals have nine of RotoWire's top 100 prospects for 2011
The question then becomes how soon will these players have an impact.
With little to play for in 2011, it seems unlikely that most will reach the majors this summer.
could get called up in June. But Eric Hosmer
may not be called up until September.
And the top pitching prospects, even if called up, may scuffle in the majors initially.
It may be a repeat of my 2010 nightmare Astros scenario, but I think the value is that the calvary arrives too late.
[And this was an even better bet at the start of spring training when their over/under was 70 games
I'll bet $100 the Royals don't win 68 games.
The Billy Beane Theory
I added a new theory three years ago based on watching the oddsmakers consistently miss the target with one team.
In the financial markets they say "the trend is your friend" and that's the case with the Oakland A's.
The oddsmakers consistently underrate Bean's Moneyball
methods. The A's have beat the book in eight of the last ten years.
Of course, I've lost the only two times I've taken this bet. Oakland beat its over/under of 81 wins last season by two victories.
This year you can get Billy Bean at 84.5 wins.
I'm tempted, but I'll pass. That's a four win upgrade when the roster hasn't added that much needed hitting talent.
That means they'll cover again.
Last year I introduced this non-statistical category because I looked at the Minnesota Twins roster and knew they'd win more games than the sportsbooks thought, but couldn't find a statistical theory to support it.
They had what I thought was the best roster on paper of the Ron Gardenhire era, but were projected to win the least amount of games of his career. It just didn't fit.
The Wildcard this year is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The sportsbooks have the Angels improving 4.5 games this season, but my take on the roster is that it's worse.
The Angels lost Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera
and Hideki Matsui
in the offseason with little to replace them. That's a loss of 62 home runs and Matsui actually had the team's best OPS at .821.
Some of that loss will be offset by the acquisition of Vernon Wells
, but he came at a cost ($81 million left on his contact + Napoli) that made it arguably the most lopsided deal in 30-team MLB era.
While Wells did hit 31 home runs and had an .847 OPS, it was a bounceback season after three poor years. The odds are that he'll regress or get hurt and his production won't overcome the losses.
should improve in a good trade the Angels made (for Joe Saunders
and no top prospects - except for the money involved it was the Wells deal in reverse), but there are still plenty of questions elsewhere.
The final two spots in the rotation are a mess. Kendrys Morales
is hurt to start the season and I have doubts he'll return soon since he's not ready to return from a broken ankle after 11 months. And Torii Hunter
and Bobby Abreu
are not getting any younger.
And outside of Hank Conger
, there doesn't appear to be many prospects ready to make a big impact this season.
Mike Scioscia has only had three losing seasons in 11 years, so he always seems to get the best of his talent.
But I just see the talent pool moving in the wrong direction this year while the sportsbooks have the team improving.
I'll bet $50 the Angels don't win 82.5 games.
So to recap, here are my bets for 2011:
|Kansas City||$100 under on 68 games||Book Non Mover|
|Houston Astros||$50 under on 72 games||Johnson Effect|
|Milwaukee Brewers||$25 over on 86.5 games||Book Mover|
|Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||$50 under on 82.5 games||Wild Card|
And why should you care what I think? I've made money seven of the past 11 years (with one push). Here's the breakdown:
|2010||Lost||Houston Astros||$150 under on 75.5 games||Johnson Effect & Book Non Mover|
|2010||Won||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 82.5 games||Wildcard|
|2010||Won||Washington Nationals||$50 under on 72 games||Book Mover|
|2009||Lost||Los Angeles Angels||$50 under on 88.5 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2009||Won||Detroit Tigers||$50 over on 81.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas|
|2009||Lost||Baltimore Orioles||$50 over on 72.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2009||Lost||Kansas City Royals||$25 over on 76.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2009||Lost||Philadelphia Phillies||$50 under on 88.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2009||Lost||Oakland A's||$25 over on 82.5 wins||Billy Beane Theory|
|2008||Won||Seattle Mariners||$200 under on 84 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2008||Lost||Chicago Cubs||$50 under on 87.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2008||Won||Oakland A's||$50 over on 73.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2008||Push||San Francisco||$50 under on 72 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2007||Won||Cleveland Indians||$50 over on 85.5 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2007||Lost||Chicago Cubs||$50 under on 83.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Lost||Oakland A's||$50 over on 85.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Lost||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 84 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$100 over on 78.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2006||Won||Chicago White Sox||$100 under on 92 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2006||Lost||Arizona Diamondbacks||$25 under on 73 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2006||Lost||Tampa Bay Devil Rays||$100 over on 68 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2006||Lost||Milwaukee Brewers||$50 over on 81 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2006||Won||Minnesota Twins||$50 over on 83 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2005||Won||New York Yankees||$150 under on 102 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2005||Won||Milwaukee Brewers||$50 over on 69.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2005||Won||San Diego Padres||$25 under on 86.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2005||Lost||Minnesota Twins||$25 over on 89.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2004||Won||Kansas City Royals||$300 under on 81 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2004||Won||Houston Astros||$50 over on 91 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2004||Lost||Detroit Tigers||$100 under on 66.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2004||Won||San Francisco Giants||$50 over on 85 wins||Book Mover|
|2004||Won||Florida Marlins||$50 over on 83 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||Anaheim Angels||$100 under on 91 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2003||Won||Oakland A's||$50 over on 93.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||New York Mets||$50 under on 86 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||Toronto Blue Jays||$50 over on 79 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2003||Won||Boston Red Sox||$50 over on 91 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2002||Won||Oakland A's||$200 over on 90.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2002||Won||Philadelphia Phillies||$100 under on 82.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2002||Won||Pittsburgh Pirates||$50 over on 68 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2002||Lost||Seattle Mariners||$50 over on 94 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2002||Lost||Colorado Rockies||$50 over on 77 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2002||Lost||New York Yankees||$50 under on 99 wins||Reverse Bottom Feeder|
|2001||Lost||St. Louis Cardinals||$100 under on 89.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Chicago White Sox||$100 under on 88 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Houston Astros||$100 over on 82.5 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Philadelphia Phillies||$25 over on 74.5 wins||Bottom Feeder & Johnson Effect|
|2001||Won||Minnesota Twins||$25 over on 73 wins ||Bottom Feeder|
|2000||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$100 under on 93 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2000||Won||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 64 wins||Bottom Feeder|
: My bets/track record doesn't try to account for the variations in extra juice you need to pay.
Most lines are -110, meaning the sportsbook takes about five percent on each bet. The "Vig
" tends to be higher on these bets than for single games.
Sometimes the vig can vary widely, such as the 2011 Houston under of 72 wins at -120 according to Sportsbook.com (the over is even).
It's another method for the bookmakers to alter how the money is coming in on each side so it gets to their comfort level.
If you are making a lot of bets, this is a serious factor in the math. But I don't bother to take that into account because I'm more focused on the overall wins number for a team perspective.
I vary the dollar amounts below as a way to show how confident I am in the bet (the $300 bet on the 2004 Royals is my all-time high), so there are some holes in the math if you added in all the varying vigs.