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Handicapping Baseball Games

Umpire MaskThe art of handicapping sporting events requires a mix of data collection, statistical analysis, intuition, and luck. The end goal is to accurately predict the most likely result by determining the probability of either side winning.

Once you’ve assigned a percentage of likelihood to each side of the bet, you compare those values to the implied probability calculated from the odds. If you believe the chance of an outcome happening is higher than what’s suggested by the line, that bet has value.

The best handicappers analyze vast sets of data and statistics, searching for patterns or trends that strongly correlate to winning or losing games. Next, they build models based on all of the factors deemed relevant, ranking some variables above others.

The work is never done, and the information is continuously under scrutiny; more statistics are introduced into the equation, while others are thrown out or weighted differently, all in the hopes of building more and more accurate predictions.

Baseball handicapping works the same way. What makes this sport unique is the wealth of data collected as part of the game, the advanced analytics movement already underway in the MLB, the numerous independent variables which all influence the results, and the enormous impact one position – the starting pitcher – has over all the others. To successfully handicap baseball, you’ll need to research a wide variety of factors and then consider how they’ll interact as the contest plays out.

There’s no set statistical model we can give you to make accurate predictions and win all of your bets. We can, however, give you some insight into the process the top sports gamblers use. Furthermore, we’ll share many of the most important variables to keep in mind when making your picks. How much time and effort you put into cultivating this data is ultimately up to you.

To bet like a pro, you’ll create tables and spreadsheets that automatically collect the desired data and run it through your analytics models. For everybody else, these things should just be considered when deciding which sides to wager.

Then, when you’re comfortable with the topics on this page and ready to place your wagers, just make sure you’re selecting strong sites for your sports betting needs.

Regression Analysis

Regression analysis is a statistical process that involves studying independent variables in an effort to find how they correlate with a dependent variable which is, in this case, baseball wins. When using these processes to handicap baseball, this consists of digging through large datasets trying to identify individual statistics or factors that result in winning baseball. You can get as specific and sophisticated as you can imagine, breaking the game down to the smallest moments in an effort to discover an angle that gives you an edge over the sportsbooks and betting public.

For Example

Maybe you’ll find that a particular team has a significantly higher rate of success when facing a left-handed pitcher who prefers off-speed pitches when one specific umpire calls the games. Or maybe you see a pattern for another team where they win anytime they’re coming off a double-digit loss against a division rival in their own stadium on Wednesdays.

See? These can get as specific as you want; it’s just a trial and error process of playing around with different sets of data.

Luckily, data is easy to come by when dealing with baseball. There are numerous websites dedicated to hosting baseball statistical data sets, including sabermetrics like what was used by Billy Beane to create Moneyball.

Home/Away Records

A reliable place to begin your handicapping is with home and away records. You want to see how players have performed in their recent outings at their home stadium and how they recently played on the road. You should consider looking at these numbers for both the pitching and hitting.

Furthermore, don’t just look at wins and losses. While that data may give you something to work with, it probably won’t tell the entire story. Try to find trends or patterns that provide insight into the differences in performances. Did all the left-handed batters do better in the home stadium, and was that the push the team needed to win? Were the road losses all in hitter-friendly stadiums during day games?

Anything you can find will add value to your predictions.

Pitching Styles

You’ll also want to know the type of thrower each pitcher is that’s starting in the games you’re considering betting. There are power pitchers that smoke guys with their fastball. There are ground-ball and fly-ball pitchers who give up lots of contact but get tons of quick outs in the process. Then you have your knuckleballers and off-speed specialists.

Alone, this information doesn’t mean much. There aren’t correlations between pitching style and winning baseball games. Actually, there are winning and losing pitchers that would fit into any of these classifications. However, this info will be vital when considered in combination with things like the umpire’s strike zone tendencies, the park, and the batting lineup’s strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t Overvalue Starting Pitchers

Starting pitchers are undoubtedly the most significant role in all of baseball. They have the ball in their hands every single defensive play and carry the bulk of the responsibility as it pertains to wins and losses. However, it’s also almost exclusively what the casual gambling public bases their picks on.

For this reason, the starting pitcher often becomes overvalued. With so many other crucial factors going ignored in favor of marquee names and win-loss records, it’s common to see lines move in a way that’s ideal for any handicapper paying attention. That’s why games against stud starting pitchers often present the most value for bettors looking to wager the moneyline on underdogs.

Roster Availability

To accurately predict how things will play out, you’re going to need to know the actors involved. That means knowing who will actually be participating in the contest. You’ll need to pay attention to the news leading up to the game for injury news, but there are some clues you can gather from recent matchups.

