PIT, BAL Boring but Good: Over/Under Win Total Bets for 2017

PIT, BAL Boring but Good: Over/Under Win Total Bets for 2017

It's time to take a look at the 2017 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 16 years, I've come out ahead. My overall record is 43 for 75 (with one push) for 57.3 percent. My best bet each season is 15-12 (I had multiple biggest bets some years). I'm a little better on bets of $100 or more (I vary my bet size to emphasize how strongly I feel about the pick) where I'm 12-8. I'm most successful on a weighted or cash basis, where I've been correct 62.6 percent of the time ($2,850 in winning bets, $1,700 in losers - not factoring in the vig).

However, last year was my first truly awful year. I lost all three bets I made with a loss of $100. It was the first year I didn't pick a winner.

One of my bets was to take the under on the Cubs at 93.5 wins as I didn't think they'd improve for a second consecutive season. They had improved by 24 games in 2015. Still, I take some solace in that I saw the trend coming as

It's time to take a look at the 2017 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 16 years, I've come out ahead. My overall record is 43 for 75 (with one push) for 57.3 percent. My best bet each season is 15-12 (I had multiple biggest bets some years). I'm a little better on bets of $100 or more (I vary my bet size to emphasize how strongly I feel about the pick) where I'm 12-8. I'm most successful on a weighted or cash basis, where I've been correct 62.6 percent of the time ($2,850 in winning bets, $1,700 in losers - not factoring in the vig).

However, last year was my first truly awful year. I lost all three bets I made with a loss of $100. It was the first year I didn't pick a winner.

One of my bets was to take the under on the Cubs at 93.5 wins as I didn't think they'd improve for a second consecutive season. They had improved by 24 games in 2015. Still, I take some solace in that I saw the trend coming as I wrote last year:

"I still think the Cubs are going to be this decade what the Yankees were in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once they break the curse, I see the Cubs contending for multiple championships. And maybe even this year."

While many saw the Cubs improving, few people thought the Cubs would actually break the curse last season. In fact, the past year has been the craziest period of trying to predict sports, or life. A year or so ago if you had bet that Leicester City would win the EPL title (5,000-to-1 odds), Cleveland would win a championship (52-year drought), the Cubs would win a World Series title (107 years), Northwestern would make the men's NCAA tournament (never in 77 years) and Donald Trump would be president – you would probably be a multi-millionaire.

So I'm just going to chalk up my winless year as another black swan event.

For this exercise, I'm using SuperBook of Las Vegas, WestGate for these odds (via WagerTalk.com), which I grabbed on March 26.

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 on whom I decided to actually wager.

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 Theorem, who looks like they'll rebound in 2017? Here are the top teams that should have seen more or less wins based on their 2016 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:

Tampa Bay Rays    +9
Minnesota Twins    +7
Los Angeles Angels    +6
Boston Red Sox    +5
Colorado Rockies    +5
New York Yankees    -5
Philadelphia Phillies    -9
Texas Rangers    -13

I like to look for teams that have a differential of 10 or more games. Tampa Bay at a differential of nine games is close enough, and there are lots of reason to think the Rays will bounce back. The Rays had the second worst bullpen in baseball last season at least measured by fWAR at 0.1. Their bullpen gave up the second worst HR/FB at 14.4 percent (the Reds were worst amid an all-time historically bad bullpen), which can indicate a fluke since a high rate is typically unsustainable. While the Rays haven't really improved the talent in the bullpen, the odds are they'll bounce back. And this team has a lot of pitching talent (Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell) that will show up in the rotation and bullpen. Plus, it never made sense that a pitcher like Chris Archer could finish with a 9-19 record. Yes, I know pitcher wins are almost meaningless, but Archer had a 10.4 K/9 and fluky 16.2 HR/FB. His win-loss record just seemed representative of a team record total that didn't add up.

Of course, the sportsbooks know this too as they have the Rays improving by 7.5 wins to 78.5 wins. Still, I think this team has a good shot at a winning record. I'll bet $50 that the Rays win more than 78.5 games. (This would have been a better bet when the lines opened on Mar. 10 as the Rays were at 75.5 wins.)

