Major League Baseball is a part of American folklore, and will forever be known as “America’s pastime.” The MLB is America’s longest running professional sports league, and has been around for over a hundred years. The sport is extremely popular, but doesn’t garner nearly as much betting attention in the United States as the NFL or NBA – even college football and basketball score bigger numbers.
Interest has been increasing over the past decade, though, particularly with the evolution of internet sportsbooks. Today’s baseball bettor has a mighty number of markets to pick from, and the league offers more betting opportunities than any other major US sport. Partly for that reason, MLB is quite the favorite with many professional level sports bettors.
The MLB season is a 162-game marathon that begins in April, and culminates in the World Series Championship in October. There are two separate “leagues” in baseball, the American League and the National League. The key difference between the two leagues stems from the 1973 “Designated Hitter” (DH) rule. The rule centers around pitchers hitting in the NL, while there is a designated hitter for the pitcher’s spot in the batting order in the AL. The rules of baseball are the same for both the AL and NL, with the exception of the DH.
Each of the two leagues consists of 30 teams and three divisions. Teams play most of their games against others from the same league, but since the 1997 “Interleague Play” rule, there has been increased crossover. Baseball expanded their playoffs in 2013, adding an extra Wild-Card spot to each league. Each division winner, plus two Wild-Card teams, make the playoffs each season.
The postseason starts with ten teams from the NL and AL. The Wild-Card teams then match up in one-game playoffs to determine who advances to the Division Series. The latter consists of a five-game series featuring the Wild-Card winner and the three division winners. Two teams will move on from there to contest the League Championship Series (CS) in a best-of-seven. The winners of both the NLCS and ALCS then face off in the World Series, another best-of-seven series which culminates in the crowning of the world champion.
MLB betting is very different from football and basketball. In those sports, the go-to bet is point spread wagering. No such thing exists in MLB, though, so let’s look at the alternatives.
The vast majority of baseball wagers involve money line betting. I’ll use a game featuring two NL Central teams to give you an example of a baseball money line wager:
Pittsburgh Pirates +130
St. Louis Cardinals -140
In this contest, the Cardinals are the home favorites against the visiting Pirates. They are modest favorites at -140, and Pittsburgh is +130 as an on the road underdog. Baseball wagering is actually very straightforward once you’ve grasped the basics of money line betting. There’s no point spread. You’re simply choosing who you think will win the game outright.
Money line odds are centered on the one hundred dollar amount. A Cardinals backer would need to wager $140 to win $100. For the underdog Pirates, a $100 wager would bring back $130. A baseball match only has two possible outcomes – a win or a loss. There are no ties or drawn matches in MLB, so in contrast to point spread wagering, you won’t have the possibility of getting your money back in the event of a tie (or “push”).
More wagers are placed on money lines than on any other market. But MLB run lines have become increasingly popular since the advent of online sports betting, and are now perhaps the second most wagered on ahead of totals. Run lines have attached money line odds, but add a point spread element. This time, let’s use two AL East teams as an example:
Tampa Bay Rays +1.5 (+130)
Baltimore Orioles -1.5 (-150)
In this example, the Orioles are the home favorites, but also have an attached -1.5 spread. This means that Baltimore must win their game against the underdog Rays by two runs or more for Orioles backers to win their bet. Backers of Tampa Bay can cash in if their team either wins the game outright, or loses by a single run.
One major aspect that some bettors don’t consider when betting run lines is that a home favorite doesn’t have to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning if they are winning. This half inning of potential offense won’t be played, and the game will end after the top of the 9th.
This lost half inning leads to a lot of one run victories. In recent years, between 27 and 30 percent of all games have been decided by a single run. This is a significant amount, and a statistic that makes run line favorites a lot less appealing.
A third type of bet, totals, is common to most other sports. Here, it amounts to the combined number of runs between the two teams in the game. Totals in baseball are usually around 7 runs, but are of course influenced by many other factors.
The growth of online betting has contributed heavily to the number of team and player propositions available to bettors. Baseball props are not nearly as plentiful as those found in the NBA and NFL markets, but have gotten much bigger over the past few years.
Props can apply either to an individual player, or to an entire team. Popular player props center on a pitcher’s strikeout rate, or the number of hits or RBIs scored by a batter. Typical team props include the amount of runs scored by each team, and the season-long win totals. Depending on the game and sportsbook, there may not be any props listed at all for a particular contest. In other cases, there may be a dozen or more. Playoff games will have more betting options due to the increased viewership and gambling action on the game.
Like other sports, propositions can be exploited by knowledgeable bettors who follow baseball closely. As in other sports, props have a much lower betting limit than sides or totals. The maximum amount gamblers can wager on a single prop market is usually $500. Some proposition bets have limits as low as $50.
Future wagers are bets that normally revolve around the World Series Championship, or the AL or NL Championship. In recent years, this has expanded to division winners and other types of bets, such as betting on the Cy Young and MVP awards.
Futures can tie up bettors’ money for long periods of time, but have lucrative odds compared to straight bets. Some sportsbooks update their future odds quickly, but others may be slower to move their lines as a team hits a hot streak.
Now that we have gone over some bet types, there are some key factors that bettors need to consider when choosing a sportsbook to use for MLB. In addition to the advice below, it’s important to choose a reputable sportsbook that has a strong track record in the industry.
