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Burying The Phillies; Sticking With The Rays: Over/Under Win Total Bets for 2014

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

It's time to take a look at the 2014 MLB season from a wagering perspective. I'm a big fan of the season win total bets ever since I started making them in person in Las Vegas back in the late 1990s. It's 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.

Over the last 14 years, I've come out ahead. My overall record is 36 for 59 (with one push) for 61.0 percent. My best bet each season is 15-9 (I had multiple biggest bets some years).

I'm most impressive on a weighted or cash basis, where I've been correct 67.9 percent of the time ($2,650 in winning bets, $1250 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 12-6. However, my track record isn't as strong since 2006, where I'm 16-21 but have won money 55.4 percent of the time ($1275-$1025). My theory is that the sportsbooks have become smarter since 2006 and take into account the projection systems, especially after Nate Silver (who ran PECOTA at the time) had big success picking Tampa Bay's surprise breakout season in 2008. Or at least, that's the excuse I'm using. But maybe I have my mojo back because last season I went 4-1.

Sizing up this year's field, I wish I had written this column in mid-February when the sportsbooks first released their lines. There's been significant movement since then. Next year I need to start writing the column earlier.

Since I wrote that tweet, the Phillies are down to 74.5 win, the Royals are down to 82 wins and the Padres are up to 78.5 wins.

The other change in my betting pattern that I wish I could make is that there are several teams that I'm not sure if they'll beat their projected win total from the sportsbooks, but I think there's big value in the risk-reward of them far outpacing their total. For example, I think the Phillies and Yankees could get old quickly and have terrible seasons. If there was a way to tease these win totals or buy a futures or options contract, I'd invest that maybe each wins far less then there total. Both teams feature many 30-year old players and have lots of reasons to fear worst-case scenarios. Similarly, there's lots of reasons to think a team like the Padres or Nationals could make a huge leap give the youth of their core players.

But I need to make picks with the slate of odds I can walk up to the window and bet now. So for this exercise, I'm using SportsBook.com for these odds, which I grabbed on March 26.

I'll indicate my confidence in a bet with a size of a wager below. It's rare I go above $100. This year I have several small bets, which historically hasn't been a good sign as I've done better on bets with more conviction. So buyer beware. Still, I'm trying my best even if more bets mean I put my overall win-loss record at risk.

For this exercise, I'm using SportsBook.com for these odds, which I grabbed on March 26.

Here are my picks for every team, but there are five I feel confident enough about to place a bet on. More on those later on.

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 2014? Here are the top teams that should have seen more or less wins based on their 2013 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:

Houston Astros-6
Detroit Tigers-6
Chicago Cubs-5
Tampa Bay Devil Rays5
New York Yankees6
Pittsburgh Pirates6
Philadelphia Phillies7

I usually look for teams that have a double-digit disparity in their Pythagorean wins and their actual wins. This is one of the rare years that a team doesn't meet that criteria. So there's no bet based on this metric alone. But I was leaning on betting the over on the Astros and the under on the Phillies and each gets a supporting nod from this data. The Phillies were even worse than their 73 wins last year based on runs scored and allowed. The Astros were actually six games better. But this data alone is enough to pull the trigger on a bet for either team.

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 2012 to 2013?

Boston Red Sox28
Cleveland Indians24
Pittsburgh Pirates15
Kansas City Royals14
Colorado Rockies10

The Red Sox with their worst-to-first World Series season improved 28 games last season. That's the ninth largest single-season win improvement since 1970. The eight teams before them averaged 7.6 fewer wins the next season. The sportsbooks have the Red Sox projected for 88.5 wins, which is a decline of 8.5 wins, so that pullback is priced in. Plus the Red Sox appear to be a poor candidate for a sharp decline. Their 28-game gain is more about how much the team's 69-win season in 2012 was an aberration. The Red Sox have the fourth-highest payroll and almost all their players returning from a championship team. I'll skip any bet on their decline.

The Indians may fit the profile better. I've noticed a pattern that the teams able to buck the Plexiglas Principle have at least two starting pitchers just coming into their prime with an ace who contended for the Cy Young award (for more detail, check out my breakdown in my 2012 story). In 2012, I won a bet as the Diamondbacks didn't seem to fit this group with Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. The Indians similarly don't have such a pitching staff as Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber don't fit that kind of Cy Young-candidate profile. Danny Salazar could get there with his 96.2 mph average fastball, but he's no sure thing. Similarly, while there's some enticing young talent on the roster, their core talent doesn't feature a multiple set of the league's top young position players. The only issue is that at 82 wins, the sportsbooks have priced in a decline of ten wins. That decline is a little more than I'd like to see in a bet like this. Still, this team fits the profile of a club that will decline sharply.

I'll bet $25 the Indians win less than 82 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. Or at least that's my theory. I haven't had a lot of success with this bet (1 for 3).