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 2015 to 2016?

Boston Red Sox    +15
Cleveland Indians    +13
Washington Nationals    +12
Detroit Tigers    +12

Last year both the Cubs and Rangers improved by 21 or more games and both bucked the historical tendency of such teams to decline the following season. Before 2016 teams that improved by 19 or more games declined by 7.6 wins the following season. None of the teams in 2016 improved dramatically enough to make it the basis for a bet.

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 4).

Here are the teams that declined the most in 2016:

St. Louis Cardinals    -14
Kansas City Royals    -14
Pittsburgh Pirates    -20
Minnesota Twins -24

Minnesota was the play here. The Twins winning just 59 games last year was fluky. Not that the Twins were set to be a great team as they were likely to regress from a 83-win season, but the team had young talent and was seemingly on the rise. But a myriad of pitching injuries and fluky occurrences made them a terrible team. When the initial lines came out on Mar. 10, I was ready to pounce as sportsbooks had the Twins at 70.5 wins. Since then a number of projection systems (including Baseball Prospectus) have ticketed the Twins as a mid-70s win team. The over/under from the sportsbooks rose to 74.5 wins. That's too high. While the new sabrmetrically minded front office and young hitting talent (Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler) could mean a big improvement, the pitching staff is still terrible after few changes (bottom of the league in strikeouts again). Still, I might make this bet even though I'm a Twins fan and fearful of rose-colored glasses.

Pittsburgh, however, looks like a good case. The Pirates were coming off a run of 94, 88 and 98 wins before falling to 78 wins last season. Sure, Andrew McCutchen may finally be over the hill. And the division in which they play is incredibly competitive with the Cubs juggernaut and consistently competitive Cardinals. But the Pirates continue to have top young talent coming into the majors at both the plate (Gregory Polanco, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell) and on the mound (Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon). They have a top-five farm system by many rankings (such as former RotoWire writers Keith Law and John Sickles). It seems likely they'll find a way to be a winning team again, while the sportsbooks have them at basically .500. I'll make a $100 bet that the Pirates win more than 82 games.

The last thing I look at is what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline.

The Bottom Feeder Bet

This is totally from a nonscientific 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 6 of 9 bets since 2001 with this theory. Let's look at this year's candidates.

Minnesota Twins 74
Oakland Athletics    73.5
Philadelphia Phillies    73
Milwaukee Brewers    71
Cincinnati Reds    70.5
Chicago White Sox    70
San Diego Padres    66

Of these teams, only the Twins and Phillies would appear to have a trajectory that's headed upward in the near term. The A's are a hard team to figure out because Billy Beane seems to have lost his magic touch (more on that later). I think the Phillies are a year away from a big improvement, but I could see the case where they surprise everyone when prospects are called up in the second half. Still, I like to see teams for this kind of bet at 70 wins or lower, so I'll pass.

The Book's Biggest Movers

Minnesota Twins    +11.5
Arizona Diamondbacks    +9.5
Chicago Cubs    -7.5
Texas Rangers    -8.5

The Rangers had a fluky, odd season last year with lots of injuries and lots of luck in one-run games (36-11), but I'm not sure they'll fall apart. Texas has a strong front office and a large budget to trade for in-season help. And they've only finished below 85 wins once since 2008. Yes, they played 13 games worse than their Pythagorean projection, but the sportsbooks already have that priced in with an 8.5-game decline. A full season of Yu Darvish will help. Call it more of a hunch than rigorous statistical analysis, but I'll bet $25 they win more than 84.5 games.

The Book's Non Movers

Los Angeles Angels    +2.5
St. Louis Cardinals    +1.5
Philadelphia Phillies    +1.5
Los Angeles Dodgers    +0.5
San Francisco Giants    +0.5
Seattle Mariners    -0.5
Detroit Tigers    -0.5
New York Yankees    -0.5
Kansas City Royals    -0.5
Milwaukee Brewers    -0.5
Cleveland Indians    -1.5
Miami Marlins    -1.5
Boston Red Sox    -2.5
Toronto Blue Jays    -2.5
Oakland Athletics    -2.5

Basically, the sportsbooks have a lot of teams they think will stay the same. That may because the lines have moved toward last year's records later in the spring. We know this won't be correct as not that many teams will stay within three wins of expectations.

