How he wins 67% of the time on season win totals

How he wins 67% of the time on season win totals

this article is by the president of rotowire (fantasy baseball site).


Where I Placed My Bets for 2009

By Peter Schoenke

RotoWire President

It's time to take a look at the 2009 MLB season from a purely wagering perspective.

My favorite type of betting on baseball, and all sports for that matter, is the season win totals bet for two reasons: 1) you get a lengthy period of fun with your bet and 2) for most sports the longer the duration of the bet (season), the wider the margin for error by the bookies.

I've done really well the past nine years on these bets. My overall record is 26 for 39 (with one push) - an impressive 67 percent. My best bet each season is 11-3 (I had multiple biggest bets some years). On a weighted or cash basis, I've been correct 76 percent ($2,025 in winning bets, $600 in losers). Of course, 39 bets is still a small sample size even if over nine years. I also ended a two-year losing streak last season. So hopefully I can build some momentum.

This will be the 10th set of wagers I've made in this format and as I look back some of my methods and data seem a bit behind the times. When I wrote the first column in 2000, very few sportsbooks online (if any) offered season total win props. I had to go to the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas to make the bets since they were the sportsbook that set the line for most sportsbooks. I was probably the only non hardcore gaming columnist to write about this type of wagers. Now there's a lot more information out there on these types of bets. The result is that I think the oddsmakers have become more sophisticated with the lines. Or the betting public is smarter. Or some combination of the two.

Each year before the lines come out I have an idea in mind which teams I think will rise or decline the next season and hope the oddsmakers feel differently. This year it seems like those teams (the Angels, Astros and White Sox) seem much more in line with what sabermetrical analysts forecast than in the past. Part of it may be Nate Silver's success in 2008. His PECOTA system predicted Tampa Bay to win 90 games - which made him the lone high-profile analyst predicting their breakout season. If the oddsmakers and the public were not taking notice of his and similar sabermetric methods - they are now. As a result, I don't have a wager I feel very strongly on this season.

Still, I'll stick to what's now become my old school methods since they have a track record of success. When I look at a upcoming baseball season, there are six methods I use to judge which teams might be a good bet: Three are statistical and three are observations I've had watching the bookies set season-long lines for MLB and other sports. I'm using for these odds which I grabbed on Mar. 18 (no team's line has moved more than a game as of Mar. 25, so I'll still use last week's math):

Team Total
Arizona Diamondbacks 86.5
Atlanta Braves 83.5
Baltimore Orioles 72.5
Boston Red Sox 94.5
Chicago Cubs 92
Chicago White Sox 77.5
Cincinnati Reds 79
Cleveland Indians 85.5
Colorado Rockies 77
Detroit Tigers 81.5
Florida Marlins 75
Houston Astros 73.5
Kansas City Royals 76.5
Los Angeles Angels 88.5
Los Angeles Dodgers 88.5
Milwaukee Brewers 81.5
Minnesota Twins 84
New York Mets 89
New York Yankees 94.5
Oakland Athletics 82.5
Philadelphia Phillies 88.5
Pittsburgh Pirates 69
San Diego Padres 71.5
San Francisco Giants 79.5
Seattle Mariners 73.5
St. Louis Cardinals 82.5
Tampa Bay Devil Rays 89
Texas Rangers 73.5
Toronto Blue Jays 78
Washington Nationals 72

The Johnson Effect

The Johnson Effect argues that a team that scores more runs or allows fewer runs than most statistical formulas would suggest, is bound to regress the next season. For example, if one team scores more runs than sabermetrical formulas such as Runs Created or OPS might suggest, then they'll score less the next season. The theory works based on the fact that sometimes a team has more success than it should just based on pure luck. A bad bounce here, a fluke play here - they can add up in one season and make a team look more powerful than they should be.

My favorite type of statistic for this analysis is a tool called the Pythagorean Theory. You probably learned the Pythagorean theory in trigonometry, but in baseball it means that the ratio of a team's wins and losses will be similar to the relationship between the square of their runs scored and the square of their runs allowed. If the runs a team is scoring and giving up in any given season doesn't translate into the expected win total from the Pythagorean Theory, that means something odd took place that should turn around next season.

