How To Bet On The MLB Playoffs
What are the best MLB playoff betting strategies? How is betting on baseball playoffs different to betting on the MLB regular season? In this article we discuss the keys to betting on the MLB playoffs.
An Introduction to Major League Baseball Playoffs
The Major League Baseball Playoffs start with Wildcard games followed by the full blown American and National league brackets. Many in the field of analytics emphasize the role of randomness in the baseball postseason, emphasizing that “anything can happen in a small sample size” and “the best team usually doesn’t win the pennant.”
Of course, gambling in general, and betting on sports in particular, is all about accepting randomness and trying to find edges in the market where the probabilities are not correctly priced. As with any successful baseball bettor, you aren’t trying to pin down exactly what’s going to happen. No. You’re trying to spot openings where what’s more likely to happen isn’t represented accurately in the market.
With that in mind, it’s important to think about what factors are most likely to lead to baseball teams (and their starting pitchers) being underrated and overrated in the playoffs. As we’ve discussed in past postseason analysis for the NFL, college basketball, and the NBA, one of the great hidden keys for team success in a playoff structure is versatility. On the other side of the coin, teams which lack this dimension can be overrated because it’s often underestimated how easy it is for playoff caliber opponents to counteract and nullify one big strength.
A team that’s too reliant on the home run will find it very difficult to thrive in spacious parks against elite pitchers who don’t let you make solid contact very often. Suddenly, a regular season dynamo is striking out or flying out all the time while not playing to market expectations.
A team that’s too reliant on stringing together hits in a sequential offense at the expense of power will find it extremely difficult to do that vs. elite playoff pitching. Hits just don’t string together against the best pitchers. This kind of offense ends up scattering its hits and struggling to get anything on the board.
A team that’s too reliant on one or two ace starting pitchers will become mortal when their ace is matched up against the other team’s ace, and will be in big trouble when its lesser arms have to throw later in a series.
A team that invested heavily in frontline talent while rarely playing its bench will find itself handcuffed in late-game situations where one run is all it takes to win. They won’t have a player ready to do the job in the spot that game conditions will be asking for.
If you’re an avid baseball bettor, you probably know the frontline talent very well on all of this year’s playoff teams. Spend some time between now and first pitch thinking about versatility dimension, and depth.
Determine how each offense has been scoring its runs this year. Do they get a lot of runners on base to create a merry-go-round? Or, is the offense largely power based?
Have they been scoring consistently on the road (where they see a variety of stadiums and game conditions), or only at home. A team racking up large scoring totals by abusing mediocre pitching in a friendly home park is very likely to underachieve in a more demanding environment.
Do one or two guys carry most of the run-producing weight? Or, are responsibilities spread more evenly throughout the lineup? It’s easier to neutralize one guy than it is six!
Is the lineup heavy with hitters from one side of the plate (the major threats are all righthanded hitters, or all lefthanded hitters), or does a solid mix make it more immune to opposing relief specialists? The ideal lineup has threats from both sides of the plate.
It’s impossible to know up front which challenges that each individual team will be dealing with. But, we do know that the upcoming playoffs will feature these extremes.
From stadiums in balmy Southern California to chillier and breezier Northern California, across the unpredictable Midwest, to the unpredictable Mid-Atlantic, then up to states bordering the Great Lakes, hitters will be dealing with all sorts of weather challenges. Between the start of the MLB playoffs and the end of October, that could mean in-series temperatures changes of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, postcard sunshine in some places but snow flurries in others, and air conditions ranging from calm to very windy.
The MLB playoff schedule is set up to maximize national TV audience potential, which means that local starting times in the early rounds can be awkward in terms of on-field shadows created by sharp sun angles. This may hit in the later innings of the earliest starts, but in the early innings of late afternoon starts. It’s hard enough to hit elite pitchers when there isn’t a shadow formed between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box!
Home run potential varies from site to site depending on fence distances, fence height, and generally prevailing game conditions. Sluggers will definitely prefer some stadiums to others.
This isn’t the NFL Super Bowl or Final Four Weekend in college basketball being played at a neutral site dome. Bettors must apply their understanding of versatility to series and championship prices for “big picture” handicapping, then anticipate who is favored in each day’s conditions when making your game-by-game selections.
Game By Game Analysis
Speaking of which, let’s move to the game-by-game handicapping that you’ll be doing through the month of October. The work you’ve already done with offensive versatility will prepare you well.
On to pitching. Baseball analytics has created a slew of helpful pitching stats for baseball handicappers. Unfortunately, trying to explain all of them might make you feel like you’re choking on alphabet soup. Don’t worry about what the stats are called, or what the abbreviations stand for. Think about skill sets, then use information gathered from your favorite stat sites to paint the picture in these areas.
Starting Pitcher Skill Sets
- - Getting Strikeouts
- - Denying Home Runs
- - Lasting Deep into Games
Focusing on those categories will do most of the heavy lifting. It’s also good to know the general fly ball/ground ball characteristics of starting pitchers so you can apply that knowledge to game day weather conditions. Fly ball/ground ball stats reflect a characteristic more than a skill set (pitchers can be effective either way). Still, handicappers should generally fade fly ball pitchers in great home run environments, but back them in cool temperatures in spacious parks.
Of course, pitching isn’t limited to the starters. Look at bullpens, particularly the “closer” who’s called upon in the ninth inning, with the strikeout-getting and home run-denying skill sets in mind. In the playoffs, many teams have similar starting talent, and great ninth-inning aces. That means what differentiates teams and results often comes from who’s on the mound in the seventh or eighth innings, so be sure you’ve also evaluated each team’s relief pitchers who are most likely to see action in set-up roles.
Once you have the offensive and pitching tendencies in mind, the following applications will offer good possibilities for finding and betting market inefficiencies.
- Back strikeout pitchers in tough visibility (awkward starting times), particularly against offenses that strike out a lot. Teams who have strikeout heavy bullpens should also be backed in good strikeout conditions.
- Back flyball pitchers in spacious parks and/or cooler weather conditions, particularly against opposing offenses who rely too heavily on home runs for their scoring production.
- Back starting pitchers with a proven ability to go at least seven innings in a start, particularly when the set-up man and closer have also been dominant this season.
- Bet against low strikeout pitchers (those who pitch-to-contact) against deep offenses with a lot of scoring versatility.
- Bet against flyball or otherwise home run prone pitchers in good home run hitting conditions (warm weather, favorable winds, shorter distances to the fences).
- Bet against starting pitchers who are more likely to last only six innings, or are in danger of lasting five innings or less because they’re on the back end of the rotation and may be overmatched in a playoff environment.
- Play Over the total if both offenses are situated to perform well in a given game.
- Play Under the total if neither offense is well-positioned to score runs in that matchup.
- Remember to look at 5-inning “first half” betting options if your analysis shows a significant edge to one starting pitcher over another in front of a shaky bullpen, or if the potential dominance or vulnerability of both starting pitchers suggest an Under or Over bet.