The only team that stands out to me are the Angels. Sure, Mike Trout alone may be enough to get any team above 70 wins, but I see a lot of downside risk. Garrett Richards is trying to pitch with a torn UCL in his elbow. Albert Pujols is 37 and coming off plantar fascia foot surgery (an injury which tanked his 2013 season). And the Angels have given key roles to such mediocre veterans as Ricky Nolasco (No. 1 starter!), Danny Espinosa, Yunel Escobar and Cameron Maybin. When injuries inevitably happen or some of the veterans under-perform, there's no help on the horizon with a farm system regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, in baseball. I'll bet $50 the Angels win less than $79 games.

Wild Card

I've done a wild card pick four of the last six years based on hunches or other statistical trends. I'm 2-2. Several years ago I spotted trend where sportsbooks consistently under-priced the Oakland A's. Billy Beane as the GM (and now Executive Vice President) is 11-5 against the spread since 2001 (at least from the dates when I write this story) and was hot at 9-3 from 2001 to 2012. My theory was that before others noticed his Moneyball ways, they'd under-price him. However, since the Josh Donaldson trade (which I didn't get then and still don't), he seems to have lost it. The A's haven't reached their expected win total the last two seasons and I'm not at all confident about this year's squad.

A similar trend is emerging for Buck Showalter. In his six seasons in Baltimore he's 5-1 against the projected win totals by the sportsbooks. And his worst season he missed by just 1.5 games in 2015. The Orioles this year are seen by the sportsbooks as declining by 4.5 games to 84.5 wins. It's hard to get too excited about Baltimore with a mediocre rotation and a powerful, but plodding, lineup. Still, it's not hard to envision Kevin Gausman becoming an ace and Zach Britton and the bullpen remain a force. The Orioles appear to be boring to most prognosticators and the sportsbooks. That sounds just like the time to invest in the Buck Truck. I'll bet $50 the Orioles win more than 80 games.

To recap, here are my bets for 2017.

Tampa Bay Rays$50 win more than 78.5 games Johnson Effect
Pittsburgh Pirates$100 win more than 82 gamesReverse Plexiglas
Los Angeles Angels$50 on less than 79 winsBook's Non Movers
Texas Rangers$25 on win more than 84.5 games Book's Biggest Movers
Baltimore Orioles$50 win more than 80 gamesWild Card

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 when 2016 Texas Rangers under of 83.5 wins was at -140 (the under was +110). 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 16 years (with one push). Here's the breakdown:

YearW/LTeamBetTheory
2016LostChicago Cubs$25 win less than 93.5 gamesPlexiglas Principle
2016LostMilwaukee Brewers$50 win less than 70 gamesBottom Feeder Bet
2016LostNew York Yankees$25 win over than 85 gamesWild Card
2015LostHouston Astros$25 win less than 75.5 gamesPlexiglas Principle
2015WonLos Angels Angels$25 win less than 88.5 gamesPlexiglas Principle
2015WonTexas Rangers$25 win over than 76.5 gamesReverse Plexiglas Principle
2015LostBoston Red Sox$25 win over than 86.5 gamesReverse Plexiglas Principle
2015LostBaltimore Orioles$75 win over than 82.5 gamesBook's Biggest Movers
2015WonCincinnati Reds$25 win less than 77.5 gamesBook's Non Movers
2015WonTampa Bay Rays$50 win more than 78.5 gamesBook's Non Movers
2015WonOakland A's$100 win more than 81.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
2014LostCleveland Indians$25 win less than 82 gamesPlexiglas Principle
2014WonHouston Astros$25 more than 62.5 gamesBottom Feeder
2014WonPhiladelphia Phillies$50 under on 74.5 gamesBook Non Mover
2014WonOakland A's$25 over on 86.5 gamesBilly Beane Theory
2014LostTampa Bay Rays$100 over on 89 gamesBilly Beane Theory
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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
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