Using the Johnson Effect and applying the Pythagorean Theory, who looks like they'll rebound in 2009? Here are the top teams who should have seen more or less wins based on their 2008 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:

Anaheim Angels -12
Houston Astros -9
Tampa Bay Devil Rays -5
Tampa Bay Devil Rays -5
San Diego Padres +5
Baltimore Orioles +5
Seattle Mariners +6
Toronto Blue Jays +7
Atlanta Braves +7

I mentioned the Astros and Angels as two teams that last season seemed to play far above what their other stats would indicate. I pegged both of them for a decline in 2009. Unfortunately, so do the oddsmakers. It's unusual to have teams that fell outside their projected Pythagorean wins by nine or more. It's happened six times since the 1994 strike. That makes the Angels a rare team. There were three teams that won ten games more than their Pythagorean projection, and they declined by an average of six wins the next season. That's not much of a sample size. The oddsmakers have the Angels declining by 11.5 games. They've also won 89 games or more for five straight years.

Still, there are lots of reasons to think they'll have a precipitous decline. The pitching staff may be without two starters from last season. Jon Garland left via free agency and Ervin Santana's elbow is giving him problems this spring. (of course, Kelvim Escobar could also return in May or June). But the offense could be terrible. They were 10th in the AL in runs scored last season and feature a lineup of plenty of players who could decline (Torii Hunter will be 34, Vladimir Guerrero will be 34 and Bobby Abreu will be 35). And only the Mariners and Royals took fewer walks last season. The book has them declining 11.5 games, which is far more than I'd like to see. However, I've had good luck taking these teams even with sportsbook lines I didn't love (I won the under on the Mariners last season despite similar fears). I'll bet $50 the Angels don't win 88.5 games.

I'm also down on Houston's chances to repeat a winning record as their late-season 2008 run seemed very fluky. Miguel Tejada seems ready for a sharp decline. Using Michael Bourn at the top of the order hurts a team with severe OBP issues. But the oddsmaker's projected decline of 12.5 wins is too much to risk a bet. Still, I'm tempted.

The Plexiglas Principle

This theory says that any team that improves dramatically in one season is likely to decline the next season.

What teams made such dramatic moves from 2007 to 2008?

Tampa Bay Devil Rays +31
Chicago White Sox +17
Florida Marlins +13
Houston Astros +13
Chicago Cubs +12

The Rays are the obvious dilemma here. Can they sustain such a large increase? Since 1969 there have been 51 teams that have improved 19 or more games in the standings. Those teams have declined by an average of 7.2 games the next season. There have only been three previous improvements of thirty or more wins since 1970. Those three teams lost an average of 16.7 games the following season.

Over the years the only kind of teams that buck the Plexiglas Principle are teams with young strong starting pitching staffs. The 1991 Braves (Glavine & Smoltz), the 1968 Oakland A's (Hunter) and the 1984 New York Mets (Gooden & co.) are good examples. I think Tampa Bay fits that criteria. The Rays have the best collection of promising young talent in recent memory. James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza are all under 27. David Price (the first overall pick in the 2007 draft) is just 23. The rotation fits the profile of teams that can sustain large improvements. And the offense is also young with B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford all younger than 27. It's a team that's arguably still improving. As a result, there's no reason to mess with them even if the book says they'll decline by eight wins in 2009. In fact, I may even bet the other way that they don't decline much at all - even in the tough AL East.

The White Sox are another team I planned to take the under on in the offseason, but the oddsmakers agreed too much. They opened at 79.5 wins and are down to 77.5.

The Reverse Plexiglas Principle

When a team has consistently been a winner and then experiences a sudden drop off, there is a strong likelihood that their win total will rebound. The Plexiglas Principle doesn't happen as often in reverse, but there is evidence it works.

Here are the teams that declined the most in 2008:

Seattle Mariners -27
San Diego Padres -26
Colorado Rockies -16
Cleveland Indians -15
Detroit Tigers -14
Washington Nationals -14
Atlanta Braves -12

I like Seattle, Detroit and Cleveland to bounce back from down years. The oddsmakers have Seattle improving 12.5 wins, which they should just by clearing out the worst players on an awful team and making a huge upgrade at general manager. I also like Cleveland to bounce back, but the book has them winning 85.5 games - and I'm not sure any team in the AL Central wins more than 90 games. The book also has Detroit moving above .500, but I'm worried about the starting pitching after Justin Verlander as Jeremy Bonderman has a sore shoulder this spring. Still, there a good bet to score over 800 runs. They have a lower bar to clear than the Indians, so I'll make a smaller bet. I'll bet $50 the Tigers win more than 81.5 games.

