Making casual bets with friends is one thing, but real sports betting can get very confusing very quickly for those who have never done it before. Websites offering odds and statistics will throw numbers at you left and right, and their meanings are generally far from intuitive. Anyone who wishes to get the most bang for their buck is going to want to understand what they are looking at.
Of course, knowing how to read the numbers is only one part of the equation. Successful sports bettors also need to understand various betting strategies, and knowing how to handicap a game certainly wouldn’t hurt them any. There is a lot that goes into this, especially as far as baseball is concerned.
In fact, some have said that handicapping baseball is more complicated than it is with any other sport due to the sheer importance of the numerous stats that factor in. Looking at a list of World Series predictions might help you get a sense of what’s happening in the American League and the National League, but they won’t help you from game to game because some of the most important stats are subject to change (for instance, starting pitchers are a major influence on the manner in which baseball is handicapped). This makes betting unpredictable, and difficult for those who are not accustomed to common strategies.
However you choose to go about it, you are going to want to understand the basics of betting on baseball games well before you get started. While this can be a fairly in-depth pursuit, the following basics should help increase your understanding of how betting works in regard to baseball games, and should help get you well underway toward achieving monetary success through your knowledge and endeavors.
Reading the Numbers
Different bookmakers will have different ways of listing their odds, and many of these numbers may look like absolute gibberish to those who aren’t sure what they are looking at. Going in blind, without any prior experience or anyone to show you the way, it might be easy to get confused and possibly a bit nervous. It is not unlike being called to the chalkboard for a math problem when you haven’t studied.
When most people think of a team’s chances of winning, they think in terms of basic ratios such as ten to one, or 10/1. However, when looking up betting odds, they will generally be expressed in money lines. These generally have plus or minus signs affixed to the front, but these are counter-intuitive in the sense that a plus sign indicates an underdog, while a minus sign is used to denote a favored team.
For instance, say that in the April 8 game featuring the San Diego Padres and the L.A. Dodgers, the Dodgers’ money line is set at -175 while the Padres’ money line is set at +138. Each of these numbers represents earnings on the dollar, meaning that for every dollar a person bets on the Padres, they will gain $1.38 in winnings if San Diego wins the game. This means someone who bets a “dime,” or a bet of $1000, would win $1380 for a total return of $2380. However, favored teams work in the opposite fashion. Since Los Angeles is greatly favored, it would take a bet of $1750 to make an additional $1000. In short, it can be more profitable to bet on the underdog, as long as the underdog is able to win the game.
Aside from money lines, there are also run lines. The run line is akin to what is referred to as the point spread in basketball and football. In the case of baseball, this spread operates at a constant of 1.5, which means that favored teams have to win by two or more runs. Otherwise, they will not cover the spread. It is easier to cover the spread with an underdog, as they must only lose by one run or else simply win the game by any number of runs.
When betting on run lines, bettors should note that the principles governing money lines are somewhat reversed. In other words, favored teams are likely to net more money, whereas underdogs will often yield a lesser return on the dollar. This is because, as noted above, it is slightly harder for a favored team to cover the spread.
For instance, at least one book at the time of writing has the Baltimore Orioles favored in their upcoming game against the Tampa Bay Rays, with respective money lines of +104 and -114 (these differ from the opening money lines, but we’ll get to that later). However, according to that same book, the Orioles have a run line worth -210, whereas Tampa Bay has a run line worth +175. This indicates that the bookmakers highly expect the Orioles to cover the spread, and a run line bet for Baltimore will yield a very low percentage of return.
Money lines and run lines are not the only numbers listed on most books, which in addition will list over/under predictions, generally abbreviated as O/U. These indicate the number of total runs that are expected to be scored by both teams over the course of the game, including extra innings. Making an over/under bet does not rely on knowledge regarding which team is most likely to win, as you are only trying to guess whether the total combined score will be higher or lower than the number listed on the books.
There are generally stipulations to over/under bets. For instance, the game must last for at least 8.5 or 9 innings, depending upon whether the home team or visiting team is victorious. The pitchers listed as the starters for each game must also not be subbed out, as the over/under prediction is based largely upon these pitchers. If these stipulations are not met, most bettors will not have any trouble getting a refund.
Usually, over/under bets will be worth less than making a straight bet on an underdog win, but may potentially be worth more than betting on a favored team. A standard money line for over/under bets will often be somewhere around -110, although this is subject to differ from one venue to another.
