The architecture of baseball has always made the game one of the most difficult propositions for bettors – even the best teams can only be expected to beat the lesser teams three out of five times. That is barely better than random chance which makes the outcome of a short series a dicey prediction at best.
And with the injection of a second wild card team into the post-season chase, futures betting on the World Series has become even more problematic since only the three division winners are guaranteed to even get a chance to play that unpredictable full series instead of four. Now the wild cards must face-off in a one-game duel just to reach the full playoffs and that is always a toss-up to advance. Even more unpredictability.
So the safest play for baseball futures at mid-season is to focus on the teams best positioned to be division winners and not those teams jockeying for a wild card position. In 2016, teams in five of those divisions have separated themselves with leads of at least 5.5 games so let’s start there.
【Current National League Standings】
The Chicago Cubs have been the team of 2016. Blessed with an exciting core of young talent, general manager Theo Epstein was able to add most of the impact free agents from last year’s off-season to assemble the pre-season betting favourite. For the first six weeks of the season, Chicago played at a near-unprecedented level and were winning at a 130-win pace. But for the past six weeks the Cubs have muddled along at a .500 clip.
The Cubs are still given a 92.1% chance to win the division and is Bovada’s favourite to win the National League pennant at +170 and the World Series at +375. Those odds have risen in the past few weeks and punters may want to take advantage of the recent lull in Chicago to lock down odds that could well dip if the team reverts to top form. Contrarians may point to an easy early season schedule and an end to the historic dominance of 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta in recent outings to doubt the Cubs.
Perhaps the strangest trend in sports is the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series championship in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and performing as non-contenders in the odd-numbered years. That is not anything that can be handicapped but here we are at the All-Star break in 2016 and the Giants have the best record in baseball after a barely average 84-win season last year.
The top of the rotation with Madison Bumgarner and new addition Johnny Cueto has been peerless and Bumgarner finished off the first half with an overpowering one-hitter. Even without the numerology of success in even years, the Giants have shown plenty on the field to merit their status as second favourites to win the World Series at +550.
Pitching is the name of the game in the National League East. The defending National League champion New York Mets with a staff of young fireballers was the popular pre-season choice to win the division. But injuries have plagued the New Yorkers and the mainstay of the rotation instead has been ageless 43-year old Bartolo Colon. The Mets struggled to reach the half-way mark six games behind the Washington Nationals.
Even though the Nationals endured a sub-par first half from MVP Bryce Harper, they have been playing .600 ball thanks to the top three pitchers in their rotation – Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg who have combined to go 30-11. Strasburg alone is 12-0. In a short post-season series when pitching is crucial, this has led stat services to give the Nationals a 13.2% chance to win the World Series, second only to Chicago’s 16.5%. Bovada lists the Nationals at +900 to pull of that feat – odds more than twice as long as the Cubs.
【Current American League Standings】
In the American League, the best team so far in 2016 has been the Texas Rangers. They have raced to a 54-36 record even though their best pitcher Yu Darvish was put on the disabled list in his third start. But it is the Rangers’ Texas neighbor, the Houston Astros, who hold the more intrigue to punters.
The Astros were a surprise participant in the 2015 post-season and were widely viewed as favourites coming into 2016. A horrific April seemed to doom the team from all consideration but Houston has been the hottest team in the league over the past several weeks. They reached the All Star-break trailing Texas by 5.5 games but if they can make the post-season, experts like their chances better than Texas. Houston is given a 7.0% chance of winning the World Series and Texas only 4.6%. Online bookmaker Bovada, on the other hand disagrees – their oddsmakers list the Texas Rangers as the favourite to win the American League pennant at +250; the Astros are at +900.
The American League team in the most comfortable position to make the post-season appears to be the pitching-rich Cleveland Indians. The Tribe is given an 87.0% chance of maintaining its 6.5 game lead and claiming the Central Division title. Bovada has the Indians as prohibitive -500 favourites to make that happen as well.
The only division in baseball where handicappers need parse among a variety of true contenders is the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles have bashed home runs at an historic rate in the first half of the season and have unexpectedly been in first place most of the year. Pre-season favourites Boston and Toronto – no slouches hitting the ball either – have been nipping at their heels through the first half.
For the homestretch, sportsbook Bovada has listed all three teams at +170 to win the division. Take your pick. The first thing to consider is action at the trade deadline at the end of July. The Red Sox and Blue Jays are both rich teams who can easily afford to trade prospects or pay big money for a key rent-a-player for the final two months of the year. The Orioles can not match that financial firepower.
That is one reason the experts expect the division to play out according to pre-season expectations. The Red Sox are given a 42.6% chance to win the division, the Blue Jays 31.1% and the Orioles 24.6%. Eleven of the 15 teams in the American League are playing .500 ball or better so expect this division to be a toss-up until the end.