Even though baseball withdrawal is now over, it’s important not to go too crazy early on in the season. Early season baseball betting can be very tricky because a lot of games are decided by bullpens since starting pitchers aren’t completely stretched out and will regularly leave games prior to reaching 100 pitches. Also, early season sample sizes can be very deceiving. But, you’ve missed baseball and you want to bet it anyway. Here are 10 tips to keep in mind when betting early season baseball.
1. Lines move fast
Oddsmakers are still in the process of feeling out the teams and pitches just like bettors are. If a couple of limit bets or some volume comes in on one side, the line is going to move. Keep in mind that not all baseball moves are sharp moves and that line movement may be nothing more than a sportsbook covering its own backside because they believe they hung a bad line. That may not be the case. Trust in your research and evaluation of matchups.
2. Twitter is invaluable
You should follow someone or something related to every team. Whether it’s a beat writer, the team’s official Twitter account, or a fan blog, information is essential. Random occurrences happen all the time that will change the lineup or render a pitcher unavailable. Not only will those cause an adjustment in the line, but they may force a change in your line on the game or your comfort level in playing it.
3. SSS alert
SSS stands for small sample size. Early season statistics may not be representative of what you can expect over the course of an entire season. In fact, this article from Russell Carleton at Fangraphs suggests that stats like on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS take 350 plate appearances to stabilize. Assuming an average of four or five plate appearances per game, hitter statistics aren’t likely to stabilize until June.
For pitchers, a couple of bad starts or relief outings can skew statistics for a long time. Look at game logs to see if that’s the case or if a pitcher has been consistently bad. One example from last season is John Axford. Axford gave up nine earned runs in his first four appearances covering 3.1 innings of work. After that fourth appearance, Axford’s ERA was 24.30. Even though he only allowed 20 earned runs over his final 61.2 innings of work (2.92 ERA), his ERA didn’t fall below 4.00 until June 29.
Don’t fall into the trap of small sample sizes. Look at a pitcher’s track record before putting too much emphasis on a couple of early season starts.
4. Bullpens mean the world
The average innings per start for 2013 was 5.89 innings, so just shy of six innings per start. In March/April, the average start was 5.81 innings. It’s not a significant difference, but pitchers are still building up arm strength, fighting with their mechanics and control, and managers are being cautious with their starters. A lot of times, the middle relievers have a major impact on early season games. Keep an eye on teams with good bullpen depth like the Indians, the Royals, the Rays, the Braves, and the Nationals.
5. Value on the underrated
From the season win total numbers, and the season win total analyses I did for every team, you can see who oddsmakers are pessimistic about entering the season. That will reflect in the early lines. Blindly betting underdogs was not profitable last season, losing around 30 units for the month. That being said, spot betting underdogs with their better pitchers on the mound can lead to good spots early in the season. Managers are evaluated by their records, so they won’t burn their good relievers in losses, leaving them for potential wins.
6. Early season park factor
Even though March/April was one of the best months for hitting home runs last season, largely because of pitchers still working on their command, cold temperatures and poor weather conditions can make hitting very difficult. Fly ball pitchers who would normally struggle in hitter-friendly parks will have cooler conditions where the ball won’t carry. Ground ball pitchers may run into trouble with colder, harder infields. Know these spots because they can be very profitable with both totals and finding undervalued starters.
7. Bounce back candidates
The beauty of sabermetrics, while hard to understand for some people, is that it can provide a statistical look at why a pitcher, a hitter, or a team struggled the previous season. Statistics like BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, are metrics that measure luck, good or bad, for both pitchers and hitters. For pitchers exclusively, FIP, fielder independent pitching, and SIERA, skill-interactive ERA, are far better measures of how a pitcher performed because they take defense out of the equation.
If the pitcher’s team didn’t get better defensively, FIP and SIERA may not matter as much. But if a team did improve its defense, like the Cardinals, or downgrade its defense, like the Diamondbacks, there will be noticeable differences for the pitching staff.
Traditionalists downplay sabermetrics as “nerd” stuff, but sabermetrics serve as a means of quantifying what the eyes are already seeing. A pitcher may be “missing his spots” because of the catcher’s movements to receive the pitches. But, how much is that actually affecting him? Sabermetrics hold that answer. Traditional methods of handicapping, like a pitcher’s performance against a given lineup, still can have value, but with the immense amount of numbers and research at a bettor’s disposal, utilizing every tool should be the chief objective.
8. It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Just because a team starts 10-15 or 5-12 doesn’t mean that they will be bad all season. Similarly, a team that starts 17-10 probably won’t play at a .630 clip all season long (102 wins over 162-game season). Good times can turn into bad times at the drop of a hat in baseball. The old adage is that hitting is contagious, both good and bad. Don’t form season-long impressions on a team based on a small sample of games. Trust what you believe about a team, at least until the 40-game mark, which is the widely-accepted watermark for believing in a team. Of course, there are teams like the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, who got incredibly hot in the middle of the season.
Be prepared for teams you like to slump. It happens to everybody.
9. Beware of name recognition
Early in the season, people are comfortable with betting what they know. Household names may get more respect than they deserve, while no-name starters with a lot of talent will be undervalued. In some cases, those pitchers might be prospects with high ceilings or guys who have a lot of talent that struggled the previous year. Never bet at surface value. Always dig deeper.
As such, teams perceived as good will get a lot more respect than teams perceived as bad. Just because the Cardinals are playing the Rockies doesn’t mean that the Cardinals are an automatic play. A lot of factors play into it and those should be studied.
10. Bankroll management
This isn’t exclusive to baseball by any means, but managing your bankroll early in the season is essential. If you’re not comfortable with your preseason research, there’s no shame in being an observer and looking for things you can use later in the season. The worst thing to do in baseball is bury yourself early in the season and have to play catch-up. A lot of times, dogs and small favorites are the way to make money in baseball season, rather than laying -200 or more on Justin Verlander against the Astros.
That also means there can be a lot of variance. Betting on underdogs doesn’t require a winning record to make money. Hitting a +185 underdog can go a long way in replacing losses on favorites, but +185 bets also have a 35 percent likelihood of winning. Of course, the silver lining is that it takes fewer correct picks to make money with those kind of odds, but it’s a tough way to build a bankroll during baseball season. Never spread yourself too thin and be very careful laying large amounts of chalk.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.