Here are the teams that declined the most in 2013:

Washington Nationals-12
San Francisco Giants-18
Chicago White Sox-22

Both the Nationals and Giants are great fits for this theory. Unfortunately, both are projected by the sports books to improve significantly. The sportsbooks have the Nationals improving by four wins to 90 wins; and have the Giants improving by 9.5 wins to 85.5 wins. I'd take the over on both if forced to, but neither represents enough value for this column.

The Bottom Feeder Bet

This is totally from a non-scientific study of watching the bookies set the lines on expected wins over the 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. I've won 5 of 7 bets since 2001 with this theory. Let's look at this year's candidates.

Houston Astros62.5
Miami Marlins70
Minnesota Twins70.5
Chicago Cubs71

Sadly, the bottom three teams at the bottom of the expected win total are the same as last year (and the Cubs were fifth lowest last year). The amazing part is I think the Twins, Astros and Cubs will be three of the better teams in baseball in the second half of the decade due to their strong farm systems.

But I don't see significant improvement from the Twins or Cubs this season as their top players won't really have an impact until 2015. For the Twins, Miguel Sano is out for the season with Tommy John surgery, Byron Buxton will spend half a season in the majors at best this year and most of the other top prospects are similarly less likely to have more than a September call-up.

The Cubs could see Javier Baez spend part of the year in the majors, but Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora may not reach the majors until 2015.

The Marlins have more upside in 2015 as they feature two of the better young players in the game in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez. Both of those players could improve dramatically and drag a mediocre rest of the roster with them to a 75-win season. And the Marlins have plenty of young arms with upside (Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez). However, it's hard to trust Miami's ownership to make the correct moves during the season that would cause a surprise season.

The sportsbooks forecast an improvement of eight games to 70 wins. That's too much of a improvement to make a bet. I wish I could find some odds on Miami winning 80-plus games. I'd likely take that bet as there's potential here to really surprise, especially considering the weak division.

The Astros are an enticing option this season. Last year the organization took a lot of heat for having an Opening Day payroll of just $24 million. But a wave of talent may begin to start making an impact this season. George Springer didn't make the Opening Day roster, but he should be up by mid-June at worst. Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer are the first two young pitchers with upside in the rotation in several years. It's possible Carlos Correa and Mark Appel could be in the majors before late summer. Of course you could make the same case that the Twins and Cubs may get as much playing time from top prospects this season, but the Astros are so low in the expected win totals that even those partial seasons could make a big difference.

The Astros could actually be a respectable club as early as 2015. I feel I'm buying them a year early at a low price. Of course, they were one of the worst teams in NL history last year (111 losses) and the sportsbooks see them improving by a large amount (11.5 wins). Still, I think they fit the profile of a bottom feeder team that could improve dramatically with young talent in the second half.

I'll bet $25 the Astros win more than 62.5 games.

The Book's Biggest Movers

I also like to look at what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline in 2013.

Chicago White Sox+11.5
Houston Astros+11.5
Seattle Mariners+10
Cleveland Indians-10
Pittsburgh Pirates-11

The Astros and Indians from this group we've covered already. The Pirates are another team who could take a step back this season after their first playoff birth in 22 years. But the team is deep in prospects and pitching talent and their improvement of 15 wins isn't large enough to typically see the Plexiglas Principle effect.

Seattle signed the biggest free agent of the offseason in Robinson Cano, but a 10-win improvement is within the range any team could make in one year. Last year I won a bet fading the hype of the Blue Jays, but that team was expected to improve by 16 games according to the sportsbook. I'd take the under on Seattle, but I'll pass at a bet.

The Book's Non Movers

San Diego Padres2.5
Colorado Rockies2.5
Philadelphia Phillies1.5
New York Mets1
New York Yankees0.5
Detroit Tigers-2.5
Arizona Diamondbacks-2.5

The one team that stands out on this list for me is the Phillies. Is there any reason to think Philadelphia will be better than the 73-win squad of last year? This is an aging team on the decline with a high risk for an even-more-rapid decline. The Phillies are in danger of repeating what the Astros did last decade of trying to rely on an aging core too long while missing out on opportunities to rebuild.

More than likely GM Ruben Amaro has already missed those chances after giving several veterans extensions, including Chase Utley last year. Sure, this team has Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation which can match almost any team. But the 2013 Phillies got 442 innings out of the duo last and still lost 89 games. And Hamels already looks set to miss a handful of starts with a biceps injury.

The rest of the roster is old and has a ton of risk of injury or a drop-off in performance. Jimmy Rolins is 35, Ryan Howard is 34, Chase Utley is 35, Carlos Ruiz is 35. Even high-profile acquisitions from last year's Opening Day roster are old: A.J. Burnett is 37 and Marlon Byrd is 36. Cody Asche and Domonic Brown are nice young players with upside, but neither has the potential to offset the decay on the rest of the roster. Given that several of those 35-plus year olds are likely to miss significant time to injury or decline, I don't see how the team improves.

