MLB Betting Advice: Handicapping the Umpires Can Lead to Betting Profits
Baseball is attractive to a lot of bettors and mystifying and intimidating to others. What makes it simultaneously so intriguing and so rewarding is that there are so many things going on and so many ways to handicap the same game. You can give starting pitchers all the credit or basically ignore them. You can prioritize hitters. Or ballparks. Or bullpens. Or countless other things. One aspect that doesn't get as much attention - especially from casual bettors - but which can have a big impact on the outcome of games, and makes it worth betting as a result, is the umpire.
The guys who call balls and strikes can have a big impact on how effective pitchers can be and how good the day is going to be for hitters. They can define the game and direct the outcome. And the problem is that not every umpire is the same. They aren't robots. A strike for one is a ball for another. And the more you know about the umpire in a game, the more of an edge you have. But using umpires in your handicapping is intimidating and can be challenging - especially when you get started. We could spend a month talking about using umpires in handicapping and not cover everything. But here, at least, is a starting point - a way to dip your toe into this important area.
Start with the totals: The easiest place to dip into using umpires in your handicapping is with totals. For a combination of factors, there are guys who have a strong tendency to have their games go over - guys who favor hitters over pitchers with their approach. And there are guys who are the opposite. Of course, the majority of guys are somewhere in between and aren't particularly useful, but on the fringes there can be opportunities. In 2017, for example, Manny Gonzalez went over in 19 of 26 games, while Lance Barksdale went under in 21 of 28 games. And both guys had similarly lopsided performances the year before, so it didn't take a lot of rocket science to figure out where to throw your money when they were behind the plate.
Some umpires can't ignore the crowd: Umpire stats are broken down in some places by home team and road team wins. For most guys you will see a split that makes sense - an edge for home teams because they are at home, but nothing too profound. But sometimes there are guys who are particularly generous to home teams because of the environment. Or others who are tougher on home teams because they overcompensate so that they don't get labeled as biased. Again, finding the guys on the fringes can be a good road to profit.
Match the pitcher to the umpire: Umpires are different from each other, obviously. And so are pitchers, obviously. Guys who need to strike guys out to succeed are going to be better suited to umpires who have generous strike zones and are more likely to struggle against guys who don't give out strikes in bulk. On the other hand, pitchers who put the ball in play and rely on their defense to get out of jams are far less dependent on strike zones, so they are less reliant on umpire assignments.
Use umpire stats last: The real power of umpire stats for handicapping can often be unlocked when you don't go to them first. Go about handicapping the game in whatever way you typically would and get a sense of which way you would bet the game - either on the total or on a team. Once you have done that look at the umpire assignment for the day and what impact that could have. Will it make it likely for one starting pitcher to shine over the other? Will it perhaps make it more or less offensive? Instead of letting the umpires guide your play from the start, let them strengthen your play and make it very playable or use them to weaken a play and cause you to move on and look for a better opportunity.
Don't overreach: As with anything else, putting too much faith into umpire stats is not going to lead you to good places over the long run. Umpire stats are a piece of the puzzle, but they aren't the only thing that affects how games are going to end. Baseball is complicated. Sports are complicated. Bad handicappers use an overly simplified approach to picking games and assume that one factor will lead them to profits. Good handicappers constantly work to refine their approach and add and subtract factors in the ongoing pursuit of improved performance.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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