The first month and a half of the MLB season has given us some interesting things to ponder. There are interesting player performances that came out of nowhere: Is Eric Thames a legit threat to win the MVP or capture the National League homerun crown? Can Ryan Zimmerman really resurrect his career to the level of “Triple Crown candidate?” He IS off to a start that is unmatched in the last five years across baseball, but most would rank him no better than the third or fourth best position player on his own team.
There are some surprising teams. Are teams like the Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks really challengers for the postseason or is a wicked regression to the mean heading their respective ways? Does the Cubs starting pitching leave them vulnerable in the NL Central? Are teams that were expected to contend like the San Francisco Giants really dead in the water?
And on the pitching side of things, is the Cy Young Race really as wide open as it seems at this point? With normal favorites like Kershaw, Lester and Scherzer (not to mention the Arrieta foibles) off to mortal starts, can the field widen to include resurgent Zack Greinke and Gio Gonzalez? Right now your ERA leaders are Mike Leake and Ivan Nova…
It’s been a fun start to the season, but baseball has a way of regressing hot starts to the mean and pulling slumping stars back up from the depths after 162 games. Here’s five future wagers to consider as the season moves into Summer and eventually Fall…
#1. Zack Greinke +1500 to Win CY YOUNG
Voters are drawn to a few irresistible factors when it comes to individual MLB Awards. Obviously, the core numbers need to be good: ERA low, wins high, and clear dominance on the mound. But there are also a couple other numbers that REALLY matter, namely strikeouts and WAR. Greinke is excellent in both, ranking third in strikeouts with 58 (around 1.17 per inning) and leads the N.L. pitchers with a 1.9 WAR.
The second intangible factor is narrative. There is something alluring about a superstar who bounces back after a disastrous year and leads a team with low expectations to the postseason. Both of those things are very real possibilities in the desert right now. Arizona is playing good baseball and with the talented and deep lineup, there is no reason to think they can’t be in the NL West for the long haul this season. They have other good starting pitchers with Robbie Ray, Tijaun Walker and Patrick Corbin and the bullpen is good enough to keep too many wins from getting snatched.
I like everything about Greinke right now. Obviously Kershaw is still the favorite because he is Clayton Kershaw and defending champ Max Scherzer is off to a great start and his team is incredible, but those two are priced accordingly at -180 and +200 respectively.
#2. Joey Votto +20000 to Win NL MVP AWARD
This one is an admitted long shot, but at 200/1, there is some “make it rain” upside to the pick. Let’s start with the responsible obvious disclaimer; when we are getting into the +20000 range, we are talking fun value flyer, not hardcore serious wager with expectation of return. It’s a lotto ticket – but a much more reasonable one.
Joey has won the award before and has some of the things voters like to see in an MVP candidate; he does MANY things well at the plate besides just the normal “counting” statistics of batting average, RBIs and home runs. He will likely lead the league in OBP because of his insane plate discipline and willingness to walk. Even after a terrible first three weeks, he is back up to 17th in the league at .403 and that number is climbing with a bullet.
Votto is a famously slow starter to the season. Last year he was dreadful for two months and then put together one of the best back halves of the season since Barry Bonds (and there were some, um, mitigating circumstances with Mister Bonds…). He was Ted Williams reincarnate for the final stretch run, and it went largely unnoticed by the general public because of HOW BAD the Reds were. This year, they APPEAR to be a reasonably decent team. If they can hover around .500 and Votto recreates his second half magic, you could be talking about a legit Top Three MVP candidate. At +20000, he does no worse than offer some nice hedge value if the Reds are in contention in August.
Votto is also having a resurgent power year at the plate. His average has rapidly climbed back up towards it customary spot of north of .300 (he is hitting .288 currently), but he is already 7th in the National League with 10 home runs and has driven in 33 runs which places him just one shy of Ryan Zimmerman who is having a Babe Ruth first six weeks of the season.
Joey Votto also fits the Greine narrative from above; former MVP Award winner who has been languishing on a team with low expectations. If he can have a massive statistical year like 2016 AND keep the Reds competitive, he becomes a voter-friendly candidate. His WAR is tied for 12th in the NL and again, he is a second half guy who had a poor April.
