MLB BASEBALL BETTING—HANDICAPPING THE STREAK
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Hall of Fame baseball manager/general manager Branch Rickey once famously quipped ‘baseball is a game of inches’. There’s no doubt truth to that but baseball is also a ‘game of streaks’. With 162 games a season even the best teams endure a losing streak and even the worst teams enjoy a winning streak. Understanding the dynamics of winning and losing streaks is essential to effective baseball handicapping.
The reality of baseball is that each individual game is less important than any other team sport. Part of this is due to the number of games but much of it is due to the nature of the game itself. Baseball isn’t a sport where a team can ‘focus’ or ‘circle’ every single game on the schedule. In the NFL, each game is important due to the parity in the league and the 16 game schedule. In the NBA and NHL, the 82 game schedule means that teams can’t be at their best for every game but they can bring a superior effort for ‘important’ games or games against hated rivals.
Baseball just doesn’t work that way. It’s more of a ‘process’ than anything else. If teams and players execute the ‘process’ effectively they’ll win 60% or so of their games, or 6 out of every 10. If they don’t, they’ll lose 60% of their games winning 40% or 4 out of every ten. That’s not a huge difference between the two extremes. It also means that even the best teams lose 40% of their games and even the worst teams win 40% of their games. That’s one of the reasons why betting underdogs is generally so profitable and laying big prices with favorites can be so dangerous.
Another reality about baseball—teams don’t get to the numbers above by winning or losing 6 of every 10 games. Occasionally, there will be teams that never go on long winning or losing streaks but they are very rare. Instead, teams will go through winning and losing cycles of various lengths. In the current (2016) baseball season through the end of June the longest winning streak has been a 9 game winning streak by the Cleveland Indians and an eleven game losing streak by Tampa Bay.
REVERSAL OF FORM
What’s interesting is that both streaks represented a profound ‘reversal of form’. Prior to the Indians’ 9 game winning streak they lost 6 of their previous 9. Before Tampa Bay began their 11 game losing streak they had won 8 of 11. This is an important concept to keep in mind and one that you’ll see often. Teams don’t always ‘taper off’ after a long run of winning or losing baseball. A good deal of time they go from one extreme to the next.
In this series we’ll talk specifically about winning and losing streaks and how to handicap them. What happens more often in Major League Baseball is teams will experience upturns and downturns but not as an unbroken streak. A good team will win 9 of 12 games. A bad team will lose 8 of 10. I refer to these as ‘runs’ (as in a team is on a ‘run of 8 wins in 11 games’) and there are many handicapping implication of these as well. We’ll cover ‘runs’ in a different series as there are different dynamics than ‘streaks’.
Obviously, it’s difficult to sustain a streak past a certain point. It’s become all the more difficult in recent years. Of the 28 longest winning streaks in baseball history only two happened after 1975 and only one since the year 2000. Eleven of the 28 happened before 1900. 22 of the 28 happened prior to 1935. Just think of the difficulty in hitting a multi-team parlay or even winning consecutive single sports bets—it’s even more difficult to run off a long streak of baseball victories. Losing streaks show similar tendencies. Of the longest 22 losing streaks in baseball history only three took place after 1975.
Despite the difficulty of sustaining a long winning or losing streak in modern day baseball one of the more difficult things to do is ‘predict’ when a winning streak or losing streak will end. That’s why you can’t ‘pick winners’ in Major League Baseball (or any other sport for that matter). You have to ‘find value’ and as a streak progresses you’ll invariably begin to find value by playing against it.
In this series we’ll talk about the dynamics of winning and losing streaks, how to handicap teams during winning/losing streaks and how to handicap teams immediately after the end of the streak. The better you understand how to deal with these kinds of situations the more effective you’ll be as a baseball handicapper.