MLB Spring Training Betting Advice
by Trevor Whenham - 03/05/2009
After a long winter for baseball fans, games are finally back again. Spring training is seductive for true baseball fans - it looks and feel like the real thing for people who are hungry for any action they can get. For bettors who aren't cautious and thoughtful, though, spring training can be a disaster. If you treat spring training the same as you do the regular season then you almost certainly won't be successful. Here's a look at four ways that spring training games differ from real action:
1. Don't know who will play - The information available for these games isn't nearly as good as it is during the regular season. Managers don't have to make their lineups public as early, and when they do it is harder to find them. The media presence isn't as strong, either, so it's harder to hear about problems the team is having or priorities the manager has. On top of that, teams carry a much bigger roster, so it's harder to predict who will start. Effective baseball handicapping is all about spotting mismatches and exploiting them, but that's almost impossible if you don't know who will be on the diamond on either side.
2. Can't predict playing time - Even if you knew who was starting it wouldn't do you much good. Players rarely play more than half a game in spring, especially early on. That makes it especially hard to determine matchup advantages - the matchups change several times throughout a game. Pitchers also pitch for a shorter time than they will in the regular season, so a team doesn't always get the advantage of a hot pitcher like they normally would.
3. No way of predicting effort - Spring training means absolutely nothing. As proof, only two teams had a worse spring training win percentage last year than the Phillies. Oakland had the fewest losses in the Cactus League, yet they didn't manage to finish .500 on the season. A team's approach to spring training will be determined by many factors - the manager, the experience of the roster, the health of the players, and so on. Unless you are in the clubhouse you can't know how a team feels, and how much effort they will show in their games. You also can't tell how the veteran players will be approaching the spring, and if and when they will give full effort.
4. Split squads create chaos - Split squads are a part of spring, but they are a nightmare for bettors. Different teams will split their squads in different ways, and teams might have goals and priorities for the squads that we aren't privy to. It's hard enough handicapping a team in spring when the whole team is there, never mind when this extra twist is added to things.
So, spring training betting probably isn't the most value-filled opportunity. I understand that that won't matter for some people. If you love betting baseball and you have missed it since October then there will be no stopping you. If you are determined to go ahead and bet the games in March then the least you can do is try to keep these thoughts in mind:
1. Accept that betting isn't a great idea, and bet accordingly - If you know that your edge isn't as big as it will be in July then why in the world would you bet as much as you do then? Adjust your expectations, your bankroll, and your unit size appropriately. Baseball players use March as a way to gradually get ready for the season, so why wouldn't you do the same?
2. If you have to bet, default to underdogs - In the regular season you might be able to justify a betting approach that features most or all favorites. The same doesn't make sense in the spring. There are so many factors beyond your grasp or control in spring training that your winning percentage is going to suffer. Underdog payoffs ensure that you don't have to win half of your games to make a profit. Also, it's a fairly safe assumption that because the betting volume is low and action will lean towards the favorites, the prices on the underdogs could be juicier than normal.
3. Go against big favorites - The theory is the same as the last point. You can sometimes justify betting on a serious favorite in the regular season if you spot a serious mismatch in pitching, offense, and/or defense. Those mismatches are less pronounced and far less predictable in March. Good teams aren't as good in March as they will be later, and bad teams aren't as bad. Avoid the temptation and stick to fatter prices.