MLB Handicapping: Common Mistakes by Newcomers
by Trevor Whenham - 05/21/2009
We're entering a dangerous time of year for casual sports bettors. Basketball is slowing down in frequency if not intensity. So is hockey. College sports are a distant memory. The NFL is months away. For the next several months baseball is the biggest, and basically only, game in town for sports bettors. That's good news if you are prepared for it. If you aren't, though, then it can be very expensive. People who aren't used to betting on baseball can fall into some simple traps - money pits, really. Here are five of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced baseball bettors tend to make:
Falling for a team regardless of odds - Because there is no spread in baseball good teams can be very seductive. All they have to do is win to pay off their backers. It's not like football or basketball where a good team has to win by a bunch of points. The problem, though, is that even the best teams don't win enough over the long term to make prices of -280 or -300 worthwhile. Effectively handicapping baseball, then, isn't about picking the team that is most likely to win a particular game. It's about picking the team that has a better chance of winning the game than their odds would indicate. In other words, it is all about spotting value. That isn't a difficult concept, but it can be tough to get used to for people that don't usually play money lines.
Paying too little attention to starting pitchers - People who don't bet on baseball a lot spend more time looking at the name on the front of the jersey than the one on the back of the jersey or the guy on the mound. A team can be very different depending upon who is on the mound. The Blue Jays are all but unbeatable when Roy Halladay has the ball, and far less scary when almost anyone else in the rotation gets the call. The Yankees have struggled with the bottom half of their rotation over the last couple of years, so the pitching order has been very important to note. On the flip side, even very bad teams can have pitchers that are worth a look. Tim Redding was one of the most profitable pitchers in the league last year even though his Washington Nationals were truly lousy. A team almost has to be viewed as a different entity each time a different pitcher takes the mound. Disregarding the starting pitching matchup can cause you to dramatically overestimate or underestimate a team's chances.
Paying too much attention to starting pitchers - This one will at first seem contradictory in the face of the last point, but it's not. It can be just as easy to get too obsessed with the pitcher on the mound. A team might have their ace on the mound, but that might not be enough to overcome other problems - hitting problems, injuries, a losing streak, and so on. A pitcher can make a big difference for a team, but he can only do so much. Overestimating the impact a pitcher can have is a great way to go broke.
Overcompensating for injuries or absences - This isn't unique to baseball by any means. The betting public has particular affection for high-profile players - the ones that the mainstream media drools over every chance they get. The media glows about those players when they are playing well, and panics when they are injured or in a slump. Because of the ridiculous coverage it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a team is doomed without their star. That often isn't the case. The Texas Rangers are in first place despite the injury of media darling Josh Hamilton. The Yankees can't lose right now despite having been without their best pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, all season. The Blue Jays are a surprise first-place team despite a starting rotation that was ravaged by injuries. The Dodgers have won six of their last seven despite not having Manny Ramirez. Injuries are important to note, but they aren't always a disaster.
Ignoring streaks - Baseball is a game of streaks. There is no denying that. During the course of the long, long season every team will string together wins in a series, and they will lose again and again no matter what they do. Better teams tend to have more and longer winning streaks and fewer and shorter losing streaks than bad teams, but all teams will have streaks. It makes sense, too - so much of baseball is mental and has to do with confidence, so success breeds more success, and vice versa. Bettors that aren't particularly familiar with baseball won't recognize the role streaks play in the game, and they will consistently get beat by trying to beat a streak.