The Basics of Handicapping Major League Baseball

It's amazing that more people don't bet on baseball. Furthermore, it's surprising how many otherwise experienced sports gamblers are intimidated by the money lines, the absence of point spreads, and the sheer number of wagering opportunities presented. Just considering sides and total plays on each game, there are nearly 5,000 wagering opportunities over the course of the season. That number doesn't include first half lines, runline plays, series wagers, futures bets, over / under season win totals, etc. Compounding the confusion the neophyte baseball gambler faces is the abundance of baseball statistics, few of which are geared toward wagering on the sport. While the football handicapper is inundated with publications featuring matchups and point spread statistics, there are few such resources for the baseball bettor.

This is a shame because baseball is a great moneymaking opportunity for the sports gambler. Baseball is simply a great sport for grinding out small profits day after day and week after week for a number of reasons-and this sort of 'grinding' is how real sports gambling professionals make profits over the long term. These include the sheer number of wagering opportunities, and the ability to turn a profit while winning less than 50% of your wagers by betting underdogs. Considering that the best teams lose 1/3 of their games, and the worst teams win a third of theirs it is clear that there are ample opportunities to find value for the astute baseball handicapper.

The purpose of this article is to introduce some "quick and dirty concepts" for baseball handicapping that will increase your chances of profitability. These are general "rules of thumb" that require no technical or statistical analysis or even an understanding of the nuance of the game.

1) Look to play underdogs whenever possible: As I noted above, the best teams lose at least sixty games a year and the worst teams win about the same number. The rest of the league falls somewhere in the middle. Now consider the fact that the more favorites you bet, the higher your breakeven percentage that you need to win to make money. For example, if your average bet is a -150 favorite you'll need to hit 60% winners just to break even. At -170, that number increases to 63% and so on. If you lay the ungodly numbers you'll see high profile starting pitchers and public teams, you better hope they don't suffer a reversal of form.

Now let's consider the opposite equation. If your average bet is a +120 underdog, your break-even percentage drops to approximately 45.5%. At +140, it's down to just over 42% and the higher you go the lower the breakeven percentage. Keeping in mind that even the shabbiest baseball team seldom wins fewer than 37% of its games (for example, a team posting a 62-100 record would win exactly 37% of the time) it is apparent that looking for opportunities to bet on underdogs is essential to profitable baseball wagering.

2) Implement a strict ceiling for what you'll wager on a favorite and follow it religiously: Though most successful baseball handicappers look to play underdogs first, small favorites can sometimes present good value as well. Frequently, you can get the elite teams on the road as small favorites and other situations will present themselves where small favorites are a good play. If you play totals at all, you'll just about always need to lay -110 or -120. To bet baseball successfully, I suggest that you implement a strict limit on how much you'll lay on a favorite. A "cut off" of -150 is probably a maximum, and it wouldn't hurt to make it as low as -130 or -120.

Once you establish your "cut off" for wagering favorites, do NOT wager more than that. Ever. Regardless of the circumstance or situation. I don't care if it's Jake Peavy against the worst team in baseball with a pitcher fresh from AA making his first major league start. Over the long haul, it's just not worth it. The most under emphasized quality required for profitable sports wagering is disciplined money management. Without discipline, it just does not matter how well you do at picking winners: you'll probably lose money in the long run.

3) Starting pitching is overrated: When handicapping baseball games, too much emphasis is given to the starting pitcher. It's understandable, of course, since the linesmakers consider the starting pitcher in setting the price for the game. If you pay any attention to baseball, however, you'll know full well that the quality of starting pitching has reached a state of parity at best, mediocrity bordering on incompetence at worst. There are exceptions, of course, but in general starting pitching is an overrated factor.

4) Realize that baseball is a streaky game: This is no secret, of course, but it is something to be cognizant of when betting baseball. No matter what else you find relevant about a game, you should think twice about betting against a team that has won three or more games in a row or on a team that has lost three or more games in a row. This may sound more superstitious than anything else but it's a valuable rule to follow. The dynamic of long winning or losing streams-more than ten games-is different, but you'll be better off not going against a winning or losing streak the majority of the time.

5) Home field advantage just isn't that important: Of all major sports, there may be less intrinsic advantage to playing at home in baseball than in any other. This is particularly true during the regular season. Granted there are teams that do better in certain ballparks than others, but this is more a function of the design of the ballpark and the personnel of the team than any sort of "home field advantage". Some parks are clearly "pitchers 'parks" or "hitters' parks", but it works both ways-the opposing pitchers and / or hitters often have the same advantage as the home team's players. Furthermore, bad teams are frequently overvalued at home, which results in good value on the visitor. Over the course of season, most teams will probably do better at home than on the road but the higher prices you'll have to pay will negate this fact. More often than not, "home field advantage" shouldn't be a consideration in handicapping a game. This isn't to say that you shouldn't be aware of a ballpark's dimensions and tendencies, particularly if you're playing totals. Just don't think that the home team has an "edge" simply because they're in their own ballpark.

These are just a few basic concepts for baseball bettors that will help you achieve success in the long run. You can make your baseball handicapping analysis as complex as you'd like, but it's helpful to keep these fundamental philosophies in mind as your handicapping strategies become more advanced. The old adage that it is "easy to see the trees and miss the forest" is definitely true in handicapping America's national pastime.