Betting the MLB Playoffs a Different Animal
by Robert Ferringo - 10/03/2006
(Note: this article appears in the recent issue of High Roller Life Magazine)
Slowly but surely, the days are growing shorter and the sweet sweat of summer is calmly giving way to the cool breezes of autumn evenings. We are entering the Fall, a mystical and pagan time of year, replete with fantastic rituals and annual rites such as the harvest moon, Devil's Night and baseball's ultimate championship: the World Series.
Fall is the season of reflection and of the harvest. It's the time when the planning of Spring and hard labor of Summer yield a bounty of success for gamblers that have shown foresight, patience and perseverance. The MLB postseason provides a final opportunity for long-term bettors to reap the benefits of their work before the bats and balls are sent into hibernation for the winter.
"For bettors who wager during the regular season, there is a slight advantage (betting the playoffs)," said Calvin Ayre, Founder and CEO of Bodog. "The long 162-game season makes it much easier to bet on the heavy favorites and still mitigate some of the losses. During the playoffs, competition is fierce, a series can go either way and a bettor doesn't have a whole season to recover. In other words, it is unpredictable."
Postseason baseball is a completely different animal, my friend. And betting a Divisional Series in October can be a soulless beast compared to tossing some action on a tame three-game set at Wrigley in June. Think of the regular season as your girlfriend relaxing on the couch on a weeknight and the playoffs as that same girl hopped up on martinis and methamphetamines on the weekend.
Keeping yourself on the right side of Even throughout the frenzy of the fall involves identifying the nuances and deviations that regular and postseason baseball present. That, and knowing the truth behind some long-held theories, will help you stay away from making square plays.
The simplest variance between the regular season and the playoffs is the length of each series. The Divisional Series is best-of-five and the league championship and World Series are both best-of-seven. If you didn't already know that you may want to stick to betting on who will be the next one voted off American Idol.
These match-ups last more than twice as long as their regular season counterparts, which means that managerial strategies, pitching rotations and hitting approaches are all unique. The Boys of the Summer become the Men of the Fall, and their behavioral patterns change when the season is on the line. That's why there are some players, managers and organizations that appear to be more clutch than others. And that's why, for a gambler, the ability to predict who is most capable of adjustments and who is best equipped to handle the pressure is critical to making winning moves.
Another trait of postseason baseball is how quickly teams bounce back after a defeat. A short memory is a prerequisite for a Major Leaguer, and now it's even more important since most clubs recover from a loss even faster than Jennifer Anniston. That's why Friday's 13-2 embarrassment can routinely be answered by Saturday's 2-0 victory.
Football and basketball are both games in which momentum is crucial. But baseball is less about momentum and more about cold efficiency. That's why it's easy for Major Leaguers to bounce-back after a heart-wrenching defeat or blowout loss. The fact that emotion is less important than execution on the diamond has another dramatic effect - it helps blunt the effects of home-field advantage. The home crowd can be rendered powerless rather quickly by a hot starting pitcher, a rally-killing double play or The Wave. That's not nearly as true in other sports (except the part about The Wave).
To illustrate, the road team won 81 of the 171 postseason games played between 2001 and 2005. That's a 47.4 percent clip and indicative of a minimal home-field edge. But playing in one's own stadium does take on more significance the deeper you get into the playoffs. In the Divisional Series the home team won just 49 percent of the time and in the LCS they won 51 percent. Comparatively, in the World Series the home team was victorious an astounding 68 percent of the time.
Clearly home-field advantage isn't a myth, but its effects do seem mitigated in the early rounds. That seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but recent data supports it. Another long-held theory that has proven itself somewhat suspect is what I like to call the One-Run Rule.
This concept states that because playoff teams are so evenly matched and games so hotly contested that you will find more one-run games in the postseason. During the regular season roughly 25 percent of all games are decided by that margin. But since 2001 just 27.5 percent (47 of 171) of postseason contests have been determined by a single run, meaning that there is little, if any, variation.
That being said, I will now slightly contradict myself again. I can't help it, I'm Catholic. Incidence of one-run games actually increase the further you get into the postseason. In the last five years, a paltry 19 percent of Wild Card games were decided by a single run. However, that number more than doubled to 43 percent for the World Series.
The frequency - or lack thereof - of one-run differentials is important because it brings runline bets into a gambler's arsenal. Runlines are equivalent to a point spread and are set at -1.5 with varying values. If we find that World Series games are regularly decided by just one run, playing the runline could be another way to collect. Conversely, the lack of close contests in the Divisional Series offers a greater value play for bettors looking to back a favorite.
While we're discussing tight games, it should be stated that there is credence to the thought that runs in the playoffs are a bit like Wal-Mart executives at a Greenpeace rally - hard to come by. While the scarcity of offense doesn't always lend itself to one-run outcomes it does contribute to lower scores and smaller totals.
In the regular season it's common to find posted run totals around 9 or 9.5. During the last five years only 71 of 171 playoff games (42 percent) would have gone over those totals. Forty-three percent in the Divisional Round and 47 percent in the LCS saw ten or more runs, while a miniscule 21 percent of contests in the Fall Classic would have covered those lines. These statistics signify tremendous value for the Under.
There are several reasons why playoff games are so offensively challenged. The most obvious is that the quality of pitching is at its pinnacle. Just as defense wins championships in football, pitching earns the prize in baseball.
When it comes to pitchers, it's easier to seduce success with hard-throwing hurlers like Roger Clemens than with cerebral con men like Greg Maddux. After all, the playoffs are designed as a Darwinian struggle to weed out weakness. As a result, history shows that Nature and the Baseball Gods have selected mammoth and mighty flamethrowers as their weapon of choice during the postseason.
Clemens (33 starts, 3.71 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) and Maddux (29 starts, 3.22 ERA and 1.22 WHIP) are both postseason veterans and future Hall of Famers. But the major discrepancy is that Clemens is 12-8 in October with two rings while Maddux is just 11-14 with one. Power pitchers hold up better during the grueling march of three consecutive elimination series mainly because their strength allows them to recover more quickly.
The quality of the pitching match-ups also separates betting the MLB regular season from the playoffs. You can routinely find front-line starters at a premier price in October, which is noteworthy because betting big-time hurlers at underdog numbers makes it easier to secure a profit. Since you see nothing but aces in the playoffs, you can find someone like Chris Carpenter at +160 or Pedro Martinez at +140.
There are a plethora of differences between regular season and playoff baseball betting. Not only that, but there is tremendous variance within the postseason itself. The Divisional Series is the time to put action on higher-scoring games, less home-field advantage and more upsets. But by the time we get to the Fall Classic the tried-and-true theorem of lower-scoring, hard-fought games with home victors are more standard.
"Bettors are prone to put money on the favorites throughout the entirety of the season, even though the payout from game-to-game may be small," Ayre said. "During the playoffs, you have less teams and all of those teams are very good. So deciding where to lay your money isn't likely to be an easy decision."
It's never an easy decision and there is no catch-all strategy for wagering in the postseason. It's still baseball and anything can happen. Just ask Steve Bartman or Byung-Hyun Kim. But by focusing on key trends and staying ahead of the sharp action, playoff betting can be a profitable venture.
Carpe diem, my friend. And good luck.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his Insider Page here.