The above information covers most of the numbers you’ll see in the books that might influence your decision regarding what type of bet you’d like to make. There are some helpful venues that will chart other important information, but this is generally for handicapping purposes rather than simply understanding the odds, and therefore will be covered in the next section.
For now, there are only two more basics regarding the above numbers that you should understand. First of all, it was mentioned in the intro that starting pitchers are important. Pay attention to the pitchers listed on the books. If there is any change to the pitching rotation, the odds on a game might change drastically. Many venues will allow bettors to request refunds if the starting pitcher is subbed out for any reason prior to the game.
It was also mentioned above that money lines are subject to change. As one might surmise, these two facts are strongly linked to one another. This may happen due to changes in the pitching rotation, although other factors may influence money lines as well. In fact, money lines change so frequently that they are sometimes listed as both “open” and “live.” One is the money line initially given to a team, while the other is the money line according to most recent calculations. When you place a bet, the live money line at the time of betting will usually be the one you keep, although some venues may handle this differently.
It can be important to note the difference between opening money lines and live money lines before making a bet, as these differences may sometimes indicate a level of risk. For instance, in the aforementioned game between Baltimore and Tampa Bay, we noted that one book had favored Baltimore. However, this was only according to the live money line at the time of writing. The opening money lines for that same book had actually indicated Baltimore as the underdog, with Tampa Bay as a favored team. The closer each team’s money lines are to 100, the more likely this sort of thing is to happen.
Handicapping the Game
Handicapping can be a useful skill, but feel free to skip down to the next section if you feel that you are incapable of dealing with the number of statistics involved or if you have already made the wise decision of letting someone else do it for you.
First off, remember that it can’t be stressed enough just how important a starting pitcher can be to determining a team’s odds of winning. When handicapping any game, it is important to start with the listed pitchers and work from there. This should give you a pretty decent idea regarding how the game might turn out.
One of the first statistics to look at when assessing a pitcher is their number of combined walks and hits per inning pitched, commonly abbreviated as WHIP. The better of two pitchers will generally be the one with the lower WHIP (anything above 1.40 is considered somewhat high, and anything over 2.00 is considered abysmal). However, pitchers with a high WHIP can be a godsend for those who like to place over/under bets, as one can usually bet that a game with one or two such pitchers will go over.
Betting on a game in which both pitchers have a WHIP between 1.25 and 1.40 can be something of a crapshoot, as these numbers are relatively average for the majors. However, a team whose starting pitcher has a WHIP of 1.20 or below is usually a relatively safe bet. For instance, during Spring Training, Archie Bradley of the Arizona Diamondbacks posted a respectable WHIP of 1.16, but even a solid stat like this pales in comparison to the 1.05 WHIP posted by Daniel Norris of the Toronto Blue Jays. However, Clayton Kershaw of the L.A. Dodgers finished last season with a 0.86 WHIP, which is not only better but exceedingly rare. Betting on a pitcher with a WHIP anywhere under 1.00 is usually a pretty safe move.
There should be some mention of earned run average, or ERA. This stat is not quite as reliable for handicapping purposes, but it never hurts to at least look at it. A solid ERA should usually be under 3.00, meaning that a pitcher gives up an average of three runs of less for every nine innings they pitch. You should be wary of a pitcher who has a low WHIP but a high ERA, as it might indicate that they’re making it too easy for batters to knock the ball out of the park.
It is also important to check the player’s history in relation to the other team. A decent pitcher might struggle against another team for reasons unknown, which might influence your betting decisions. Do not just look at their history against the team in general, but also at the batter vs. pitcher statistics. These statistics may not always be available, especially when the pitcher is a rookie, but you should always check. If a pitcher has a decent WHIP and ERA, but they’re starting against a team where numerous batters have scored a high batting average against them in the past, then their overall stats for the previous season might not matter in the game ahead.
Moving away from the pitcher, it is important to assess the previous performance of the entire team. Look at how they did in the past five games. Are they having a hot streak, with a great bullpen ERA and a decent overall batting average as a team? Or are they having a cold streak due to injured star players or a lack of ability when playing road games? If a team just had a losing streak on the road but has returned home and won a game, then they might be transitioning into a hot streak. Maybe they had a lot of errors lately but this has begun to tone down. This isn’t completely reliable data on its own, but choosing between two teams with comparable odds and similar starting pitchers is made easier by taking this type of information into account.
