It's time to take a look at the 2012 MLB season from a wagering perspective.
Each of the past 12 years I've looked at the Las Vegas odds on win totals for the upcoming season to gauge oddsmaker's analysis of each team's chances against my own.
I also theorized that a very macro level approach that utilized the basic sabrmetric principles that I grew up reading in the works of John Thorn & Pete Palmer and Bill James might be a way to get an edge on the conventional wisdom.
Since then we've seen an explosion of advanced metrics and projection systems (organizations such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, Tom Tango and Fangraphs) that have made my initial methods seem a bit antiquated.
But for the most part, my methods have worked.
My overall record is 31 for 52 (with one push) - an impressive 59.6 percent. My best bet each season is 12-8 (I had multiple biggest bets some years).
I'm most impressive on a weighted or cash basis, where I've been correct 67.6 percent ($2,300 in winning bets, $1100 in losers - not factoring in the vig).
I'm at my best on bets of $100 or more (I vary my bet size to emphasize how strongly I feel about the pick) where I'm 11-5. [Here's my 2011 story
, where I went 2-2 but lost money.]
However, my track record isn't as strong since 2006, where I'm 11-15 but have won money ($925-$875).
Maybe the new methods are passing me by as the sportsbooks and bettors gravitate to new statistical tools.
But maybe these tried-and-true methods are just within the boundaries of success in a small sample size. We'll see.
Either way, I think this is 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 it also helps crystallize expectations, which can help in fantasy baseball and elsewhere.
For this exercise, I'm using SportsBook.com
for these odds, which I grabbed on March 19. Usually there's a lot of movement early in the spring. I often look at the lines when they come out and have some initial picks, only to see the win totals move away from me a few week later when I have time to write the column. But there hasn't been much change in the totals this spring, which is odd.
Here are my picks for every team, but there are only two I feel confident enough about to place a bet on. More on those later on.
||Over/Under Win Total
||Under – My top bet this year.
||Over – So much pitching depth to acquire needed bats.
||Under – AL East is going to be brutal for them. Have like few of their offseason moves.
|Boston Red Sox
||Over – See below.
||Over – Just on faith in Theo Epstein.
|Chicago White Sox
||Under – GM says they're rebuilding.
||Under – Don't believe in Mat Latos.
||Over – Groundball starting staff is a tad underrated.
||Over – Just take the second-half over on principle.
||Under – Bad defense worries me and this price seem to price in everything going well.
||Under – See below.
||Over – See below.
|Kansas City Royals
||Under – My sportsbook source changed vig while others changed total. Great hitting talent, but starters may take a few years to develop.
|Los Angeles Angels
||Over – Angels burned me last year. They added a ton of talent. The pick I'm most ambivalent about.
|Los Angeles Dodgers
||Under – No faith in this club until they get a new owner.
||Over – Still enough offense without Fielder.
||Over – My second top bet this year.
|New York Mets
||Over – Think David Wright, Jason Bay bounceback, Jon Niese breaks out.
|New York Yankees
||Over – Yanks won less than 93 games only twice since 1997 and offense is still potent, if aging.
||Over – See below.
||Under – More bust potential with offense than upside.
||Under – Last year's starter success seems fluky.
|San Diego Padres
||Over – I like most of their acquisitions on offense.
|San Francisco Giants
||Meh, another ambivalent pick. Over just because more upside with starters.
||Over – Only because they have some younger players I like.
|St. Louis Cardinals
||Under – World Series winners since 1975 decline an average of 7.6 wins next season (Vegas says they'll decline 5.5 wins). And they did lose the best player in the game. Best best I didn't write about.
|Tampa Bay Devil Rays
||Over – You haven't gone broke recently overestimating the Rays.
||Under – Seems right on, but Angels are better and so much went right the past two years.
|Toronto Blue Jays
||Over – We think they'll be a power in 2013. Maybe they'll get there a year early.
||Under – Lots of hype, but they're really the play in 2013.
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 Theorem. You probably learned the Pythagorean Theorem 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 Theorem, 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 2012? Here are the top teams that should have seen more or less wins based on their 2011 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:
|San Francisco Giants ||+6 |
|Milwaukee Brewers ||+6 |
|Detroit Tigers ||+6 |
|Arizona Diamondbacks ||+6 |
|Houston Astros ||-6 |
|Kansas City Royals ||-7 |
|San Diego Padres ||-8 |
It's not a good year for this metric as I typically look for teams in double digits. And after more than a decade of at least one team each year being 10 wins worse or better than their Pythagorean win total, there hasn't been a team the past two years?
Are we getting better coaching? Probably not, but odd. So no bets here.
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 2010 to 2011?
The Diamondbacks are a clear target here. Since 1970 teams that have improved 19 or more games have decreased an average of 7.6 wins the following season.
And that decline grows even more with a greater improvement as teams that increased their win total 22 or more games decreased an average of 10.97 games the following season (30 examples).
And those teams improving 23 or more games decreased an average of 11.4 wins the next year (25 examples).
