Making Money Off MLB Streaks
by Trevor Whenham - 05/14/2008
Baseball is a game of long winning streaks. It only makes sense because teams play so many games each year. As I write this Tampa Bay has the longest active winning streak, and Florida just ended one that was quite a bit longer. (I had to read that sentence over several times because it seemed so bizarre, but I assure you that it's true) As a bettor it can be very difficult to figure out how to handle streaks. Optimists would believe that a streak is bound to continue and would look to continue to cash in on it until it ends. Pessimists would say that a streak artificially inflates the lines of a team as it gets longer, and it is going to end eventually, so the smart bet is against the streaking team. The problem is that both can be true in some cases. Understanding streaks and how to play them is an important tool in the bettor's arsenal.
The first thing you have to keep in mind with streaks is that all streaks are not created equally. Many things can make a streak look better than it really is:
Schedule - A six-game winning streak is far more impressive if it comes against the Red Sox and the Angels than against the Nationals and the Reds. It's pretty easy to get caught up in a big number - five or six in a row - when it really only means that an above average team ran into a pretty lousy one. Check the schedule, and the current forms of the losing teams, before you form an opinion about the value of a streak.
Location - Seven teams have losing records at home. Twenty-two, including three division leaders, are losers on the road. Obviously it is much easier to win at home. A streak that is made up entirely or mostly of road wins, then, is a sign of a better team than one that is all at home.
Length - At what point does a streak become noteworthy? In recent years we have seen that a team that has won three in a row is far from profitable in the fourth game regardless of who or where they are playing. On the other hand, over the last three full seasons teams that go into games with streaks of seven or 10 games have won their next game far more often than they haven't.
Rotation - It's more impressive if a team wins three in a row with their third, fourth and fifth starters than if it does it with the top three. It's also more likely that a team will win their fourth game in a row if the ace takes the mound for it than if some guy from Triple A has been called up to fill in. The rotation of the opponents matters, too - Boston is a much easier team to beat if Dice-K and Beckett stay on the bench.
The next thing you need to consider with streaks is the combination of the location and the MLB odds:
Home favorites - Not surprisingly, home favorites have been reasonably kind to bettors when they are in the midst of a streak. Over two seasons starting in 2005 bettors would have realized a profit of more than 15 units if they had bet on every one of the 550 games that involved a home favorite that had won at least three in a row. As you might suspect for the reasons above, the picture gets even brighter if you eliminate the three-games streaks. There were 239 games involving teams with three-game streaks, and bettors would have been down more than 10 units on those. That means that the remaining 311 games involving teams on longer streaks netted more than 25 units. That's not an earth-shattering rate of return considering the time frame, but at least it's a profit. By far the best performer for bettors was team on a four-game streak. That makes sense, too - that's still short enough that the public probably hasn't caught up and robbed the line of value entirely.
Road favorites - You might think that a road favorite in this situation would be attractive because they are playing well enough to overcome the disadvantage of not being at home. You'd be wrong. Road favorites have been far from profitable - a loss of 25 units over the two years. Moving from a threshold of three wins to four does almost nothing to improve profitability in this case, either.
Home or road underdogs - Despite returning more than is bet on them, underdogs on a streak have not at all been profitable, and it doesn't matter where the game is played. This makes sense for one big reason - a team that has won a bunch of games should be favored to keep winning given their momentum and the public love of winners. If a team on a streak isn't favored then there really must be a reason for it, so it's not a wonder that they haven't done well.