Recent Bullpen Usage

While starting pitching largely determines the betting odds, they rarely throw for the complete game. So you’ll want to know how available the bullpen will be, particularly the closer. If the squad recently played two or three games, and the closer pitched in all of them, he may not be able to throw in the next one. How critical is he to their game plan? How rested are the rest of the relievers?

Injuries

You also want to be on top of the most up-to-date injury news. To make an accurate prediction, you’ll need to know which athletes are playing, who’s playing hurt, and who is out of action.

Rest Days

The MLB season is a long, grinding marathon. With 182 regular-season games per year, a team’s best players will periodically have to take contests off for rest. Unfortunately, the managers don’t release the lineups until shortly before game time. Regardless, you should do your best to find out who’s playing and who isn’t before betting.

Travel/Fatigue

A team’s recent road schedule and the accompanying travel demands have also been shown to play significant roles in performance. The longer a road trip drags on, the longer a team is forced to stay away from their family, their comfort zone, and their daily routines, which can lower morale, energy, and focus. Without that time to relax and recharge the batteries, each subsequent game takes a toll on the players’ psyches.

There’s also scientific evidence that jet lag can drastically lower athletic performance for several days after traveling. This hits teams flying eastward from the west coast the hardest. This is due to the circadian rhythm, the body’s natural clock. While on the west coast, the body adapts to the time zone. Once the athletes fly back home, the time difference has them playing games when their body wants to be sleeping.

In fact, a study conducted by Northwest University showed a marked decline in teams returning home in the east after an extended westward road trip. For each time zone they were forced to pass through on the road back home, the players required an additional 24 hours of recovery before returning to their baseline levels of performance.

Weather

Weather conditions are one of the many environmental factors that influence the type of game that’s played. Combined with the park factors and the home plate umpire’s tendencies, you can get a pretty clear idea of what kind of game it will be without even looking at the two teams. Cold weather games tend to be lower-scoring, as the ball doesn’t travel as far when it’s hit into the air.

When the temperature is warmer, shots fly further. This is doubly true if the humidity levels are high as well. Wind varies in how it affects the contest. Depending on the dimensions of the park and the direction it faces, gusts may help carry fly balls those extra feet necessary to become a home run. They may also act as resistance, turning would-be homers into outs on the warning track.

Rain can also shift the balance of power in a matchup. A team’s starting pitcher can be sabotaged by rain delays that get them out of rhythm and cool off their shoulder. Having to take unexpected breaks mid-game, warming up, then stopping, then warming up again can ruin an ace’s focus and mental preparation just as much as it can limit them physically.

Ride Out Streaks

Baseball is a game of streaks. It’s such a mentally taxing sport, requiring a high degree of concentration and a short memory since even the greatest players in history fail roughly seven out of every ten trips to the plate. It’s also a game full of superstitions and unwritten rules that the players believe in whole-heartedly.

That’s why it’s never a good idea to bet against streaks. If a team is on a winning streak, don’t bother trying to determine when it will come to an end because they’re “due.” You will win more often betting with the streak, whether it’s a series of wins in a row or losses. When a squad is riding high, feeling confident and unbeatable, they nearly are a lot of the time. And when a club gets down, feeling snake-bitten, that becomes true as well.

Handicapping isn’t always strictly about the individual contests. It takes into account every trend, pattern, and stat possible to predict an outcome. Whatever the psychological phenomenon is that pushes teams into consecutive wins or losses may not be known, but the math has shown betting with momentum is more fruitful than going against it, on average.

Park Factors

The location of a matchup is particularly crucial when handicapping baseball because it’s the one sport that allows some variety with regards to the dimensions of the field of play. The MLB rules and regulations allow teams to be able to get creative with the shape of their outfield, the distances from home plate, the heights of the outfield walls, and even unique details like the hill in straightaway center field that used to exist in Houston’s Minute Maid Park.

Depending on the distances required for home runs, the elevation at which a city sits, the height of the outfield walls, how wind enters the stadium, and many other variables, a park will tend to favor either hitting or pitching. Further, they will often give a more significant advantage to either left- or right-handed hitters. For example, the short left field and the Crawford boxes in Minute Maid Stadium make for lots of easy home runs for right-handed hitters.

Sometimes the shape of the outfield and the various accompanying walls and obstacles can create a wind tunnel. When batters drive the ball to a specific part of the field, these gusts can carry the shot over the wall. If that’s the case, your job as a handicapper is to see how frequently players on each team hit the ball in that direction.