I'll bet $50 the Phillies win less than 74.5 games.

The Billy Beane Theory

I noticed a pattern starting in 2009 that the sportsbooks were consistently underrating Oakland GM Billy Beane. Maybe they hadn't caught on to his use of advanced stats metrics despite the success of the book Moneyball. So I created the Billy Beane Theory and made a $25 bet on it alone. Of course, I lost that bet and quit using theory to make a bet in subsequent years. But I picked it up against last season.

If you put together a portfolio of good GMs the past decade, they would have beat the sportsbooks. Billy Beane is 77 percent (10-for-13) since I started tracking results in 2001. Tampa Bay GM Andrew Freidman is 5-for-8 in covering his expected win total, and 5-of-6 since he arguably got the Rays out of their previous muck in 2008.

So based on that math, last year I placed bets on the over on both Beane and Freidman and won. I also figured that maybe the reverse is true and betting on a bad GM also works. Kansas City GM Drayton Moore was just 2-for-6 in covering his expected win total since his first full season in 2007. Of course, that didn't work as the Royals won more than 78.5 games.

I'm inclined to make all three bets again on principle, but let's breakdown each team.

The sportsbooks say Tampa Bay will be a worse team this year and decline to 89 wins. However, it's hard to make the case that they'll be worse. They return basically the same roster than won 92 games last year. There was talk in the offseason they may trade David Price, but he'll be back. The Rays also feature a core of players in their prime. Evan Longoria is 28 years old, Desmond Jennings could break out at 27 and Will Myers is just 23. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi all have upside as young pitchers. And the Tampa Bay farm system always features plenty of reinforcements in the pitching staff if needed. The Rays are probably one big bat away from being the best team in baseball, but they certainly don't seem like a team that will decline. And since 2008, the Rays have finished under 90 wins just once.

Oakland took some blows this spring with Jarrod Parker undergoing Tommy John surgery and with A.J. Griffin likely missing a month with elbow tendinitis. But the A's retain most of the players that led to last year's AL West title. The sportsbooks have the A's declining by 9.5 wins to 86.5 wins. There's enough talent on this Oakland team not to be overly worried. I'm not using a ton of analysis on this pick but rather riding the winning streak. Beane should be able to figure out how to get to 87 wins with this team.

With the Royals covering last season, Moore is now just 3-for-7 in covering his expected win total since his first full season in 2007. I'd like to take the under again because of his track record and because so many of the much-hyped prospects on the roster just haven't panned out. But Moore didn't make the offseason gaffes he had last year going into the season. He no longer has sink holes of OBP in the lineup like at the start of last year (Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz) and instead acquired decent upgrades ( Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante).

The Royals also improved just 15 games, which doesn't quite hit the Plexiglas Principle. And the sportsbooks have them declining by four games to 82 games. So even though I think it was a pyrrhic victory to get to 85 wins last season via the Will Myers for James Shield deal and think they'll decline, there's not enough value for a bet.

I'll bet $25 the A's win more than 86.5 games.
I'll bet $100 the Rays win more than 89 games.

Wildcard

I've done a wild card three of the last four years based on hunches or other statistical trends I saw. I won two bets and lost a bet.

My one thought here is just seeing the Dodgers rated so high this offseason. Baseball Prospectus has the Dodgers forecast at 99 wins. The sportsbooks have them pegged for 95 wins. The crazy part is that they opened with 92.5 wins and moved up the past four weeks.

Almost on principle you should bet against a team forecast to win more than 95 games. It's hard to win 100 games. It's hard to lose 100 games. The Dodgers only won 92 games last year, although I know they went 45-23 in the second half. Since 2000, teams forecasted by the sportsbooks to win more than 95 games are 4-5. And I can see problems with this team. They have four outfielders and no center fielder. Dee Gordon looks shaky in the field at second base. And now Clayton Kershaw is hurt with a back injury (could be minor). Yes, that's nitpicking but you need almost everything to go perfect to win more than 95 games. I'd take the under.

But I failed to write this before the season started. And of course, the Dodgers are 2-0. But my hunch says the contrarian bet is the play.

So to recap, here are my bets for 2015.

Cleveland Indians$25 under on 82 gamesPlexiglas Principle
Houston Astros$25 over on 62.5 gamesBottom Feeder
Philadelphia Phillies$50 under on 74.5 gamesBook Non Mover
Oakland A's$25 over on 86.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
Tampa Bay Rays$100 over on 89 gamesBilly Beane Theory

One note: 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 2014 Houston Astros over of 62.5 wins at -125 according to Sportsbook.com (the over is -105). 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.