Oddsmakers have Arizona declining by eight wins to 86 wins this season. That's a steep decline for a team that won 94 games last season and won its division, but I almost need to take the under on principle.
When you look closely at the roster, I don't see a strong case that Arizona is the kind of team that can sustain a 20-win improvement.
Over the years the only kind of teams that buck the Plexiglas Principle are teams with young, strong starting pitching staffs. The 1991 Braves (Glavine & Smoltz), the 1968 Oakland A's (Hunter) and the 1984 New York Mets (Gooden & co.) are good examples.
In fact, only 10 of the 46 teams with 20-win improvements since 1970 went on to improve again the next season.
Of those 10 teams, only three were able to improve again in the third season or stay close to even. A fourth team didn't improve the third season, but still won over 90 games.
||20+ Win Season
||Gain That Season
||Next Year Gain
||Third Year Gain
|New York Mets
||-2 (*But still 96 wins)
In addition, even though my study only went back to 1970, another team that did this was the 1968 Oakland A's who improved 20 games from their previous year in Kansas City.
The franchise then improved six more games the next season and three more games in 1971. Then they went on two win three World Series in a row.
What do all these teams have in common? Each team seems to have at least two starting pitchers just coming into their prime with an ace who contended for the Cy Young award
(Stieb in Toronto, Glavine in Atlanta, Gooden in New York, Drabek in Pittsburgh and Hunter in Oakland). All five seemed to have an offensive star or two who had a breakout season early in their career as well
(Barfield & Bell in Toronto, Gant & Justice in Atlanta, Strawberry in New York, Bonds & Bonilla in Pittsburgh and Reggie Jackson in Oakland).
Arizona had breakout seasons last year from Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy, but are the same caliber? My gut says they don't have the pedigree.
Plus most of the above examples had two pitchers younger than 26 (except Pittsburgh). While Hudson was just 24 last season, Kennedy was 26. Justin Upton certainly fits the breakout hitter example, but almost all of the rest of the regulars in the lineup were 27 years or older.
Maybe we'll look back and say this was the start of a great young staff and breakout core of hitters, but I'd be willing to bet against it.
I'll bet $200 the Diamondbacks win less than 86 games.
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 2011:
|San Diego Padres||-19|
Both the Astros and Padres traded away stars and were rebuilding last season, so their decline makes sense.
But the Twins went from being back-to-back division winners to losing 99 games. They didn't trade away any major players.
Their decline was largely due to injuries as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span missed significant time.
But it wasn't just their top players that missed time as Jason Kubel played just 38 games after a foot injury in July.
Alexi Casilla took over the second base job and got hot at the plate, but then didn't play after July due to a hamstring injury. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano also missed significant time in the rotation. To cap it off, the team's top pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, needed Tommy John surgery on the cusp of making his major league debut.
Meanwhile the Twins also had a defense that was last in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency
Much of the problem was the move from J.J. Hardy, a premium defender, to Tsuyoshi Nishioka (and a failed attempt to play Alexi Casilla at shortstop) - a horrendous decision which helped GM Bill Smith lose his job.
An improvement to Jamey Carroll at shortstop should at least stop the bleeding as he's seen as at least an adequate glove.
That should help a groundball-dependent pitching staff.
The Twins did sustain some losses in free agency (Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan) but they brought in adequate replacements in the lineup (Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit) if not the bullpen (Matt Capps again?). And if Mauer and Morneau are healthy, the offense could score 771 runs (according to this analysis by ESPN 1500 am Twin Cities's Phil Mackey
) after scoring 619 runs last season, 25th in MLB.
Of course, not all those players are going to be healthy again. One more concussion setback could end Morneau's career.
But so much went wrong for the Twins last season, they're bound to have a few things have to go right this year.
The core of talent on the team and it's not too old (only Morneau, Josh Willingham and Carl Pavano are over 30), so a bounceback seems likely.
The circumstances for a Reverse Plexiglas Principle never seemed more obvious, but I do have two reservations. First, I need to check my analysis here twice since I'm a Twins fan.
But I've got a winning record on bets I've made on the Twins (4-2), so at least I haven't made all homer bets.
Next, the oddsmakers have the Twins making the second largest improvement of any team this year with a 9.5 improvement to 72.5 wins.
However, an improvement of 10 games is routine.
I'll bet $100 the Twins win more than 72.5 games.
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.
|New York Mets||71|
The win total for the Astros is low. It's the second lowest total since 2006 when KC was also 63.5 wins.
