As a general rule I hate preseason sports. The NHL's warmup season is sad. The NBA's is pointless. The NFL is frustratingly pathetic. I wouldn't watch any by choice, and I certainly wouldn't bet on them. Baseball is different, though. The games don't matter any more than the other sports, and the rosters are as much of a mix of stars playing for as little as possible and other guys who are playing too much as any sport, but spring training has a magic that the other sports can't even come close to replicating. A big part of it, of course, is geography. The other sports play mostly in their own half-empty arenas, while baseball builds beautiful, tiny stadiums and takes over two warm-weather meccas for a month. Spring training matters - not in the standings, but to the very fabric of the sport. It's not just guys putting in time before the real games start - it's a signal that winter is ending and everything is right with the world again.
Because spring training is so superior to the rest, the urge to bet on it can be much higher than the rest, too. Betting on spring training isn't necessarily a bad idea. If you want to succeed, though - especially in the early days of the spring - you need to be careful and intentional. Here are four big questions to keep in mind as you dust off the rust and plunge into the first two weeks of spring training betting:
Who's playing - and for how long?: In the regular season this usually isn't a question. The best, healthiest bats or fielders will start most days and will play most of the game in most cases. The starting pitcher will usually pitch until he is no longer effective - or at least for five or six innings in most cases. You can't be nearly as certain of anything in the spring. Starting pitchers may just go for a couple of innings - regardless of how well they are doing. You could see multiple starting pitchers get a couple of innings in a single game. The bullpen could be used out of order. Anything can go. Sometimes pitching plans will be made public before the game, but just as often they will be a surprise until the changes are made. It makes it much tougher to handicap the games. The same goes for the bats, too. Established starters often don't want to play every day early on in the spring, and if they do it is quite common for them to play only part of a game. As a result, the lineup that a team starts with will bear little resemblance to what you see in the later innings. Baseball can be hard enough to handicap when you can accurately predicting who will be pitching and who they will be pitching to. Spring training adds whole layers of complication.
Is the squad split?: Nothing can ruin your day more than a split squad that you don't notice in time. It's quite common in the early portion of spring training for teams to play two games at the same time, sending half a roster to each. That obviously means that the lineup won't be as starter-heavy as it might otherwise be. It also means that at least one of the games will be managed by someone other than the usual manager. If you know it is a split squad and the team lets you know which players will be on which squad then you can compensate. If you don't notice, or you don't know the strategy, though, then it can really make things tough.
Do the managers care?: There are managers who care about winning regardless of what is involved. They don't care that the games don't matter - they want their players to learn how to win and to never give anything than their best. Other managers, though, could care less about the scoreboard in the spring. They are focused only on getting their team as ready as possible for the regular season, and the games are just a vehicle for that goal. If you look at the spring standings every year, then, you'll see that some teams that go on to huge regular seasons linger near the bottom of the spring standings, and vice versa. It pays, then, to focus more on the motivation of the managers than the talent on the field - at least early on.
Is the value significant enough?: So, let's review. The lineups are tough to predict. Players are rusty and playing with ever-changing lineups that they might not have chemistry with. Managers may or may not be focused on winning, and the whole team may or may not be at a game. Add it all up and there are a lot of ways that spring training betting can go poorly for you. In any betting situation it is imperative that you have value - a fair amount of it - before you make a bet. That's how you secure long-term profits. No value means no profits. In the spring, though, the amount of uncertainty ramps up, so the amount of value you perceive that you have in any given situation needs to increase significantly as well before you can justify making a bet. Think of the added value as a contingency - if things unexpectedly happen that erode some value you still want to have enough value left to make it a good bet. In other words, it is particularly important in the spring that you are patient and work to pick your spots carefully. Disciplined bettors always have the best chance at success, but that is especially true when baseball is exclusively played in Florida and Arizona.
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