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. Plus I forgot to keep track of the Vig in early years. 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 nine of the past 13 years (with one push). Here's the breakdown:

YearW/LTeamBetTheory
2013WonToronto Blue Jays$50 under on 89 gamesBook Mover
2013WonOakland A's$25 over on 84.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
2013WonTampa Bay Rays$50 over on 86.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
2013LostKansas City Royals$50 under on 78.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
2013WonBaltimore Orioles$25 over on 78.5 gamesWildcard
2012WonArizona Diamondbacks$200 under on 86 gamesPlexiglas Principle
2012LostMinnesota Twins$100 over on 72.5 gamesReverse Plexiglas Principle
2011LostKansas City$100 under on 68 gamesBook Non Mover
2011WonHouston Astros$50 under on 72 gamesJohnson Effect
2011WonMilwaukee Brewers$25 over on 86.5 gamesBook Mover
2011LostLos Angeles Angels of Anaheim$50 under on 82.5 gamesWild Card
2010LostHouston Astros$150 under on 75.5 gamesJohnson Effect & Book Non Mover
2010WonMinnesota Twins$100 over on 82.5 gamesWildcard
2010WonWashington Nationals$50 under on 72 gamesBook Mover
2009LostLos Angeles Angels$50 under on 88.5 winsJohnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2009WonDetroit Tigers$50 over on 81.5 winsReverse Plexiglas
2009LostBaltimore Orioles$50 over on 72.5 winsBottom Feeder
2009LostKansas City Royals$25 over on 76.5 winsBook Non Mover
2009LostPhiladelphia Phillies$50 under on 88.5 winsBook Non Mover
2009LostOakland A's$25 over on 82.5 winsBilly Beane Theory
2008WonSeattle Mariners$200 under on 84 winsJohnson Effect
2008LostChicago Cubs$50 under on 87.5 winsPlexiglas Principle
2008WonOakland A's$50 over on 73.5 winsReverse Plexiglas Principle
2008PushSan Francisco$50 under on 72 winsBook Non Mover
2007WonCleveland Indians$50 over on 85.5 winsJohnson Effect
2007LostChicago Cubs$50 under on 83.5 winsBook Mover
2007LostOakland A's$50 over on 85.5 winsBook Mover
2007LostMinnesota Twins$100 over on 84 winsBook Mover
2007WonArizona Diamondbacks$100 over on 78.5 winsBook Non Mover
2006WonChicago White Sox$100 under on 92 winsJohnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2006LostArizona Diamondbacks$25 under on 73 winsJohnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2006LostTampa Bay Devil Rays$100 over on 68 winsBottom Feeder
2006LostMilwaukee Brewers$50 over on 81 winsBook Non Mover
2006WonMinnesota Twins$50 over on 83 winsBook Non Mover
2005WonNew York Yankees$150 under on 102 winsJohnson Effect
2005WonMilwaukee Brewers$50 over on 69.5 winsBottom Feeder
2005WonSan Diego Padres$25 under on 86.5 winsPlexiglas Principle
2005LostMinnesota Twins$25 over on 89.5 winsBook Non Mover
2004WonKansas City Royals$300 under on 81 winsPlexiglas Principle
2004WonHouston Astros$50 over on 91 winsJohnson Effect
2004LostDetroit Tigers$100 under on 66.5 winsBook Mover
2004WonSan Francisco Giants$50 over on 85 winsBook Mover
2004WonFlorida Marlins$50 over on 83 winsBook Mover
2003WonAnaheim Angels$100 under on 91 winsPlexiglas Principle
2003WonOakland A's$50 over on 93.5 winsBook Mover
2003WonNew York Mets$50 under on 86 winsBook Mover
2003WonToronto Blue Jays$50 over on 79 winsBook Non Mover
2003WonBoston Red Sox$50 over on 91 winsJohnson Effect
2002WonOakland A's$200 over on 90.5 winsBook Mover
2002WonPhiladelphia Phillies$100 under on 82.5 winsPlexiglas Principle
2002WonPittsburgh Pirates$50 over on 68 winsBottom Feeder
2002LostSeattle Mariners$50 over on 94 winsReverse Plexiglas Principle
2002LostColorado Rockies$50 over on 77 winsJohnson Effect
2002LostNew York Yankees$50 under on 99 winsReverse Bottom Feeder
2001LostSt. Louis Cardinals$100 under on 89.5 winsPlexiglas Principle
2001WonChicago White Sox$100 under on 88 winsPlexiglas Principle
2001WonHouston Astros$100 over on 82.5 winsJohnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2001WonPhiladelphia Phillies$25 over on 74.5 winsBottom Feeder & Johnson Effect
2001WonMinnesota Twins$25 over on 73 wins Bottom Feeder
2000WonArizona Diamondbacks$100 under on 93 winsPlexiglas Principle
2000WonMinnesota Twins$100 over on 64 winsBottom Feeder