Umpire Assignments

The home plate umpire’s strike zone can be the single most influential factor in a contest at times. Umpire statistics are tracked because how they usually call balls and strikes will ultimately decide how the game is played. An ump with a smaller strike zone will result in high-scoring games that favor the hitting. If the pitchers have more space with which to work, the batters will be chasing all night, leading to more strikeouts and fewer runs.

If you do nothing else, just research the umpire’s statistics and the style of both starting pitchers. A pitcher that relies on off-speed stuff and attacking the edges of the plate can be derailed entirely by a small strike zone. They’ll start the game with lots of balls and walks and will be forced to serve up strikes to be blasted by the offense eventually.

That same pitching style combined with a different umpire might make the man on the mound look like an absolute maestro. If given the opportunity to paint the edges of a larger area, they can play to their strengths and leave hitters baffled. There’s almost nothing more vital to your gambling success in baseball than how the pitchers match up with the officiating.

Emotional Factors

During the marathon season, it’s common for teams to occasionally lose focus or inspiration for stretches of games or a series here or there. The human brain can only stay locked on for so long before emotional fatigue sets in. So, finding situations in which one team has added motivation or something to prove can be a fantastic advantage.

Earlier Tough or Embarrassing Loss

One such scenario is when a club is facing an opponent that beat them previously either in a hard-fought game that hurt to lose or in an embarrassing fashion. You want to bet on the side with revenge on their minds. This may also apply if there was a scuffle in the earlier showdowns or some sort of controversy. What’s important is that one side is entering the game with the need to right past wrongs; that’s the mindset that brings out impressive performances.

Following Double-Digit Loss

Similarly, a squad coming off a double-digit loss in their previous game will be extra motivated to turn things around. Historically, teams looking to get back on track after a one-sided drubbing outperform their expectations. Handicappers will often use this opportunity to bet the “over” for total runs. The underdog doesn’t always bounce back by winning the next contest, but they regularly keep things competitive and outscore the totals line.

Following Loss as Heavy Favorite

When a club loses their previous matchup despite being a heavy favorite, they’ll usually win the second game. There was a reason they were favored initially, and that’s generally because they have the better team. A loss to an inferior opponent can be the perfect wake-up call to rally behind.

Licking their wounds and wholly focused on playing up to their potential, these heavily-favored teams dominate the second attempt regularly. Plus, the betting public, which is typically affected by recency bias, will most likely bet on the underdog winning again, ensuring a better price for the intelligent handicappers.

Team Strengths

How does each side prefer to play? What are they good at? The answers to these questions are a critical piece of the overall puzzle when predicting a game. You should know how each team’s games look both when they win and lose. These strengths and weaknesses will be what you’re considering when deciding how the park, ump, and other aspects will make their mark.

Don’t just look at their average runs scored or the starting pitching rotation. Analyze what kind of pitchers they play well against and who gives them trouble. In what kind of parks do they have the most success? Can their pitching staff win close games frequently, or do they require lots of run support? How does that information mix with the park, weather, ump, and opponent?

Recent Performances

When analyzing data, a common mistake is to overly emphasize season-long statistics. While those figures do have their value and are worth looking over, it’s the most recent performances that should be noted.

Hitting – Last Five Games

When making determinations based on recent hitting numbers, take the values from the last five games and weigh them more heavily. Like we discussed earlier, baseball is a streaky game. A lineup that’s been producing more runs than their averages lately may be a sneaky wager, especially if the rest of the market is focused on year-long numbers.

Pitching – Last Two or Three Starts

For recent pitching performances, just take the last two or three starts into account. Study how many pitches the bullpen has thrown over the last few contests. Tired bullpens lead to blown leads and totals bets that go “over.” It’s also suggested that you only consider the most recent outings when judging a starting pitcher’s next matchup. You need to know how they’re doing right now, not a month ago or last year.

Stakes

What is each team playing for? If this is a run-of-the-mill regular-season game, the stakes may not be too high. Study the context surrounding the game you’re handicapping. Are the two sides division rivals? Is future playoff positioning on the line?

Ideally, for betting, you can find matchups in which the underdog has more to play for than the favorite. Maybe they are still battling for a wild card spot, while their opponent already has the playoffs clinched. Or one squad might be purposely tanking for top draft picks, as the Astros did for four years before rebuilding a powerhouse.

Advanced Stats

In the past few decades, baseball has fully shifted their focus from traditional statistics like RBIs and ERA to more advanced stats that are better equipped to judge the quality of play. While the old numbers did very little to help teams create winning baseball rosters, these new values tell more of the story and help squads identify talent and meaningful performances.