#3. Aaron Judge +1800 to Win the A.L. MVP Award
Same logic, only with a youthful twist. Overachieving team with a breakout statistical star BURSTING on the scene. Let’s just say that if Judge plays at 90% of his current performance, he will be bathing in so much media attention that it will be nearly-impossible to ignore the Yankees slugger. As of today, he is second in the majors in WAR, a stat sabermetric minded voters adore and he is crushing all the traditional counting statistics as well. The nation at large seems to fall in love more quickly with heroes in pinstripes, and Judge feels like the next anointed one…
Judge’s 2.3 WAR trails only Mike Trout, whom voters may feel some obligation towards after so many second place finishes in the voting despite being an inarguably better player in a few of the seasons. But Judge has a few advantages over Trout. Namely, the Yankees are a good team and the Angels are likely headed towards another disappointing sub .500 season. If Trout’s teams had been better, we’d likely be talking about a 25 year old four-time MVP and the comparisons to the greatest names in the history of baseball would all be almost too modest. Alas, Trout has put up many monster seasons without walking away with the hardware, so his hot start is impressive but the -160 odds to win the MVP are a little too slim.
Meanwhile, Judge at nearly twenty to one seem like a ridiculously good value. He is hitting .315 with 13 HRs, 28 RBIs and is slugging an AL best .739, twenty eight points better than Trout.
#4. Gincarlo Stanton +800 to Lead MLB in Homeruns
Things are unravelling quickly in Miami and frustrations are mounting. But that doesn’t mean the biggest masher in baseball can’t keep on mashing homeruns. In fact, the lack of Marlins competitiveness might even aide his cause. Why walk or pitch around a guy when his team is down five? Why NOT swing for the fences and pad some stats in games in August and September when the result of the game matters little?
That may be painting a bleak picture of the Marlins season, but it is a legitimate reason to strengthen the case for Stanton to lead the bigs in homeruns. When healthy, no one punishes baseballs more than Giancarlo. The problem in past seasons has been staying on the field. If he plays a full 162 (not literally, but meaning avoiding injury) he will be tough to top for the homerun crown which makes +800 a good value. Others listed slimmer; Freddie Freeman and Aaron Judge, have a few question marks. Freeman isn’t a traditional power hitter, and Judge, though I obviously like him a LOT (see #3) is in his first season in the majors – expecting 50 HR’s seems aggressive.
He is right on a 12 AB/HR rate this season, a sustainable pace for the Marlins slugger, especially if Marcel Ozuna can continue to provide some lineup protection. There are a lot of good power hitters off to a great start this season, but none have the easy power that Stanton possesses.
#5. Washington Nationals to Win World Series +800
This could finally be the year a Washington sports team doesn’t gag it up in the playoffs. Sure, Dusty Baker has an awkward track record of postseason meltdowns to match the Nationals already impressive resume of heart-breaking failures, but this team is SO good I’m willing to ignore their checkered history. They have the best lineup in the National League and the starting pitching to match. The National League East is one of the weakest divisions in baseball and with the problems of the New York Mets and the large hole they are digging, it doesn’t look like anyone is going to prevent Washington from making the postseason. Assuming they are a near-lock for the postseason, getting a team that can go Scherzer/Strasburg/Roarke/Gonzalez in the postseason is a heck of a bargain at +800.
There are problems, sure. Namely, a bullpen that ranks last in the National League in ERA at 5.14. That is generally a reason to run for the hills, but I am going to stick with the Nats. So far, that pen hasn’t cost them any results and assuming they are still cruising the way they are now, there’s no reason to think management won’t go out and get them a few arms to bolster the postseason run. They have some young tradeable minor leaguers that are made more expendable with the youth of cornerstones Bryce Harper and Trea Turner. They also have plenty of money they’ll be willing to spend to finally get this team over the hump.
There’s a strong motivation for Washington to go all in this year. Despite extending Harper’s contract, they still will eventually have to prove they are a contender with deep pockets to keep him long term after 2018. This year’s team is really close; good starting pitching, power arms atop the rotation, good defensively, powerful through the middle of the lineup, speed at the top, and a transcendent superstar just entering his prime. Of all the teams under +1000 on the World Series, I like Washington’s value the best. Chicago has some real pitching questions to be just +450, and Cleveland isn’t hitting well enough to feel comfy at +650, plus the American League has too many really good teams like Boston, Houston, Baltimore and New York.
The Nats are far form a lock to win it all, but they are a near mortal lock to make the playoffs, the only team I can say that comfortably about on May 12th in the National League, and that +800 will shrink as the season progresses, making it a really good value now in May.