As is the case with all forms of sports gambling, being able to identify upsets is one of the most productive ways of making real money. Baseball is a particularly valuable sport to bet then, as the difference in winning percentages between the best and worst teams are narrower than any other major sport. It is not uncommon for the very worst teams to beat the very best, whereas in sports like basketball and football these upsets happen much less frequently.
While there are several different types of bets, you can make on Major League Baseball (for instance run lines and totals), for the purposes of this article we are discussing moneyline bets. A moneyline bet is when you are picking the winner of the game, straight up, without a point spread.
When looking to bet underdogs in MLB, a good comparison to make is card counting in blackjack. At best, counting cards improve the counter’s odds of winning by .5 – 1.5%. On any given single hand of blackjack that number will seem insignificant, however, over the course of thousands of hands, the counter can win millions of dollars. It’s a slow build, over time, done by just shifting the odds ever so slightly in the player’s favor.
Similarly, the factors outlined in this piece will not guarantee you an upset in any single game you bet. But because we are betting underdogs, you don’t even have to win 50% of your bets. In fact, if the teams you bet are roughly +150 underdogs on average, you would only need to hit 40% of your bets to break even!
Before we dig in to what data we will be looking at to make our bets, let’s start by shifting how you look at betting on games. When handicapping games, you aren’t just trying to identify winning teams. In fact, if you bet on teams with -150 odds consistently instead of +150 as mentioned above, you’d actually have to win over 60% of your games just to break even!
What you are looking for is value relative to the line set by the bookmakers. This is more important than just trying to determine winners and losers. For instance, if you see the odds for Team A set at +194, but after taking all of the factors and data into account, you determine that Team A has a roughly 38% chance of winning. So do you bet Team B instead, with the 62% chance of winning?
Actually, the answer is no. While those would seem like bad odds, it’s actually a sound bet. At +194, you only have to hit 34% of your bets to break even. So like counting cards, you may not cash in big right away, but over time you will turn a significant profit.
To calculate the break-even %, use the following calculation:
So for the example above, 1.94/(1+1.94) = 0.66 x 100 = 66%. This would be the answer if we were betting the -194 favorite. Because we are betting on the underdog, we subtract the answer above from 100, which equals 34%.
Now that we understand the basic concepts and math behind betting MLB underdogs, let’s explore a few potential factors that may help us shift the odds in our favor. These are potential opportunities to fade the public and diagnose weak lines by taking into account factors other than home/away, starting pitching, and win/ loss records.
Handicapping games is an ever evolving practice. You will need to continuously track which factors to prioritize and which data is just noise. But with refinement and sound betting principles you can turn a profit while winning at a percentage only slightly better than the very worst teams in baseball.
Factors to Consider When Betting Underdogs
Travel/ Jet Lag
One aspect you may not have taken into account when handicapping a baseball game is something called circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are our natural internal body clocks that tell us when to wake, eat, and sleep. However, a study done at Northwestern University suggests that circadian rhythm can also be an important determining factor in baseball.
The study found that teams traveling from the west to the east across multiple time zones both gave up more home-runs and hit fewer homers themselves. Each time zone crossed required an additional 24 hours to recover from. Further, this drop-off in performance affected home teams returning from road trips more than visiting teams coming east.
This offers a prime betting opportunity. If you can identify teams located in the Eastern Time zone, returning home from a road trip, it is a prime opportunity to bet a visiting underdog team. This applies in particular true if the home team will be starting an ace pitcher that the public will bet heavily on. In fact, according to the study, the effects of jet lag will actually nullify home field advantage.
Keep in mind that circadian rhythms do not affect teams traveling from east to west. This is because one gains hours going west so that time is easier to adjust to. When taking jet lag into account when handicapping your games, keep in mind that the travel statistically affects pitchers more than batters. Likewise, this phenomenon also affects home teams more than away.
Because the public bets so heavily on starting pitching, these rules are a great way to find opportunities to fade the public and get favorable odds. Considering the amount of time the body takes to re-synchronize, this will affect more than one game of a series. Game 2’s of a series, when teams have traveled back East from the Pacific Time zone are excellent Away team plays. The public and sports books are less likely to factor in jet lag for Game 2.
Bullpens Undervalued/ Starters Overvalued
Odds are heavily based on the expected starters, but quite often it is the bullpen that decides games in the later innings. The public also loves betting on marquee pitchers. But the lines on games that ace pitchers start regularly get inflated to the point where you have to lay at least 2-1. A winning percentage of 66.7% would be required just to break even on 2-1 odds.
This presents an opportunity to fade the public again and bet the underdog! Lots of great pitchers have winning percentages that are just a little better than .500 (for example, Madison Bumgarner has a career winning percentage of only .585).
While the public will typically wager based on marque pitchers, strong bullpens have become just as critical to a team’s success. Likewise, they are crucially important to handicapping. You can find some great value betting on teams with weak to average starting pitchers and strong bullpens.
Finding teams with quality aces and bullpens that blow leads for them are ideal.
Especially when combined with the other factors discussed.
Knowing which umpire will be behind home plate is another vital aspect of the game that often gets overlooked by the average bettor. Umpire statistics impact the “totals” bets more than moneyline; however, they are still valuable information to gather for moneyline bets.
If an umpire tends to have a larger strike zone, you can expect a lower total and less offense. If you are betting against an ace, these probably are not the games to do so. Conversely, an umpire with a small strike zone could offer some value against an ace the public is betting heavily on. When the strike zone shrinks, the pitcher will put more men on base with walks, and give up more hits.
The umpire crews are not announced very far in advance of game 1 of a series; however, the four man team will rotate clockwise each game. So the first base umpire for Game 1 will be the home plate umpire for Game 2. Knowing this rotation, you may prepare for upcoming games that may provide favorable conditions for an upset.
Tie It All Together
To win money handicapping upsets in Major League Baseball, you will need to be able to diagnose the conditions for upsets. There are an unlimited amount of factors and data sets that a good handicapper will use to determine their own odds for a game.
The bets you make will need to be valuable relative to the line offered. Then begin to look for situations that can move the odds in your favor as discussed above.
Imagine in your mind that the teams will be playing 100 times with all of the factors that you’ve researched constant and the same in each game. If you believe the underdog will win at a higher percentage as the break-even point calculated, you are finding value and making a sound underdog bet. Now you’re ready to slowly break the bank like a good card counter at the blackjack tables!