Since the emergence of Bill James’ sabermetrics approach to baseball, the level of data analysis in the sport has continued to rise. Now, with almost every aspect of baseball analysed at the most granular level, everyone is looking for a new angle that no one else has tried.
Statistical analysis is a crucial part of successful betting and this means baseball is often the sport of choice for serious bettors. Developments in the game mean data has become even more important when trying to find a competitive edge – the same applies when trying to get an edge over the bookmaker.
The Houston Astros World Series success was certainly an enjoyable fairy tale story, but there are also lessons that bettors can learn from last year and the seasons that came before it.
Analysing the shift in tactics
The 2014 MLB season saw the re-emergence of defensive shifts – these were more advanced adaptations of those developed by Cleveland Indians’ Manager Lou Boudreau back in 1946 but the intention (and result) were the same.
The success of this defensive tactic meant it was used more regularly and with that, the league’s run-scoring rate begun to drop. A negative impact on the entertainment element of the sport left many fans calling for it to be banned. However, as can be seen from the table below, baseball adjusted.
HR = Home Run, BA = Batting Average, OBP = On Base Percentage, SLG = Slugging Percentage
Last season saw home run frequency increase by 40% compared to the infield shift re-birth season of 2014. While the rise of the offence was partly down to teams addressing how to play against the defensive shift, it also led to claims that the ball used in MLB was “juiced” – Ben Lindbergh has written at length about this debate.
Bettors will be keeping a close eye on early season data this year. If the claim that adjustments to the ball caused one of the biggest offensive explosions in the game’s 150-year history (setting an all-time record for the most home runs across the league), another adjustment to put a halt to such a spike would be just as plausible.
Run lines in the early part of the MLB season will likely be set with the expectation that the rise of the offence and big hitters is set to continue. Paying close attention to offensive metrics and making early adjustments before the rest of the market could be the key to success for betting on baseball this season.
The impact offensive production has on pitching
While the exploits of Jose Altuve, Giancarlo and co would have taken the spotlight last season, it’s also important to analyse the impact this shift in the game has had on the defence.
Bettors might have seen stats for elite level pitchers deteriorate over the past few seasons and assume their ability was on the decline. Of course, a spike in offensive output brings with it a damaging effect on pitchers’ performance figures.
A look at Clayton Kershaw’s stats from the past two seasons highlight the tendency for pitchers to give up more runs than might be expected – Kershaw is widely regarded as the best pitcher in the game so this can’t be a question of ability.
/9 = Per 9 innings, K = Strikeouts, BB = Base On Balls, HR = Home Run
The newfound power of the MLB offence meant pitchers were playing it safer throughout last season (hence an increased walk rate). This means that anticipating the regression of pitching performance could pay off during the 2018 MLB season.
It is also interesting to note how teams have approached pitching in general. A look at the stats over the past few seasons show that pitchers have thrown more pitches to each batter; they’ve been throwing harder and are being used more frequently.
These figures highlight a greater emphasis on pitching efficiency in the MLB nowadays. Betting markets in baseball have traditionally been based on the starting pitcher for a game (so much so that they are often listed alongside the odds) but it seems the importance a team places on who starts on the mound is dropping – this means bettors and bookmakers should follow suit.
These statistics are taken from the league as a whole, but bettors need to remember that individual teams are different and when betting on a game there is much more to take into consideration.
A team manager’s tactics for pitching and rotation, how well-rested each team’s relievers are, how players perform after specific rest periods and the team’s bullpen performance record against different handedness are just a few examples of how more detailed research can help inform your betting.
External factors shouldn’t be forgotten
Although there have been plenty of changes in baseball in the past few years, the impact that external factors can have on performance still remains – anyone betting on baseball should be aware of these factors and why they are important.
The weather is one of the most well known external factors that can influence a game of baseball. In simple terms, the hotter it is the further the ball travels. Humidity is also important in a game of baseball and will have an effect on runs scored (Alan Nathan has explained the reasons behind this in great detail).
In addition to temperature and humidity, the wind speed and direction is also something that anyone betting on baseball should look at before betting on a game. If the wind is “with” a batter – coming from behind them – it will help them hit the ball further and if it is blowing in the opposite direction it will have an adverse effect on batting performance.
It might seem obvious to say, but when (the time of day) and where (the stadium) a game is played should also be considered when betting on baseball. The position of the sun could negatively impact hitters, while some batters can see the ball better at night than others. Additionally, certain stadiums allow more hits, runs and home runs than others – basic research into “the park factor” for specific stadiums before placing a bet is crucial.