When you’re done looking at who’s playing, take a look and where and when they are playing. Some teams just aren’t able to bat against a solid pitcher at night, because the lights make it harder for them to see the ball. Some pitchers may therefore have slightly higher stats at night, while others may have higher stats when playing on turf than they do when playing on grass. There are also pitchers who are great at playing in domes, but that are not so hot when pitching in an outdoor stadium.
Even players who are fine at most parks might be affected by the weather when playing in an outdoor stadium. Pitchers from southern teams might struggle when playing a game in New York or Boston while the weather is cold, while other players might not be well-adjusted to playing in extreme heat. Weather can also make a game completely unpredictable, such as games in Chicago where the wind often carries home runs while stifling others. On shorter hits, the wind may simply carry the ball in an unexpected direction.
Placing the Right Bets
Bear in mind that no matter how many stats you process and no matter how carefully you select your bet, a game can sometimes go differently than expected. It’s important not to fall into certain bad habits. For instance, you don’t want to be what is known as a “chalk player.” Chalk players are the bettors who never go for the underdog, and sometimes miss out on big winnings as a result.
When placing your bets, if you aren’t entirely confident in the numbers you’ve reviewed, then you might try your hand at arbitrage. Arbitrage is the opposite of what is known as a middle bet, which is where a bettor finds two books with different point spreads and bets in the middle on each. However, since baseball tends to use the 1.5 constant, it would take a fairly unique set of books to make this possible. In arbitrage, you are still betting on the same game twice, but you are looking for books that favor different teams and betting on the underdog for each book.
Arbitrage is actually rather simple, as long as you can find books with different underdogs. This can be hard to do, but is not impossible when two teams both have money lines close to 100. We earlier discussed the upcoming Baltimore/Tampa Bay game and the fact that the underdog changed since the books were opened, so let’s pretend the money lines for that game were to change again. They will not likely change for all books at the same time, so it would simply become a matter of finding one book where Tampa Bay is still favored over Baltimore and one in which the money lines have been switched. To make for an easier illustration, assume that in both books we are still dealing with the numbers 114 and 104 and that only the plus and minus have been switched between each book.
In the original book, you would bet on Baltimore with a money line of +104. In the altered book, you would bet on Tampa Bay with a money line of +114. You are going to lose one of these bets, but it does not matter because you will make back that money on the bet that you win. Your profit will therefore be the cents over the dollar on the winning money line. For bets of $100, you will only make a profit of either $4 or $14 when working with the above numbers, but betting a few thousand on each team will greatly increase your overall earnings. Some professional sports bettors frown upon this method, but it yields decent results.
The above strategy works for those who lack confidence in their numbers or their ability to make a straight bet, but what about those who are as confident as can be? In that case, you might want to try your hand at a parlay. This isn’t always necessarily recommended for a beginner, but you can make it work if your choices are solid. Basically, a parlay involves making multiple bets at once, with payout contingent on the success of every single bet.
Parlays are great for baseball. Say you’re making a parlay for three games. If you were making that bet on football or basketball, your odds would be six against one. This is technically lower than it should be, failing to account for the true number of outcomes that are possible. However, if you make a parlay on three baseball games, you will be betting against the individual money lines for each time you choose.
So if you bet a nickel ($500) on a +120 game and win, you’ll wind up with $1100 going into the next game, and so on and so forth. This means that a successful parlay can allow you to reap massive rewards off your wager. Once you’ve had some success betting on single games, it might be worth to start trying out parlays at low amounts and seeing how you fare.
Last, but not least, you might consider trying your hand at proposition bets. These wagers are often a little more luck-based, as no amount of statistics will promise a payout. Basically, a proposition bet is a wager on specific game stats. You might bet on which team will score the first run, or how many total hits, runs, and errors they have in a single game. There are also season-long prop bets, such as how many wins a team will have in the regular season or which player is going to hit the most home runs.
Different sportsbooks will generally have different available prop bets, and the list of all that are available between them is practically endless. If you’re a beginner, then you really don’t want to go after prop bets just yet. They’re at least as risky as parlays, if not much riskier. But they can be one of the most fun aspects of betting, so definitely consider looking forward to them in the future. You might start by wagering against yourself by now and seeing how your predictions turn out before taking your predictions to the books. It’s a good way to build both confidence and skill.