MLB Betting: Underdogs Slipping in Early Season Trends

Jason Lake

Thursday, April 3, 2014 5:23 PM GMT

Thursday, Apr. 3, 2014 5:23 PM GMT

Some people who bet on baseball say you should take the underdogs in the early weeks of the MLB season. Others say you should avoid them until later in the year. What do the numbers think we should do?

“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” – Robert Benchley

Like most things in life, baseball is just one big fight. Pitchers throw at batters, runners tackle fielders, managers kick dirt on umpires. Betting on baseball can be even worse. Different schools of thought organize behind different ideas, and before you know it, you’ve got a classic Sprinklers vs. Dunkers situation.

Since it’s the first “official” week of the 2014 MLB campaign, let’s look at the most common rule of thumb for the early season: Bet on the underdogs. Ah, but not everyone agrees. Some say you have to wait until the later months to get real betting value out of those puppies. Interesting. So what should we do? Whom should we believe?

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First, let’s get some data. Two years ago, ESPN’s Chad Millman published an article showing underdogs making a profit in the month of April for every season between 2004 and 2011 inclusive. The profit ranged from a single unit in 2007 to 32 units in 2008 and 2011. That’s a solid MLB betting trend right there.

Except we need to fill in the past two seasons. This is the kind of homework where it’s good to subscribe to a database, but if you’re cheap like me, you can look up the scores and results for yourself and do the math. Here’s how each of the 30 MLB teams performed as underdogs in April 2012 and 2013:

Arizona: 2012, –0.25 units; 2013, –0.18 units

Atlanta: –2.00; +5.62

Baltimore: +3.41; +4.12

Boston: +0.21; +2.71

Chicago Cubs: –4.43; –4.24

Chicago White Sox: +0.79; –5.16

Cincinnati: –1.61; –1.77

Cleveland: +2.35; –0.15

Colorado: +0.74; –2.58

Detroit: –2.85; N/A

Houston: +2.02; –8.75

Kansas City: –0.89; +4.30

L.A. Angels: –2.85; –3.71

L.A. Dodgers: –0.58; –1.74

Miami: –2.33; –5.47

Milwaukee: –5.00; –1.30

Minnesota: –4.67; +4.27

N.Y. Mets: +3.51; –6.77

N.Y. Yankees: +0.23; +1.74

Oakland: +3.86; –0.00

Philadelphia: –2.00; +1.66

Pittsburgh: +0.28; +7.99

San Diego: –10.52; –2.64

San Francisco: +1.88; –0.73

Seattle: –0.22; –2.20

St. Louis: +2.87; +5.16

Tampa Bay: +3.54; –6.87

Texas: +0.03; +1.40

Toronto: +1.27; –3.48

Washington: +0.10; –3.37

Right, there’s all 30 MLB teams, and bound to be error-free, as well. Ahem. So you add up all the profits and losses for 2012, and you get minus-13.11 units betting on April underdogs. In 2013? Minus-22.14 units. Holy Toldeo. Either my math is wrong (quite possible), or this MLB betting trend has gone on the fritz.

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This is the problem with rules of thumb. It makes perfectly logical sense for underdogs to perform well in April. Pitchers have the advantage going into every new season; the onus is on hitters to adjust to a pitcher’s stuff, and that’s something that happens over a number of at-bats. On top of that, the more often two teams play one another, the more you expect the “better” team to make better adjustments overall.

But there is also logic in holding off until later in the season to bet those dogs. Once you get deep into the season, even the shallow end of the MLB betting pool can see which teams are losing and which ones are winning. Casual bettors historically overvalue the favorites, so as those favorites become more entrenched, the action gets too heavy on the chalk.

Both of these ideas have merit. However, if everyone with half a brain is jumping into the market and betting on those April underdogs because it’s the hot trend, of course the needle will swing in the other direction and the favorites will become profitable again. Perhaps that’s what’s been happening the past couple of years. Or maybe it’s just a small sample size. You choose.

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