Betting big chalk brings plenty of risk with it

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Two of the more unusual games of the season were played this past weekend between Baltimore and Houston. On Saturday, the Astros blew out the Orioles 23-2 and easily cashed tickets for their backers who laid -260 on the road favorites. 

Less than 24 hours later, behind ace Justin Verlander, the Astros were bet up from an opening line of -360 to close, at the Westgate, at -470. The takeback on Baltimore was +385. At Station Casinos, which often adds a premium on high-priced favorites, the line closed -550 (takeback was +375). Houston on the run line, laying -1.5 runs, was within the range of -270 to -300 around Las Vegas. 

By now, you know what happened. Houston had an early 3-1 lead but entering the top of the ninth inning the Orioles clung to a 5-4 lead and an upset of nearly historic proportions was three outs away. But Houston, as good teams do, rallied to score three runs before anyone made out and led 7-5. The Orioles then got a strike out and a ground out double play to escape further damage. 

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Baltimore scratched out a run on a double, ground out and sacrifice fly to close to within 7-6 with two outs and a runner on first. Rio Ruiz then hit a walk- off two-run homer to end the game and reward Orioles backers with one of the largest underdog priced tickets in modern history. 

Astros backers who laid the hefty price dug themselves a hole that would require five straight Houston wins just to recover the loss from that one game and show the smallest of profits over a six-game stretch in which they will likely have risked between a dozen and 15 total units. This illustrates the danger of backing huge favorites, especially backing them on straight play basis. Even parlays do little to increase the ‘reward’ of hitting a two- or three-team wager. 

Take, for example, a two-team parlay involving the Astros as -450 favorites combined with the Braves -160 favorites. If you made a $100 straight bet on the Braves you would collect $162.50 for a profit of 62.50. Doing a two-team $100 parlay of Astros -450 with Braves -160 would increase the payout to $198.60 for an additional profit of just $36.10 despite adding a heavy favorite. 

I have no aversion to parlaying high-priced baseball favorites. But I like to limit the price of those favorites to no more than -200. A $100 parlay using a pair of -200 favorites returns a net profit of $125. Here you are parlaying a pair of teams, each with a two in three chance of winning, and getting paid as if you had made a straight play on a +125 underdog. 

My database goes back to 1989 and I could find only one instance of team being favored by more than -470. That occurred in 2016 when on June 4 the Dodgers were -480 over Atlanta (+390). The Dodgers, behind Clayton Kershaw, won 4-0. 

Heavy favorites have been more frequent in recent series. In fact, thus far in 2019, there have been 13 games in which the favorite was priced -350 or higher. A $100 straight wager on a -350 favorite earns a profit of just $28.50. The 13 favorites have gone 9-4 but while winning $900 on the nine wins would have lost $1,620 on the four losses for a net loss of $720. 

Conversely, those who backed those huge underdogs would have lost $900 on the nine losers but collected $1,355 on the four winners for a net profit of $455. 

Yes, 13 games is a very small sample size. But over the past several seasons we have started to see more aggressive pricing on high-priced favorites.  With the explosion of sports gambling across the nation combined with the tendency of new or casual bettors to play favorites we might see a greater percentage of huge underdogs cashing tickets than, say, a decade or so ago when the marketplace was much smaller and the number of huge favorites was much less. 

Here are thoughts on three weekend series. 

Brewers at Nationals: Both teams are in the heated battle for an NL Wild Card although Milwaukee has a better chance to win the NL Central than does Washington in winning the NL East. The metrics support Washington as the better team even though the teams were separated by just a game and a half in the standings entering play Tuesday.  

The Nats had a run differential of +48 as compared to the Brewers’ -20 with the Nats having scored more runs than the Brewers while allowing less.  The Nats have a huge edge in starting pitching and Washington will be the preferred play in starts by Max Scherzer (who was held back from last weekend’s series at the Mets), Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and even Anibal Sanchez, provided the line is -150 or less.  

Should the Nats be priced at -200 or more with any of those starters, the value play is instead on Milwaukee. In their only prior meetings this season the Brewers swept a three-game home series in early May. 

Indians at Yankees: This could be a preview of a postseason series as the Yankees are battling Houston for the best record in the American League and the Indians are battling Minnesota for the AL Central title with the second place finisher almost certain to earn a Wild Card.  

This four-game series that starts Thursday pits Cleveland’s outstanding starting pitching against New York’s explosive offense. The Yanks are considered to have one of the best bullpens in baseball but Cleveland’s also rates highly. In their prior series the Tribe took two of three at home in early June. 

I will look to back Cleveland’s Shane Bieber if he gets a start in the series as an underdog or even if favored by -125 or less. I’ll look to play under the total in his start as well as Bieber is 17-5-2 to the under and averages 6.4 innings per start. If I am going to back Zac Plesac or Mike Clevinger I’ll need to get +140 or more. Otherwise I’ll look to back the Yankees straight if favored by -150 or less or will lay the run and a half if favored by more than 150 in starts against other than Bieber, Clevinger or Plesac. 

Astros at Athletics: Both teams have been playing outstanding baseball over the past two months. Over their last 40 games the Astros are 29-11 and Oakland is 26-14. Houston is odds on to win the AL West with Oakland very much in contention for a Wild Card.  

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Yet in the unlikely event of an Oakland sweep of this four-game series that starts Thursday the A’s would make a nice dent in the 10-game deficit that existed entering Tuesday play.  

That prospect is remote given that Houston has won nine of the 11 games played this season. Houston has an outstanding starting rotation led by Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. If any of that trio is favored by more than -150 my play will be on Oakland. Since mid-June the A’s are 18-6 at home and Houston is 13-13 on the road. 

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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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