On the weekend before the All-Star break, ESPN.com's Jonah Keri and I went to Vegas for the weekend. His purprose was to write an article about betting baseball games; mine was to tag along and gamble.
Jonah went 6-1 against the book and 0-1 against me, while I went 7-1 against the book and 1-0 against him. And with the exception of the game I bet against him, we both did it exclusively on underdogs. Keep in mind, this isn't like betting NFL underdogs with the spread - it's like going 7-1 on underdogs with the money line. How did we do it? A few explanations.
1. We were lucky.
A little bit. I won the game against him when the Tigers shoddy bullpen held up, and the Tigers got to Jon Papelbon. In another game, Curtis Granderson's home-run saving catch preserved a Nate Robertson win over Daisuke Matsuzaka. But most of the teams we backed won handily - Jason Simontacchi's Nationals (+160) led nearly the whole way against the Brewers, Sergio Mitre's Marlins (+160) won easily in Dodger Stadium against Derek Lowe, Tim Lincecum (+105) won in St. Louis against Braden Looper, though the Giants almost blew it, Todd Wellemyer (+130) won 7-0 over Barry Zito, Felix Hernandez (+125) won 4-0 over Rich Harden (as if he were going to last more than three or four innings!) and Kyle Davis (+130) won easily over Greg Maddux in San Diego, though Bob Wickman put a scare in me.
2. Fading the Herd
In almost all these cases, it was fairly obvious where most of the money would be going - who's going to bet Davies against a name pitcher like Maddux at home? Who's going to bet Mitre on the road against Lowe? There's always a premium when you buy the name brand and always a discount when you take the one you've never heard of. When looking for underdogs, get the ones that the average bettor woudn't touch. They wouldn't have built those palaces on the strip if the majority were usually right.
3. Avoiding traps.
Games where the odds seem too big (Ervin Santana +170 in Yankee Stadium) - begging you to take the first place Angels - but check out Santana's home/road splits and also Chien Ming Wang's. The book knows Santana's going to get destroyed by that lineup in the Bronx, and that Wang should sail. The Yanks didn't just win - they won 12-0.
Another trap game we avoided was the Boof Bonser/Mark Buehrle game - Bonser was an underdog - looked like value. BUT: in that homer friendly park, Bonser's biggest weakness (the big fly) would be exacerbated, and Buehrle figured to be tough after the White Sox allowed more than 30 runs the day before in a double-header. Don't mess with Buehrles, Oswalts and Pettittes when the chips are down for their teams. This isn't scientific, but it's a gut feeling I often have and am not easily willing to dismiss.
4. Use volatility to your advantage
Volatility is terrible for a favorite, great for a dog. Jorge De la Rosa (who Jonah bet) is a great example - a guy who pitches great or terrible - a 50/50 proposition with odds. (Of course, he'll never be a favorite on the Royals). This also applies to fantasy - when you're in first place, you want safe players. When you're in fifth, you want guys with upside who are more risky.
5. We had a few (but not too many) drinks.
When you place your bets ask for a few drink tickets. And then, half an hour later, tickets in hand, go to a different clerk and tell him you forgot to get your drink tickets. It was disappointing that the Red Rock only allowed well booze with drink tickets, but you can always go with beer, or in Jonah's case, white wine. Who the hell orders wine at a sports book? (Okay, I admit after three beers, I got a red wine, too).