The Bottom Feeder Bet

This is totally from a non-scientific study of watching the bookies set the lines on expected wins the past few years. People tend to care less about the bad teams in any sport, so the line is set a bit lower to entice folks to bet on these doormats. Let's look at this year's candidates.

Pittsburgh Pirates 69
San Diego Padres 71.5
Washington Nationals 72
Baltimore Orioles 72.5
Texas Rangers 73.5
Houston Astros 73.5
Seattle Mariners 73.5

All of these teams except the Rangers and Baltimore are on the decline or stuck in the cellar. The Rangers have hitting, but I'm not sold their pitching is moving the right direction. Baltimore appears to be the one team that's clearly improving. Andy McPhail has cleared out the aging veterans on his club and has brought in several players with upside (Adam Jones, Felix Pie) plus the younger talent should start to pay dividends this season (Matt Wieters) and Nick Markakis should continue to improve at age 25.

I'll bet $50 the Orioles win more than 72.5 games.

The Book's Biggest Movers

The last thing I look at is what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline in 2009.

Atlanta Braves +11.5
Seattle Mariners +12.5
Washington Nationals +13
Houston Astros -12.5
Anaheim Angels -11.5
Chicago White Sox -11.5

I think I've covered most of these in previous sections. While I'm not sold on Chipper Jones, Garrett Anderson or the bulk of the bullpen to stay healthy for the Braves, Atlanta should improve significantly with a more reliable veteran rotation (led by Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami). I was thinking a jump of ten games easy. So that line is about right. The Nationals could be terrible again, but it's hard to see any team winning less than 60 games again without a few bad breaks.

The Book's Non Movers

St. Louis Cardinals -3.5
Philadelphia Phillies -3.5
Boston Red Sox -0.5
New York Mets no change
Kansas City Royals 1.5
Pittsburgh Pirates 2
Colorado Rockies 3

The Royals stand out among these teams. They should improve in 2009 with Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles and Billy Butler all likely to improve. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke form a surprisingly strong top of the rotation. I expect them to make a run at .500.

I'll bet $25 the Royals win more than 76.5 games.

The Phillies also have a modest decline after winning the World Series. I always like fading the World Series winner. Since 1975, the World Series winner has declined an average of 8.1 wins and only six of 32 teams improved over that span. If you take out the fluky 1997 Marlins (since ownership pretty much sold off the starting lineup as a cost saving measure after the season causing a decline from 92 wins to 52 victories), the average is still 7.2 games. The Phillies should contend again in the NL East, but they didn't win more than 90 games the previous seven seasons despite a usually competitive roster. I know it's not the most sabermentric-oriented theory, but my take is that spending the season as the World Champions usually means your opponents are gunning for you just a little harder and your team is a little more complacent.

I'll bet $50 the Phillies win less than 88.5 games.

The Billy Beane Theory

I'm adding a new theory this year based on watching the oddsmakers consistently miss the target with one team. In the financial markets they say "the trend is your friend" and that's the case with the Oakland A's. The oddsmakers consistently underrate Bean's Moneyball methods. The A's have beat the book in seven of the last eight years (of course, I lost on their one losing year). The oddsmakers have the A's becoming a winning team at 82.5 games. I like the moves they've made in the offseason by brining in Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi and Orlando Cabrera. The rotation could be a mess, but there's plenty of talent with Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Josh Outman nearly ready. I think they can win the AL West.

I'll bet $25 the A's win more than 82.5 games.

