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Where I Placed My Bets for 2011: Banking On A Kansas City Decline

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of 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 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 for these odds, which I grabbed on March 28. The 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).

TeamOver/Under Win TotalMy 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:

Houston Astros+8
Pittsburgh Pirates+4
Oakland Athletics-4
Arizona Diamondbacks-4
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. Chris Johnson 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
Cincinnati Reds+13
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 trade). 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:

Seattle Mariners-24
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.

Pittsburgh Pirates66.5
Kansas City Royals68
Seattle Mariners70
Cleveland Indians71.5
Washington Nationals72
Houston Astros72

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 Strasburgh returns from Tommy John surgery and when top overall pick Bryce Harper arrives. 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. Pedro Alvarez, 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.

Baltimore Orioles+10.5
Milwaukee Brewers+9.5
Pittsburgh Pirates+10
Seattle Mariners+9
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

Florida Marlins+2.5
Cleveland Indians+2.5
Kansas City Royals+1
Philadelphia Phillies0.0
Chicago Cubs-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. Mike Moustakas 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. Dan Haren 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 gamesBook Non Mover
Houston Astros$50 under on 72 gamesJohnson Effect
Milwaukee Brewers$25 over on 86.5 gamesBook Mover
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim$50 under on 82.5 gamesWild 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:

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

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 2011 Houston under of 72 wins at -120 according to (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.