What are the Odds? Examining the early MLB Betting Markets

Here’s our resident punter Will Cook with an eye on where to place your chips…

Three weeks into the season is the first time you can look at the MLB standings knowing that they are beginning to mean something. There is a huge chunk of the season remaining but the narratives are formulating and the winners who felt like certainties in March are perhaps not looking as certain as we thought.

2016 was interesting when it came to the pre-season divisional betting markets.  No team was given a greater than 50% chance of winning their division; a rarity indeed.  The closest were the Cubs who were given a 48% chance of winning the NL Central.

Let’s have a look what has changed and which pre-season assumptions have been well and truly thrown out of the window.

I will start with the motivation of this article and that is the NL East.

Before the beginning of the season it was considered a two horse race.  Some bookmakers favoured the Nationals, others the Mets.  Overall it was suggested that 95% of the time one of these two would win it, with Miami a long shot and Atlanta and Philadelphia both non-factors.

After a strong start from Washington and a steady one from New York the odds have swung aggressively towards the capital.  Indeed some companies now see them as having a greater than 70% chance of winning the division.  Utter madness, with just 3.5 games separating them and nothing of note differing from the start of the season.

A couple of Mets players, notably Matt Harvey, have struggled to get going and Jacob DeGrom has had an unfortunate start to the season for personal reasons.  Both are very likely to recapture their form and no one is really worried.  Bryce Harper is undoubtedly the best hitter in baseball, but that was the case last year too. So why the big discrepancies? You tell me…

The Cubs on the other hand; now that is a team who are worthy favourites. And yet they are priced at the same percentage as Washington.

One drawback for the Cubs is they will have two other quality teams vying for the top spot. The upside is they’re the best team in Baseball and very worthy favourites for the World Series.  Not only have they been beating teams, they have been destroying them, scoring 67 runs to more than they have conceded in only seventeen games.

In the AL East, Baltimore have taken a slightly surprising lead in the early stages and hold a 2.5 game lead over Boston.  Their probability has increased over the last week from 9% to 15%, however there is still a lot of uncertainty and the Red Sox and Blue Jays are considered likeliest to win the division, despite very patchy beginnings.

The most disappointing team so far has to be Houston.  Last season they kicked off the season at 33/1 and very nearly won it, leading to them starting the season as strong favourites for the AL West.  Five wins in 17 has led another overreaction, as their probability has halved from 40% to 20%.

Like the Mets, a few pitchers have struggled early on but the fundamentals that make the team best equipped to win the division are still there.  Even the best teams are likely to go through such a slump and it would be foolish to start writing off Houston so early on.

One team who were written off at the beginning of the season is Oakland.

Firms across the UK can’t make their mind up on them.  10/1 is available at some bookmakers, whilst others have cut the odds to 4/1 after a very hot start, a significant difference.  One price completely disregards their hot start to the season, the other buys into the idea of them challenging wholeheartedly with the true probability being somewhere in-between given the strength of teams in their division.

Let’s end with a team who are playing much better than their market probability suggests.  Colorado have started off hot so far this season, yet are still available at 80/1 to win the NL West.  Of course, the Giants and Dodgers will have a lot to say about that, but sitting at 9-7 they are just half a game back from first in the division.

Scoring runs has never been an issue for the Rockies so the fact they still have a negative run differential dampens the optimism.  Number one prospect Jon Gray is now part of the rotation which will give them hope along with very promising starts from Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood.

I don’t think they have done enough to enter the conversation for division hopefuls, but they’re not far off and surely have a greater than 1.2% chance of succeeding.  After all, they did travel to Wrigley Field and win a series against them only a week ago.

My assessment is only minor adjustments to prices are required here to compensate for good and bad starts.  Some of the bookies’ moves are unnecessarily aggressive and suggest an abandoning of strategies on the back of rusty early season form.

It’s a long old season, we’ve just finished the first chapter and there is no need to overreact.

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