Betting Baseball Totals
Making a few trade secrets work for you
I’m long overdue for a column on what I call “trade secrets” in sports handicapping. Trade secrets are unpublicized nuggets of wisdom that experts and insiders use to beat the game. There are trade secrets in many fields, including stock investing, poker playing, and, of course, sports betting. Trade secrets usually involve trends and angles to watch out for when betting games.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of winning trends and angles do not last very long. In fact, most are flash in the pans. By the time they are discovered and later publicized, the results often regress to the statistical mean (which means the trend was just a temporary deviation). In cases where a trend proves itself to be something really significant, it’s usually just a matter of time before sharp bettors begin to catch on to the angle. Once the betting public starts pounding a side with heavy action due to common knowledge, the value on the wager diminishes gradually over time. So, in sports betting, nothing lasts forever.
Betting baseball totals is one of my favorite pastimes in sports gambling. This continues to be one area of sports betting where public perceptions are often wrong, creating some real bargains in terms of value. A baseball total, which is the combined number of runs scored in a game by both teams (including extra innings), is most heavily influenced by starting pitching (specifically, the earned run averages of the two starters). Yet this is but one of many factors that influences how many runs will be scored in a game. The betting public seems to ignore or forget many other important aspects of totals betting. This column is designed to make you aware of some of the factors you should consider when wagering on baseball totals.
First, it is generally advisable to look for under plays, rather than over plays. Most novice sports bettors tend to bet over the total (this is true for all sports). More knowledgeable handicappers understand that it is usually advantageous to bet on the prospect that nothing will happen, versus something will happen. This doesn’t mean that there are more unders than overs during the course of a full season. Most seasons end with about an equal split on totals. But think of it this way: For an over to occur, the pitching of both teams must break down and/or hitting must come to life. In the event just one of the teams has either a good night pitching, or a very bad night hitting, the game will usually go under the total. I look for situations where one pitcher is capable of throwing a good game, and/or one of the teams is currently in a hitting slump.
Last year’s rule changes (a larger strike zone) created lower scoring games in 2001 versus 2000. Statistics showed that scoring went down an average of about half a run per game. It appears Las Vegas sportsbooks are just now catching on to this trend, as totals are still posted in the 9-10 range for most American League games and 8-9 in most National League games.
Remember that National League games are more inclined to go under the number, versus the American League (given identical run totals). This is because 12 percent of the hitting lineup is essentially “dead” in the National League (since pitchers must hit and their batting averages are much lower than the rest of the team). Since there is a 12 percent disparity in the NL (3/27th to be exact, assuming no pitcher gets a base hit), this means totals should be about a run less on average for each NL game. This is rarely the case when you look at the totals posted inside Las Vegas sportsbooks. Many NL totals remain at 8.5, 9 or 9.5 in many cases—which is incomprehensible given the differences between the two leagues. Exceptions apply to Colorado and Houston home games, because of the other contributing factors which favor lots of runs being scored.
Pitching in early to midseason games is generally much stronger (and often more predictable) than pitching in late season games. By mid-August and September, many pitchers’ arms are simply worn out. Most teams are out of playoff contention. Novice pitchers are brought up from the minor leagues to face contending teams. I tend to do a complete flip-flop in totals betting when considering games before and after the All-Star break. I always bet more unders the first half of the season. Then, I start looking for over plays in late July. Of course, much depends on the lineups and what is happening around the league. But my view is that games become slightly higher scoring as the season progresses (albeit by a small margin).
Look for situations where one team’s bullpen has been stretched to the limits in the previous couple of games. Games where a team has given up double digits in recent games are prime candidates to go over the total in the next game (especially with a shaky starter on the mound). Since these teams are desperate to give their middle and late relief pitching a rest, they will often leave an unreliable starter in longer than is warranted (meaning they are more likely to get hammered). If the starter gets knocked out early, the bullpen is in serious trouble. This points to an over.
When betting unders, look for strong home teams, since that potentially eliminates three additional outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. A half- inning means three more batters to face. Sure, a home team winning the game and not batting in the bottom of the ninth inning is worth “only” 3/52nds (slightly under 6 percent of the game duration) to a baseball total, but every single edge counts in sports betting. By contrast, look for overs to occur when the road team has a definite advantage in overall talent or with their starting pitcher. Three extra batters means the added possibility that one hitter might hit a home run, hopefully with runners on base if you have an over.
Look for key numbers, such as over 8 and 8.5, versus under 9 and 9.5. Games that are tied 4-4 will always go over the total when the posted number is 8/8.5. By contrast, games that are tied 4-4 in extra innings will usually go under the total when the number is 9.5. A total of 10 is often a good under bet, since it takes 11 runs to lose the wager. Unless the game is in Colorado or Texas (notoriously high-scoring teams with weak pitching), 11 runs is a lot of scoring in a baseball game.
Beware of laying more than -115 on any total, unless you have a decided edge (such as a key starter, an NL game, and a home team that’s favored). Laying -120 or -125 on total is rarely a wise play. Also, almost never go under in a game where the total is seven runs. Back in the era when starting pitching was dominant (up until the mid-’80s), two starters would duel for nine innings and produce many 2-1 final scores. But complete games for pitchers are now extremely rare occurrences. Even Yankees ace Roger Clemens averages only about five to six innings per start. Under seven is rarely a bet with any value—even if Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson is on the mound.
In intense rivalries (San Francisco versus Los Angeles and Boston versus New York, for example) be more inclined to bet under the total. Teams get fired up playing against their rivals and often hitters are not as relaxed in the batter’s box. Managers tend to exert more control over their teams and are not as willing to take chances. Although I admittedly have no statistics to support this claim, based solely on personal recollections, I believe that more “rivalry” games go under than over.
Never underestimate the power of a half-run on a baseball total. The difference between 8 versus 8.5 and 9 versus 9.5 is monumental. I can’t even begin to count the number of totals I’ve won or lost by a run, or half a run. Just as pro football produces “key” numbers such as 3 versus 3.5 (indicating a huge line move in a game expected to be close), baseball games often land on the fringes of a total. The point is, it’s a very good idea to shop around and find the best number possible.
Nolan Dalla can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org