How Much Chalk is Too Much in MLB Betting?
by Trevor Whenham - 03/26/2007
Betting on baseball takes a different mindset than football or basketball. In the latter two sports you typically bet the point spread, so you have to deal with spreads that can get ridiculously large for favorites, but your payout is about the same every time you win. Winning when you bet on a good team like the Chargers pays as much as winning when betting on a terrible squad like Oakland. That's not the case with baseball. A heavy favorite could pay you $30 or less on a $100 bet when you win, while the heavy underdog could give you a return of $300 or more for that same bet. Baseball is all about the moneyline. That leads to the most important question you have to ask yourself when betting baseball - how much chalk is too much?
If you're looking for a simple, clear-cut answer then you've come to the wrong place. It's simply not possible, or even logical, to set an odds level above which you will never bet on a favorite. You can have an arbitrary level - I generally shy away from betting a favorite at worse than -165. That doesn't mean that I won't bet a favorite that will pay me less than that. It just means that I have to have a very good reason to do it. As with all sports betting, success in baseball is all about finding value, and value can theoretically come at any price. You just have to understand what a price means, what the risks are, and whether the price justifies those risks.
Horseplayers have a good sense of when a price presents value. If the same race were run four times, for example, then a horse at 3/1 had better be capable of winning at least once or it would be a bad choice. On the other hand, a horse that goes off at 1/5 is not necessarily a bad bet if it is so much better than the rest of the field that a win is virtually assured. That kind of thinking is fairly intuitive to most horseplayers, but it is less common among those betting baseball, even though the logic is essentially the same.
If you are laying -120, then you are accepting win odds of 5/6. That means that if the team you are betting on wins six of every 11 games played at that price then you will break even. Less than six and you are going broke, more than six you have money in the bank. At -300, the odds are 1/3, so if a team loses more than one time in every four in that situation then it is a bad bet. Converting the lay price of a favorite into odds is simple - just divide 100 by the price. Once you do that you can understand the risk that you are taking, and you can determine if it is a good deal.
The other way to look at acceptable odds is the winning percentage you need to make a profit. Anyone who bets football regularly is very familiar with the reality that you need to win 53 percent of your bets to make a profit at -110. If you think the team you are betting on would win the game more than 53 percent of the time then you have made a good bet. The same approach can be applied to baseball betting. At -160, you need to win more than 62 percent of games to make money. At -240 it is 71 percent. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't bet them because it is too hard to make money. It just means that you shouldn't bet those odds unless you are confident that you can win enough to make a profit.
The most important thing is that you are flexible with the amount of chalk that you will accept. You can't just blindly accept the same price on a team every time. Take the Yankees, for example. For more than a decade they have been the elite team in the majors. That means that they are a public choice. Because that causes the prices to be higher than they should be, you would have lost a small fortune by betting on them consistently over the last eight years. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't bet on them at all, though. It's extremely important with every team, but especially with a public darling like the Yankees, to evaluate the odds closely in each individual situation. Last year, the Yankees were just 10-9 against division rivals Toronto. That means that an average lay price of more than -110 on those games would have led to an overall loss on the year. It would have taken exceptional circumstance, then, to lay significantly higher odds against the Jays. On the other hand, the Yankees beat the Royals seven times in nine tries, so you could have happily accepted a much higher price in their match-ups.
One situation to avoid in almost every case is a game so chalky that it almost seems to be a lock. Roy Halladay, for example, is a very solid pitcher who has consistently been profitable. When he matches up well against an opponent then he is virtually unbeatable. He faced four such situations last season - games in which he went off at odds of -280 or more. Though it would be tempting to take him, or any other stud pitcher, in a similar situation, it would not have been worth your time. He was 3-1 in those games, which is a very acceptable winning percentage, and he pitched extremely well in the one loss. If you had bet each game to make a $100 profit, though, then you would have lost $18 on the four games. Any situation in which you can be correct 75 percent of the time and lose money is not a situation worth betting. That's too much chalk.