Betting Baseball Totals
By Ted Sevransky
Baseball is a completely different type of sport to handicap from the two most popular betting sports, football and basketball. On the gridiron and the hardwood, teams are separated by pointspreads, and wagers are placed either laying the points with the favorite or taking the points with the underdog. But betting baseball, there is no pointspread to differentiate between the underdog and favorite. Instead, baseball side wagers use a moneyline as a basis for determining the relative value of the two teams pitted against each other. Wagering on a favorite in baseball oftentimes requires the bettor to lay a substantial price for his support. It’s not uncommon for a favorite in baseball to be priced at -200, -250, or even -300 and above – the bettor must be right better than 75% of the time with his big three dollar favorites in order to earn a profit, far greater than the 52.4% of the time that is the break even point for standard 11:10 pointspread wagering. And baseball underdogs win much less than half of the time – picking dogs that are competitive, but not winning outright, can leave a bettor with a bankroll spiraling in the wrong direction.
In addition, baseball is the only betting sport in which the line is completely and utterly affected by a single player scheduled to be in the starting lineup. In basketball, the Minnesota Timberwolves may be adjusted from a 7 point favorite down to a 2 point favorite if league MVP Kevin Garnett is going to miss the game due to an injury. A similar four or five pointspread adjustment is normal for a key football injury as well, such as if Donovan McNabb were to miss a game for the Philadelphia Eagles. But baseball prices are, in most instances, very heavily weighted towards the starting pitcher. The Yankees might be -200 against the Red Sox if Kevin Brown was facing Bronson Arroyo, but the same two teams on the same field with a pitching matchup of Pedro Martinez vs. Jose Contreras would see Boston as the favorite, even if every other player was unchanged. These type of dramatic price adjustments based on the projected starters alone are unique to bases, making it a significant challenge for any handicapper.
Betting totals in baseball is also a completely different exercise than betting totals in basketball and football. Basketball totals are set almost entirely in regard to the pace that the two teams are projected to play at. If the Kings are playing the Mavericks, two teams that love to run and gun, both averaging well over 80 shots per game, the total will be set as high as 220. When the Pistons play the Pacers, two teams that rely almost exclusively on half court offense, both clubs with consistently outstanding defensive efforts, the total will be as low as 165. Yet, when all is said and done, the game will go Over or Under the total based on two factors not related to pace – shooting percentage and free throw attempts. If two low scoring teams have good shooting days, the total is likely to go Over. When the Kings and Mavs met in the first round of the 2004 NBA playoffs, neither team could shoot worth a lick in three of the first four games, each club hitting at 35% from the floor or lower during that span. No surprise then that those games went well Under the total, despite a high number of shots taken. And the way a game is officiated has a huge impact on basketball totals. On nights where the refs are willing to let the two teams play physical basketball without blowing their whistles, shooting percentages will be down because defenders can maintain better position, and points scored without any time coming off the clock (at the free throw line) will be minimized – every point will have to be earned. On the other hand, on the nights where every touch foul gets whistled by the zebras, teams can easily score 30-40 points each at the free throw line, with no time coming off the clock. And defenders are likely to back off a bit for fear of fouls giving their opponents easier looks at the basket, also likely to result in more points being scored.
Football totals are tricky in their own way, for a different group of reasons. Football totals are set based on the offensive and defensive capabilities of the two teams- no surprise there. But betting football totals is a very tricky animal, because yards don’t always equal points. It’s not uncommon for a team to go on two long drives to start out the game, gaining 150+ yards, but ending up with only a field goal attempt or two. Similarly, a team can struggle to move the football for most of the game, then make a big play or two on offense, defense or special teams, and boom – 14 points have been scored in a matter of seconds. Red zone execution (touchdowns or field goals), turnovers (which end zone are they near?), big plays or the lack thereof all affect football totals going Under or Over as much or more than the offensive and defensive capabilities of the two teams.
I’m not a big proponent of basketball and football totals, because of the variables listed above. I certainly don’t exclude them from my handicapping arsenal – there are some situations that stand out, simply too good opportunities to miss or ignore, but baseball or basketball totals don’t make up more than 15-20% of my wagers over the course of a season, some years less than half that amount.
And we’ve already established some of the reasons why baseball side wagers are difficult for many bettors to beat. In order to support one team’s potent offense, or their vastly superior starting pitching, the bettor is forced to lay a high price that requires him to be right as much as ¾ of the time just to break even. Likewise, bettors can be dismayed in a hurry when their high priced stud starting pitcher gets pulled for a pinch hitter in the 6th inning with the score tied, leaving a bullpen that is far less reliable then the starter to earn the victory.
That’s why in baseball, betting totals has been my bread and butter over the past few years. Outlined below are the six primary reasons why betting baseball totals can be an extremely profitable endeavor, particularly in relation to betting baseball sides.
1) You can be only half right and still win your bet.
This is the #1 reason why I like betting baseball totals. Let’s say Randy Johnson of Arizona and Matt Morris of St Louis are slated to face one another, with a total of 7.5 for the game. With two of the top pitchers in the NL on the mound, it’s easy to make a case for the Under. But even if one of the two starters gets hit hard, a 6-1 final score going Under the total is still well within the range of possibility. It’s a similar story with poor pitchers. If the Pirates Josh Fogg matches up against the Giants Brett Tomko, the total would probably be around 9 or 9.5 considering that neither team is overly potent at the plate this season. Both Over bettors can cash their tickets even if Fogg pitches a rare gem, because Tomko could still get rocked, and a 9-3 final is certainly not out of reach.