Here are some of the advanced stats commonly used today and what they mean:

  • BABIP – (Batting Average on Balls in Play) This tracks how often the batter reaches base after putting a ball into play
  • BsR – (Base Runs) – How many runs “should” have scored based on their offensive output
  • CERA – (Component ERA) – What a pitcher’s ERA should be based on their individual pitching stats. Attempts to take luck and chance out of the equation
  • Def Eff – (Defensive Efficiency) – The percentage of balls put into play that result in outs by the defense
  • DICE – (Defense-Independent Component ERA) – A pitching stat that measures a pitcher’s performance independent of the defensive play behind him
  • DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) – A more complete defensive statistic that uses the expected run value of balls hit into play and how many outs the defender converts to express the value the individual player brings to the defense
  • EqA – (Equivalent Average) – A statistic derived from a complicated formula that measures a batter’s performance independent of external factors like the ballpark
  • ERA+ (Adjusted ERA) – Earned run average adjusted to consider league averages and the ballpark
  • IR – (Inherited Runs) – How many runners already on base when a reliever enters the game that score while the reliever is pitching
  • LIPS – (Late-Inning Pressure Situations) – The average for any at-bat taken in the seventh inning or later, with the batter’s side trailing by three runs or fewer
  • OPS – (On-Base Plus Slugging) – A measurement of a player’s ability to both hit for power and get on base
  • QS – (Quality Start) – A game in which a pitcher finished at least six innings while only giving up three or fewer runs
  • VORP – (Value Over Replacement Player) – Expresses how much a player contributes to winning by comparing how many more runs they create over an average freely-available talent
  • WHIP – (Walks and Hits Per Innings Pitched) – The average number of batters a pitcher allows on base per inning

Shop for the Best Lines

Once you’ve done all of your research and considered the many factors involved in a game, it’s time to go line shopping. Sports gambling success is often decided by extremely slim margins. The difference between profitability and losing money long term can be a few points here and there. Don’t just handicap the game and bet on whoever you think will win; you have to find value.

Don’t Lay More Than -160

If you are betting favorites, you shouldn’t risk wagering on a side laying more than -160. That means you have to stake $160 just to win $100. Rather than risk so much for such a small return, you’re better off betting the run line and grabbing better odds. That way, you take the favorite but get underdog odds. It’s reasonable to expect a -160 favorite to win by two or more runs.

Analyze/Model the Data

More advanced handicappers then use databases, tables, and analytical models to analyze all of the data collected and the variables discussed in this article. They can adjust the weight given to each statistic and manipulate the data sets to help them study how all of the different influences affect the outcome of games and to what extent.

Once they’ve built reliable models, professional gamblers will run millions of simulations of the upcoming contest. After inputting all of the variables, the computer will “play” the game over and over under the exact same conditions. It will then provide an analysis of all the many possibilities, including which outcomes occurred most frequently.

The handicappers then use this information for their real probabilities. They know that if these two sides played one million times, Team A would win 60% of the time, while Team B would win 40%. These values are then compared to the odds being offered and the implied probability to determine the right bet.

The betting odds can be converted into a percentage form, which is the implied probability of the wager. This percentage represents how likely that side of the bet is to win, according to the odds. If the actual likelihood of an outcome happening (calculated by the statistical models) is higher than the implied probability, that bet has positive value. Good handicappers only buy prices with positive value.

The Wrap-Up

Baseball handicapping is the collection and analysis of information related to the outcome of a game. While on the surface it may seem that baseball is merely a competition between the pitchers and batters, there are actually many more contributing factors that dictate what happens. In this sport, the environment plays a crucial role, as does the umpire crew, the stylistic matchups, and each team’s recent travel arrangements.

To find success through betting on baseball games, you must identify as many essential variables as possible and try to calculate how they will all mix to create a final result. This can be as simple as comparing a team’s strengths with the ballpark, the anticipated strike zone, and the opponent’s tendencies and as complex as advanced statistical analytics algorithms. The more time and effort you put in, the more you get out.

Once you’re done researching and comfortable with your prediction, it’s time to shop for lines to ensure you only wager when there’s positive value. The more accurate your handicapping, the easier these last steps become. While it’s not imperative that you immediately learn how to break down a game and calculate hundreds of independent variables, it is advised that you start thinking about sports gambling in the way we’ve laid out in this article.

It probably seems intimidating at first, or like too much work, but these same principles can be used in a toned-down form. If you do nothing else but analyze recent innings pitched by the bullpens, starting pitcher strengths and styles, the weather, park factors, and umpire stats, you will be much further ahead than the vast majority of gamblers. All you need is an edge on the public, some decent timing, an understanding of value, and a little luck, and you’ll be well on your way to home run profits.