Kansas City didn't make the over that year, but teams who have been projected by the sportsbooks to win less than 68 wins have a 10-7 record on covering.
|Team||Over/Under||Win Total||Win Bet?|
|2011 Pittsburgh Pirates|| 67||72||YES|
|2008 Baltimore Orioles|| 65.5||68||YES|
|2007 Washington Nationals|| 66.5||73||YES|
|2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays|| 67||66||NO|
|2006 Kansas City Royals|| 63.5||62||NO|
|2006 Florida Marlins|| 65||78||YES|
|2005 Colorado Rockies|| 65.5||67||YES|
|2005 Kansas City Royals|| 66||56||NO|
|2004 Detroit Tigers|| 66.5||80||YES|
|2004 Pittsburgh Pirates|| 66.||72||YES|
|2004 Milwaukee Brewers|| 65.5||67||YES|
|2003 Kansas City Royals|| 65||82||YES|
|2003 Milwaukee Brewers|| 64||68||YES|
|2003 Detroit Tigers|| 64.5||43||NO|
|2003 Tampa Bay Devil Rays|| 65.5||63||NO|
|2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays|| 66||55||NO|
|2001 Baltimore Orioles|| 67.5||63||NO|
So I'd be inclined to make a small wager the Astros will improve based on that math.
I certainly like the direction the new GM, Jeff Luhnow, has taken this offseason. And I was impressed with him in person when I was fortunate enough to have dinner with him at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
However, he inherited the team with arguably the worst farm system in baseball.
Still, one of my basic principles in these over/under bets is that if someone offers you a bet for a team to win 100 games or lose 100 games, you should probably take it. It's hard to win or lose 100 games.
For the Astros to go under, they'd need to lose 99 games. But it's actually happened seven times since 1970 that a team has lost 99 or more games in consecutive years.
Detroit Tigers from 2002-2003
Florida Marlins from 1998-1999
Kansas City from 2004-2006
Tampa Bay from 2001-2003 (99 in 2003)
Texas from 1972-1973
Toronto from 1977-1979
Nationals from 2008-2009
If I had to make a bet on the Astros, I'd take the over. But I'm just not confident enough to make a bet.
The Book's Biggest Movers
The last thing I look at is what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline.
|Kansas City Royals||+9.5|
The Marlins and Brewers stand out as the big movers. The Brewers lost Prince Fielder, so their decline makes sense.
Fielder was worth 5.2 wins by WAR (BaseballReference.com version), so that doesn't cover the entire gap.
However, everything went right for Milwaukee last year (96 wins, but 90 Pythagorean wins). This doesn't look like a great bet.
The Marlins signed Jose Reyes and Heath Bell, traded for Carlos Zambrano and have a new manager in Ozzie Guillen, along with a new park.
They should improve with that much new talent (although maybe Zambrano is a negative), so my first hunch is to bet the under. But other projection systems have them improving ten or more games (+13 wins at BaseballProspectus
, +15 wins at the Hardball Times
That seems about right, so I don't see a great bet here.
The Book's Non Movers
|San Francisco Giants||+1|
|Boston Red Sox||+0.5|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+0.5|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||-1|
The Red Sox had one of the worst collapses in baseball last year in September and still won 90 games.
Boston's offense is still in place and the lineup is stacked. It's hard not to see them improving.
On the other hand, I seem to dislike almost every move they've made this offseason (firing a good GM and manager, trading for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, going with Mike Aviles at shortstop, going with ??? in left field).
And things don't get any easier in the AL East where the Blue Jays could easily improve.
The Blue Jays also have some upside as I've really loved their moves the past year in shedding Vernon Wells, acquiring Colby Rasmus and trading for Kelly Johnson.
But I'm not sold on the back end of their rotation and they're also in the AL East, facing three powerhouses.
I don't see a great bet here as a result.
The Billy Beane Theory
I added a new theory in 2009 based on watching the oddsmakers consistently miss the target with one team.
The oddsmakers consistently underrated Beane's Moneyball
methods as the A's beat the book in eight of ten years in one stretch.
But the trend has ended lately as Beane seems to be constantly rebuilding and the A's have missed the over two of the past three years.
At 71.5 wins, the oddsmakers have the lowest expectations for Beane since I've been keeping track starting in 2000.
But this time around Beane seems to really be rebuilding and not worried about 2012 wins as he looks toward a new stadium in a few years.
Still, it may be wise to take the over just on principle as the A's have some wild cards with Manny Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes and another group of young promising arms.
Still, I'm not confident enough in the over to make a bet.
I've done a wild card the last two years based on hunches or other statistical trends I saw. I won a bet and lost a bet.
But nothing in particular stands out this season.
So to recap, here are my bets for 2012. I have just two larger bets, but that's all I felt comfortable with this season.
|Arizona Diamondbacks||$200 under on 86 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 72.5 games||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
: 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 2012 Kansas City under of 80.5 wins at -145 according to Sportsbook.com (the over is +115).
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.
Or it's a way to change the odds without moving the win total (the Royals are 76.5 wins at Pinnacle Sports
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.
And why should you care what I think? I've made money seven of the past 12 years (with one push). Here's the breakdown:
|2011||Lost||Kansas City||$100 under on 68 games||Book Non Mover|
|2011||Won||Houston Astros||$50 under on 72 games||Johnson Effect|
|2011||Won||Milwaukee Brewers||$25 over on 86.5 games||Book Mover|
|2011||Lost||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||$50 under on 82.5 games||Wild Card|
|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|