Every year around this time, I exchange emails with a smart baseball friend -- we'll call him Rollie. The conversation starts with me asking if Rollie has seen an updated list of Over/Under Win totals for MLB teams. A few days later, he collects his list, emails it to me, and we spend the next few days debating the most interesting lines. That conversation nets some of the most compelling baseball talk I'll have all year.
The first year we broke down the lines, I found myself having to fight hard against my first problem as a baseball fan and writer: biases against lousy teams. Nothing brings out the fears and assumptions of a baseball fan more than hard predictions, with odds attached. What I learned was that you can't look at the Washington Nationals and Kansas City Royals as uninteresting or even hopeless. The sharps that set the lines every year want to create attractive wagering possibilities on every team. They know that people will love the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and hate the perennial doormats. So they'll adjust the lines accordingly to even out the action on both sides.
The second lesson learned was to always consider context. You might think the Houston Astros are an old, boring team this year (or any time in the past four years, really). But they also play in a division that's usually stuffed with mediocre to awful teams. So if you're trying to pin down their expected results in any given year, you have to consider the environment in which they play, and baseball's unbalanced schedule.
Last, and here's where you can separate the novices from the true degenerates like myself who spend way too much time thinking about this stuff: You need to consider how each individual front office operates.
Back to the Astros for a second. Regardless of which GM has been in charge, Owner Drayton McLane has passed down the same philosophy for as long as he's owned the team: Never sell off your stars, and never rebuild. The Astros could have done themselves a huge favor by trading Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt two or three years ago, reloading a barren farm system. But that's now how McLane rolls. He believes the team benefits from having recognizable faces on the ballclub, and that those brand-name players will draw fans to the ballpark and stimulate revenue in general, even when those players are past their prime. Forget Berkman and Oswalt for a second: The Astros kept Craig Biggio long past his expiry date as a plus player, ostensibly so he could collect his 3000th hit in Houston and retire as an Astro. Jeff Bagwell made nearly $20 million in 2006 thanks to the owner's largesse; he played exactly zero games that season.
Teams that refuse to pack it in or look to the future can often make great, sneaky Over bets, because their level of play won't likely drop off after the trade deadline. Conversely, teams that are aggressive about turning over rosters, stockpiling prospects and saving money, can make great Under bets, if the line is right. Even then, though, you need to throw in an extra caveat: Don't bet the Under on a team likely to sell off veterans in July, if they have prospects waiting on the farm who are as good or better than the guys they're replacing.
This will be the fourth year I've reviewed the lines and made decisions accordingly. Now, I would NEVER EVER make an illegal bet on a sporting outcome - that would be terribly wrong. But if you're planning to be in Las Vegas between now and Opening Day (March Madness is just around the corner, and the first four days of the tourney are insane in Vegas), there are some nice betting opportunities on this year's slate. Since I won't be in Vegas this year, I will be making my usual wager of gummi bears. They're fruity, chewy and delicious!
2009 marked the third straight gummi-winning year for me. I pooled all my bears into one wager: the Tigers, over 83 Wins, at +115. You will almost never see me taking a teams when the odds are negative, nothing at -120 or worse, for instance (for you newbies, -120 means you're betting $120 to win $100; +115 means you're betting $100 to win $115). Baseball is rife with uncertainty, so best to focus on bets that double your gummi output or better. I'm not a big believer in diversifying either. Why make three bets you like and two you're not sure about - potentially diluting your winnings or worse - when you can make one or two wagers with conviction? Finally, all things being equal, I prefer to take the Under. Aggregate odds tend to lean slightly in favor of Under bets anyway; plus, a whole season of schadenfreude is strangely satisfying.
My picks are below. The numbers in brackets represent projections made by Sean Smith's CHONE projection system, The Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system, and for fun, baseball superscribe Joe Posnanski. The idea is simply that we have some numbers out there that you can compare to the Vegas odds in making your picks. As always, you'll want to do some research beyond those big, broad numbers.
(Also, these are for GUMMI BEAR PURPOSES ONLY. I'm not looking for credit if you win so many gummis that you need a root canal, nor blame if you go into candy debt.)
With all of that in mind, here are my three favorite picks for 2010:
Chicago White Sox under 82.5 (81) ...+110
My first Over/Under win ever was an Under on the White Sox, in 2007. Mainstream media and fans loved them coming off a 90-win season in '06, just two years removed from winning the World Series. Instead, the Pale Hose won just 72 games in '07; I was counting my stack of gummis by early August. The team has slowly incorporated a few younger players onto the roster to try to remedy some of the problems they had before with an old, slow roster. But this team still lacks the kind of across-the-board, dynamic talent you'd want to see in a contender. Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez, John Danks and Gavin Floyd are nice building blocks. But this team still has too many Konerkos and Pierzynskis, and is still putting too much faith in Jake Peavy, a once-great pitcher coming off a major injury, transplanted to a tougher division in a tougher league in a much tougher ballpark that yields copious home runs.
Tampa Bay Rays Over 88.5 (88, 92, 94, 86) ...Even
If the Rays played in any other division, this would be a lay-up. But then we remember the lesson of context. Tampa Bay Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman called this year's club the best in franchise history. That's pretty impressive, considering the Rays won 97 games and an AL pennant two years ago. But in a division with the loaded Yankees and Red Sox and the improving Baltimore Orioles, how much can we expect from the Rays?
Here's where I battle biases. I'm in the final stages of writing a book about the Rays (ESPN Books/Ballantine, Spring 2011). Having interviewed scads of players, coaches, executives, and others on and around the team, it's easy to fall into the trap of rooting for them, and possibly overestimating their talent. My self-check, oddly, is the Montreal Expos. I grew up cheering desperately for the Expos, only to see them fall short every year. Despite the natural optimism that comes with being a fan, I was also realistic about their chances, and rarely got excited when it wasn't warranted (except in 1994, but that's another story for a great Commissioner who deserves to be made into a statue - Han Solo-style, that is).
All of that means I think I'm capable of evaluating the Rays without dwelling on what a fascinating guy Gabe Kapler is, or how I could talk to Fernando Perez for two hours and wish for four more (that actually happened, matter of fact). And what I see is a team that made solid improvement in acquiring Rafael Soriano for the bullpen and Kelly Shoppach behind the plate, to go with an improving rotation and a solid lineup that could improve if B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell bounce back. The Rays are too good not to win 90-plus, even in the loaded AL East. The Hardball Times and PECOTA both agree, emphatically.
(NOTE: I will of course be steering clear of the Rays, for obvious reasons. Too big a can of worms for me to wager, even gummi worms.)
Atlanta Braves +350 to win NL East
One of the things I've noticed since starting these annual exercises is that the sharps have gotten smarter. The spread of projection systems like PECOTA, CHONE and ZIPS gives everyone - including Vegas - a chance to think analytically along with the rest of us, and also predict where people might lay their money. That means fewer and fewer great over/under opportunities every year.
With that in mind, we're taking the Braves to usurp the Phillies in the NL East. That +350 line is amazing for a team this good. The Braves trot out a deep starting rotation led by Jair Jurrjens, a now-healthy Tim Hudson and young ace Tommy Hanson. They're very good up the middle, led by Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar. And the great, big wild card is Jason Heyward, who's hit so many bombs during spring training that Braves employees are considering parking their cars in Alabama.
The Phils bring back their loaded infield, along with Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and a pitching staff now led by the great Roy Halladay. But they still have a shaky bullpen, they've had a long run of great health, and they might be due for some bad luck this season. Considering the Giants - whose lineup is completely miserable outside of Pablo Sandoval - are a mere +300 to win the NL West, this Braves line looks too good to pass up.