So to recap, here are my bets for 2009:

Los Angeles Angels $50 under on 88.5 wins Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
Detroit Tigers $50 over on 81.5 wins Reverse Plexiglas
Baltimore Orioles $50 over on 72.5 wins Bottom Feeder
Kansas City Royals $25 over on 76.5 wins Book Non Mover
Philadelphia Phillies $50 under on 88.5 wins Book Non Mover
Oakland A's $25 over on 82.5 wins Billy Beane Theory

One note: My bets/track record doesn't try to account for the variations in extra juice you need to pay. Most lines are -110, meaning the sportsbook takes about five percent on each bet. The "Vig" tends to be higher on these bets than for single games. Sometimes the vig can vary widely, such as the 2009 Oakland over of 82.5 wins at -130 according to (the under is even). It's another method for the bookmakers to alter how the money is coming in on each side so it gets to their comfort level.

If you are making a lot of bets, this is a serious factor in the math. But I don't bother to take that into account because I'm more focused on the overall wins number for a team perspective. I vary the dollar amounts below as a way to show how confident I am in the bet (the $300 bet on the 2004 Royals is my all-time high), so there are some holes in the math if you added in all the varying vigs.

And why should you care what I think? I've made money seven of the past nine years. Here's the breakdown:

Year W/L Team Bet Theory
2008 Won Seattle Mariners $200 under on 84 wins Johnson Effect
2008 Lost Chicago Cubs $50 under on 87.5 wins Plexiglas Principle
2008 Won Oakland A's $50 over on 73.5 wins Reverse Plexiglas Principle
2008 Push San Francisco $50 under on 72 wins Book Non Mover
2007 Won Cleveland Indians $50 over on 85.5 wins Johnson Effect
2007 Lost Chicago Cubs $50 under on 83.5 wins Book Mover
2007 Lost Oakland A's $50 over on 85.5 wins Book Mover
2007 Lost Minnesota Twins $100 over on 84 wins Book Mover
2007 Won Arizona Diamondbacks $100 over on 78.5 wins Book Non Mover
2006 Won Chicago White Sox $100 under on 92 wins Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2006 Lost Arizona Diamondbacks $25 under on 73 wins Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2006 Lost Tampa Bay Devil Rays $100 over on 68 wins Bottom Feeder
2006 Lost Milwaukee Brewers $50 over on 81 wins Book Non Mover
2006 Won Minnesota Twins $50 over on 83 wins Book Non Mover
2005 Won New York Yankees $150 under on 102 wins Johnson Effect
2005 Won Milwaukee Brewers $50 over on 69.5 wins Bottom Feeder
2005 Won San Diego Padres $25 under on 86.5 wins Plexiglas Principle
2005 Lost Minnesota Twins $25 over on 89.5 wins Book Non Mover
2004 Won Kansas City Royals $300 under on 81 wins Plexiglas Principle
2004 Won Houston Astros $50 over on 91 wins Johnson Effect
2004 Lost Detroit Tigers $100 under on 66.5 wins Book Mover
2004 Won San Francisco Giants $50 over on 85 wins Book Mover
2004 Won Florida Marlins $50 over on 83 wins Book Mover
2003 Won Anaheim Angels $100 under on 91 wins Plexiglas Principle
2003 Won Oakland A's $50 over on 93.5 wins Book Mover
2003 Won New York Mets $50 under on 86 wins Book Mover
2003 Won Toronto Blue Jays $50 over on 79 wins Book Non Mover
2003 Won Boston Red Sox $50 over on 91 wins Johnson Effect
2002 Won Oakland A's $200 over on 90.5 wins Book Mover
2002 Won Philadelphia Phillies $100 under on 82.5 wins Plexiglas Principle
2002 Won Pittsburgh Pirates $50 over on 68 wins Bottom Feeder
2002 Lost Seattle Mariners $50 over on 94 wins Reverse Plexiglas Principle
2002 Lost Colorado Rockies $50 over on 77 wins Johnson Effect
2002 Lost New York Yankees $50 under on 99 wins Reverse Bottom Feeder
2001 Lost St. Louis Cardinals $100 under on 89.5 wins Plexiglas Principle
2001 Won Chicago White Sox $100 under on 88 wins Plexiglas Principle
2001 Won Houston Astros $100 over on 82.5 wins Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle
2001 Won Philadelphia Phillies $25 over on 74.5 wins Bottom Feeder & Johnson Effect
2001 Won Minnesota Twins $25 over on 73 wins Bottom Feeder
2000 Won Arizona Diamondbacks $100 under on 93 wins Plexiglas Principle
2000 Won Minnesota Twins $100 over on 64 wins Bottom Feeder

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