MLB Handicapping: Lack of Pennant Races
by Trevor Whenham - 9/8/2011
When it comes to baseball, September is supposed to be the month of thrilling pennant races. On that front this year is pretty much a total failure. Sure, the Angels are working their hardest to make a race of it with the Rangers. Beyond that, though, there is precisely nothing to push us to the edge of our seats.
The Yankees and the Red Sox will fight it out for the division title, but the loser there has the Wild Card all but locked up, so it really doesn’t matter much. On the shoulders of Justin Verlander the Tigers have locked up the Central, too. The National League is even less interesting. The Diamondbacks have the smallest lead of any future playoff team, and at seven games they would have to collapse spectacularly to miss the playoffs. Atlanta has no chance to win their division, but they have a 6.5-game cushion in the Wild Card race. All in all, the most exciting moth for baseball would struggle to be less interesting.
From a fan’s perspective the lack of intrigue is unfortunate. For bettors there is more to it than that. The dull finish to the season will have some significant impacts on the way to successfully bet the last few weeks of the regular season and the start of the playoffs. Here are five of those impacts:
Lack of public interest - It’s hard for baseball to hold its own in September at the best of times given the start of college football and the NFL. Tight pennant races — especially ones involving public teams and high-profile pitchers — are the only thing that makes casual fans care until the playoffs start. If casual fans aren’t intrigued by what’s going on then casual bettors won’t be throwing their money on the games.
That means a couple of things. First, betting volumes are going to be lower than they might otherwise be on games between playoff-caliber teams. That makes the lines less volatile. More significantly, the lack of public interest and therefore public money means that the large majority of the money being bet is reasonably intelligent money. That means that line movement is typically easier to trust, but lines are typically harder to beat than they would be if the public was splashing around wildly.
Questions about motivation - Most years it isn’t that hard to figure out the motivation of a lot of teams in September. Those that have a playoff spot want to make sure that they keep it. Those that still have a shot at one want to do everything they can to wrap one up.
With things largely decided this year, though, there are a lot fewer teams we can be certain of when it comes to what drives them. Teams that are in the playoffs could be more focused on staying healthy — or getting healthy — and being ready for the playoffs than they are about playing as well as they can down the stretch. Teams that are out of the playoff picture have already been that way for a while now, so it would be very easy for players and staff to check out and start dreaming of the offseason.
The harder it is to be sure of how motivated a team will be, the harder it is to handicap them successfully.
Last weekend means little - Most years there are a few playoff spots that come down to the last weekend — or at least the last week. That leads to some real excitement, some massive betting volumes, and some potentially great bets.
This year there is only one race that will potentially be alive by that point unless something dramatic happens. That means that instead of being a time to have circled on the calendar and to be excited about that last weekend is just another dull bunch of games before the playoffs start.
Early playoff games will be harder to handicap - One of the solid ways to handicap the first round of the playoffs — or at least the first game or two — is to judge how the teams were playing leading up to the playoffs. If they were in active races reasonably close to the end of the season then we have seen them play at full intensity, and we can have a decent sense of what they are capable of when they are playing as hard as they possibly can.
Several playoff teams this year have essentially had their spot secure since July,, so we have to work harder — and basically guess — to figure out what they are capable of, and how many more gears they have in reserve.
Teams can get players healthy and rotations in order - Most of the playoff teams — all except the AL West winner at this point — will have absolutely no excuse for not being healthy and not having their rotation set up exactly as they want to.
Most other things we have talked about so far have been negatives, but this is unquestionably a positive. The more a team is able to put forward their best possible pitching combination, the more likely it is that the best team will win over the course of a series. There is nothing more frustrating than watching a talented team lose a series because of misfortunes of timing or health.
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