Be prudent when betting run lines in MLB

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In last week’s column I introduced the concept of betting baseball on the run line, pointing out that this form of wagering, somewhat akin to wagering on the point spread as in football or basketball, presents an effective way to back large favorites while reducing monetary risk on a wager-by-wager basis.

I concluded by noting that there was only one situation in which taking the plus run and a half with an underdog was preferable to playing the underdog straight. By the same token, there is only one situation in which laying the run and a half is worse than just laying the price with the favorite.

Those situations occur when games are decided by exactly one run!

Let’s use an example from Monday night in which St. Louis hosted Philadelphia.

On the straight wager, St. Louis was favored by -125 over Philadelphia with the Phillies +115. On the run line, the price for laying the run and a half with the Cardinals was +150 whereas to take the run and a half with Philly the price was -170.

There are four possible relevant outcomes:

1. Cardinals win by two runs or more

2. Cardinals win by exactly one run

3. Phillies win by 2 runs or more

4. Phillies win by exactly one run.

Let’s compare playing each side straight vs. playing the run line in each of the four possible outcomes. The scenarios assume laying in excess of 100 to win 100 in the case of the favored part of the wager while risking 100 to win in excess of 100 when wagering on the underdog part of the wager.

In the first scenario, in which St. Louis wins and covers the run line, those who played the Cardinals will all collect with those playing the run line winning more (150) than those who played the Cardinals to just win the game by any margin (100).

At the same time, those who backed the Phillies will all lose with those who took the plus run and a half losing more (170) than those who backed the Phillies to win the game outright (100).

The opposite result occurs in the third scenario in which the Phillies win by two runs or more in that Philadelphia backers would win 115 by having played the Phillies to just win the game or win 100 by taking the run and a half. Cardinals straight bettors would have lost 125 while those who laid the run and a half would have lost 100.

In both the first and third scenarios, the run line does not come into play in terms of who collects and who lost but rather just in the amounts involved. These are the scenarios in which the winning team wins by more than one run.

It’s in the second and fourth scenarios that the run line impacts the betting winners and losers. These are the two scenarios in which each team wins by exactly one run.

In the second scenario – when the Cardinals win by exactly one run – those who backed them just to win the game will win 100 whereas those who laid the run and a half will lose 100. Those who backed the Phillies just to win the game will lose 100 but those who took the run and a half will win 100.

In the fourth scenario – when the Phillies win by exactly one run – those who backed them just to win the game will win 115 whereas those who took the plus run and a half will win just 100. Those who backed the Cardinals just to win the game will lose 125 but those 

who laid the run and a half will lose just 100.

Thus when the underdog wins, those who back the underdog win more by playing the underdog straight rather than by taking the run and a half. Those same bettors also lose less when the underdog loses by two runs or more.

Only when the underdog loses by exactly one run does taking the run and a half produce a better (winning) result than by playing the underdog straight (losing).

And when the favorite loses outright bettors who laid the run and a half lose less than by just making a straight play. Only when the favorite wins by exactly one run will making the straight play produce a more favorable result (winning) than by laying the run and a half.

It is important to note that a -150 home favorite is priced differently on the run line than a -150 road favorite. Whereas St. Louis on Monday night was +150 on the run line, laying the run and a half, a -150 road favorite is priced at roughly +120 on the road line (such was the line for the Mets on Tuesday at San Diego).

The difference is to acknowledge that a road team will always bat in the top of the ninth inning regardless of whether it is leading, trailing or tied. A home team bats in the bottom of the ninth only if tied or trailing.

Here are thoughts on three weekend series.

Nationals at Dodgers: Both teams are contenders although the Dodgers have both the easier path to the playoffs and are off to the better start.

The Nationals have been fortunate in relying on just five pitchers to account for all 34 starts this season. Eight different Dodgers have made starts through their first 37 games. Despite the presence of several top-flight starting pitchers there is a case to be made for this being a higher than expected scoring series.

The Dodgers have averaged 6.0 runs per game at home versus just 4.7 rpg on the road. That is the standard scoring profile. But the Nationals’ profile shows them averaging just 3.9 rpg at home vs. 5.7 rpg on the road.

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are each off to solid if not dominating starts. All three are averaging more than 6.0 innings per start – something of a rarity this season as more teams are using openers and placing more limits on how deep starters will go in games.

For the Dodgers, only Clayton Kershaw – who started the season injured – is averaging more than six innings per start (6.5 through four starts). He and HJ Ryu have put up the best early season stats while Walker Buehler, who broke out last season, has not been as effective as had been expected.

Washington will make for an attractive play if made the underdog in starts by Scherzer, Corbin or Strasburg and will certainly be playable at +125 or more against any Dodgers starter. The preferred spot for the Dodgers will be against other than Washington’s top three starters (which currently would be against Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez). The Dodgers can be played at -150 or lower if such matchups materialize.

Yankees at Rays: These AL East rivals are meeting for the first time this season with the Yankees having started play on Tuesday sitting second in the division, two games behind the Rays.

New York has gotten better-than-anticipated starting pitching. Domingo German has been a pleasant surprise while veteran CC Sabathia has been very steady in his final season.

Blake Snell is Tampa’s ace and after a couple of struggling starts following an injury he was brilliant in his most recent start Monday night. Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton have also pitched very well over their seven starts.

Tampa has been more of an under team this season whereas the Yankees have played more overs. But the matchup of the Yankees’ weakened lineup vs. the strong pitching of Tampa suggests this series will be low-scoring. Look to play under totals of 8.5 or higher throughout the series.

The Yankees will be attractive as a play in a start by German, who is the only New York starter averaging more than six innings per start and is also allowing less than one baserunner per inning. If he starts against Snell, Glasnow or Morton, under a total of as low as 7.5 can be considered.

Phillies at Royals: The Phillies are among the favorites to win the National League pennant and are off to a solid 19-15 start in the rugged NL East. And that’s with ace Aaron Nola having struggled through most of his first seven starts although he’s shown signs of rounding back into his elite form of last season with his past couple of efforts.

Kansas City has had pitching woes all season with no starter whose made at least three starts sporting an ERA below 4.00 or a WHIP below 1.30.

The Phillies have been more productive at home than on the road where they’ve averaged just 4.0 runs per game. They could be a bit overpriced throughout this series. But with the Royals not having a starter who can be relied upon, the better way to approach this series may be through the total.

It’s long been said that whereas good pitching will stop good hitting the reverse is also true – that poor hitting can succeed against poor pitching. This suggests the Phillies’ bats will have success in this series.

Look to play over totals of 8.5 or lower in any matchup except in a start by Nola. The Phillies can be backed at -150 or less.

The best spot for the Royals would be in a start by Brad Keller, who has shown signs of being a pretty good starting pitcher at age 23. If getting +140 or more against other than Nola, the Royals are worth a play in his start.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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