2) You don’t have to lay big prices to bet on or against any pitcher.
The Rockies Scott Elarton has arguably been the worst starting pitcher in the major leagues in 2004. The linesmakers aren’t idiots by any stretch of the imagination – Colorado was a substantial underdog in seven of his first eight starts, so betting against Elarton would require the side bettor to lay a big price. But you didn’t have to lay more than -110 betting Elarton Over the total in those eight starts, and you would have cashed repeatedly by doing so. Similarly, the linesmakers consistently install high prices on the favorite when the ‘A’ list starters take the hill. Why lay a big price to support Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs or Roger Clemens of the Astros when you can bet the Under at -110, assuming much less risk with the same potential reward?
3) The linesmakers don’t have much wiggle room to adjust their totals.
Baseball totals at every ballpark except for Coors Field range between a low of 7 and a high of 11.5, with the occasional 6.5 or 12. Even when two hot hitting teams face off against two mediocre starters, the total is not going to come 14. Similarly, when two cold hitting teams face off against two dominant starters, the total is not going to come 5. In other words, it’s very difficult for the linesmakers to compensate enough within the limited confines of the standard range of totals. The linesmakers don’t hesitate to price a dominant favorite at -300, but they don’t have that same ability to adjust when setting baseball totals.
4) The linesmakers are not that confident in their numbers.
Each sportsbook sets limits on the amount that can be bet on any particular wager. The casual bettor rarely runs into the sportsbook limits, normally several thousand dollars or more on side wagers in bases, football and hoops. But the bookmakers do not set high limits like that for baseball totals, and many sportsbooks are reluctant to take wagers above $500 or $1000. Why not? Part of the reason stems from the issues noted above, in #3. Part of the reason comes from the fact that the books get very little ‘square’ money on MLB totals – they’re up against the wiseguy professional bettors, and you don’t remain a professional bettor for very long unless you are beating the bookmaker with relative consistency. That means that the books don’t get balanced action on the majority of baseball totals that they hang. But as much as anything, the low limits on totals are for one reason alone – the linesmakers aren’t as confident that their numbers are good enough to withstand high stakes wagers from informed bettors.
5) Streaks don’t get noticed by the public or the linesmakers.
When any baseball team wins eight straight games, they’ll be catapulted to the lead story on ESPN, and noted by bettors and linesmakers rather quickly. The hot team might have been priced as a -140 favorite in their first game of the streak, but with the same two pitchers on the mound following eight straight wins, the hot team would be much closer to being a -200 favorite, because of the added public money backing that club. But the general public doesn’t notice Over/Under streaks, nor do the national media. St Louis opened the season with eight consecutive Overs; the Expos have gone Under the total in 27 of their 38 games this season. These type of streaks tend to feed upon themselves, extending onwards indefinitely. In 2003, the Dodgers went Under the total 99 times, but Over only 53 times. The Red Sox, on the other hand, went Over the total 95 times while going Under the total only 63 times. I know a handicapper who took a three week vacation last summer, betting just the Dodgers Under and Red Sox Over every game while he was gone. By the time he returned to his daily ‘capping, he was up more than 15 units, just riding the streaking teams again and again. And this makes perfect sense. Teams who are struggling at the plate tend to press, lose confidence, and get out of their normal rhythm. Teams that are hitting well gain confidence, are more selective with their swinging, and generally have better at bats. Likewise, teams that are getting good starting pitching don’t overuse their bullpens, leaving the pens much fresher and better than the teams that are getting lousy starting pitching, who are forced to rely on overused and tired bullpens. A run of Unders produces more Unders; a run of Overs produces more Overs, and the linesmakers simply can’t adjust.
6) Home plate umpires have Over/Under tendencies as much as teams do. In basketball and football information about the referees is difficult to obtain. There is no one single ref who has more influence that the others, and finding out which refs are slated to officiate which games is not always easy information to obtain. In baseball, the home plate ump has a huge impact on the game, more so than any other referee in any major sport. And home plate umpires are no secret – you can easily find out which ump is slated to be behind the plate for any given game. There’s no question that different umpires have different strike zones. Umps that have a slightly wider strike zone allow the pitchers to get ahead in the count more often, while umps with a tighter strike zone force pitchers behind in the count on a consistent basis. Pitchers get rattled when close calls at the plate don’t go their way, while they gain confidence when they are getting those close calls. John Hirschbeck is a well known Under type umpire, with a relatively wide strike zone that frustrates batters and rewards pitchers. Hirschbeck recently had a two year run in which Unders cashed in 41 of the 63 games that he called. Mike Reilly, on the other hand, has a smaller strike zone, resulting in a 40-24 mark to the Over when he was behind the plate over a two year span.
It’s not that baseball sides can’t be beat, or that football and basketball totals are unbeatable. But for the reasons outlines above, baseball totals can be a consistent and profitable part of any handicappers arsenal, worth examining closely on a daily basis throughout the baseball season. In 2003, I had profitable results with my baseball total wagers for six consecutive months to close out the season. And, after a slow start in 2004, May has proven highly profitable with the totals as well. I expect this type of steady success to continue, making the case that baseball totals are something any astute ‘capper should take advantage of.