Overnight Lines – Getting the first crack at the next day’s games can give bettors access to lines that may not be available come the next day. This is the equivalent of wagering on next week’s NFL lines on Sunday Night or Monday Morning. Those who can spot value early will reap the rewards. Of course, since sportsbooks know their early lines are vulnerable to savvy sports bettors, these games have a reduced betting limit until the late-morning. These are called “night limits”
Dime Lines – Dime lines are far and away the most crucial factor when choosing which sportsbook to use for baseball. This term refers to the difference in odds between the favorite and underdog on the money line when betting an MLB game. These can also be called 10-cent lines. Here’s an example of a game that doesn’t have a dime line:
Boston Red Sox +130
New York Yankees -150
Notice that the difference between underdog Red Sox and favorite Yankees is 20 cents. This difference in the odds results in bettors being charged more, regardless of which side they bet on. Now let’s look at that game again, this time with it listed as a dime line:
Boston Red Sox +140
New York Yankees -150
The two teams are now apart a mere 10 cents. This saves bettors a ton of money, because it improves the underdogs odds by 10 cents on every bet made. Using a 20-cent line or worse throughout the season is essentially giving away money by not maximizing your edge against the sportsbooks. Depending on the amount wagered, this can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars lost.
The good news is that many reputable online sportsbooks offer baseball dime lines. Not all do though, so it is important to check before depositing. And don’t forget to search the small print for caveats. A book might only offer dime lines up to -200, for example, with 20-cent lines being the standard pricing after that point.
If you’re a serious baseball bettor (or someone who wants to be) and you’re not placing the majority of your wagers with dime lines, then you’re making a serious mistake. Few sports have a wager type that gives MLB gamblers such a clear advantage over those that don’t use it.
This may not be a concern for bettors with smaller bankrolls and bet sizes, but it will become one as their bank grows. MLB betting limits are already much smaller than those of the NFL, and some of the lesser sportsbooks may have limits that are as low as $1,000 per side, and $500 on totals.
Professional bettors will absolutely want to check a sportsbook’s betting limits on MLB games before depositing. Limits can vary depending on whether the book services US bettors or not. Many of the online bookmakers in regulated European markets will have higher betting limits than those sportsbooks that focus on the US market.
Rely on Pitching and Defense
Since the steroid era has ended, power numbers have drastically dropped off to a point where pitching and defense is often enough to win the modern ball game. Batting averages and slugging percentages are much lower than they were in the mid-90s, and very few players are having 30+ home run seasons.
Instead, the game has shifted to a philosophy that’s more about pitching and defense. Teams can now win by pushing a few runs across the place, while relying on strong starting pitching and a solid bullpen. The defense behind them is another factor that bettors tend to overlook.
Excellent team defense leads to more outs, and helps teams get out of innings faster and vice versa. A pitcher is only as good as the defense behind him, and if they struggle, he’ll probably be similarly consigned to a hard day on the mound.
There are many advanced baseball metrics that measure a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of his ERA, along with others that analyze team defense. Learn to utilize these numbers. The game has shifted from a power hitting home run-centric league, to one centered around strong pitching and defense. Bettors should adjust to these changes if they want more effective handicapping techniques.
This is broad advice, and it doesn’t mean that bettors shouldn’t wager on large favorites when betting MLB, but they should exercise some caution. This advice could be used for all money line favorites across sports betting, but is especially notable in baseball.
Over the long haul, things even out. But over a single game or series of games, anything can happen. The best pitcher in the league will still lose to the worst pitcher in the league about 20-30 percent of the time. Ace starting pitchers have their bad days, just like everyone else.
A team that is favored by -200 or more is more likely to win than their underdog opponent, but a loss for bettors when -200 is devastating. A favorite at this price has a break-even percentage of 67 percent. This means bettors have to win this wager two out of every three times just to break even or squeeze out a small profit.
It is better to go with moderately priced favorites and underdogs because of the risk vs. reward factor, and because of the lesser vigorish that is paid on underdogs when betting dime lines. A large favorite may seem like a safe bet, but it is actually very difficult to become a profitable bettor with such bets.
All the advanced statistics of today’s sports world are in part due to baseball. The game offers an unbelievable amount of advanced statistics that can be used to measure a player’s value. Traditional stats, like ERA and Batting Average, may get the headlines, but there are plenty of lesser-used stats that can give you an extra edge when evaluating a matchup. FIP and BABIP are two supreme examples.
FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, and measures a pitcher’s performance based on the league average of balls in play. It concentrates on those factors that pitchers have a degree of control over, such as home runs, walks, and strikeouts, and dismisses all of the other supposedly random aspects. FIP has established itself as a more accurate projection of future performance than ERA, and is one the most used sabermetric statistics.
BABIP, which stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play, measures how many of a hitter’s balls in play become hits. This figure is usually around 30%, or a BABIP of .290 to .310. Many factors can affect a hitter’s BABIP, such as the skill of the defense they are facing, or the luck factor of hitting balls right at fielders. Analyzing BABIP can help to determine if a team or select players are playing poorly, or whether they’re simply getting hit with some bad luck.
These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wealth of new age metrics and formulas available to the average baseball bettor. These numbers will help you read “between the lines”, so take advantage of them.
For some, baseball is their favorite sport to bet on. While it doesn’t get the same amount of ink as the NFL and NBA, or even close to the same betting amounts, the sport has remained a favorite of professional sports bettors for decades. The MLB season offers more wagering opportunities than any other professional league by a large margin. Since baseball betting markets are smaller, it can be easier to get an edge on the oddsmakers if you study the game and handicapping techniques.