Making sense of betting MLB Run Lines

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This past weekend saw the mathematical midpoint of the regular season as teams averaged playing 82 of the 162-game schedule with Houston owning the best record.

The July Fourth holiday is often referred to as the second major milepost of the season as the All Star break is just a week away and the non-waiver trading deadline barely two weeks after that on July 31.

At this time teams often will take stock of their situation and assess their chances of making the postseason, either as a Division winner or as a Wild Card. By assessing their situations teams will be in position to be either buyers or sellers at the trade deadline based upon their performance over the next three weeks.

Rather than take a look at the standings as of the July Fourth weekend, let’s wait one week and review them as of the All Star break with an eye toward finding those teams that might be poised for a strong second-half run that could result in a trip to the Playoffs at attractive World Series or Pennant odds.

In last week’s column the concept of betting on the run line was introduced, presenting the scenarios that compared laying a run with the favored team or taking the run-and-a-half with the underdog versus simply playing the favorite or the underdog on the “straight” money-line to just win the game without regard to final margin.

When the favored team wins by exactly a single run bettors who played the favorite on the straight money-line cash their wagers, whereas those who bet the chalk on the run line (laying the run-and-a-half) lose. Conversely, those who played the underdog straight lost their wagers while those who took the underdog plus the run-and-a-half cashed.

To determine whether it makes sense to consider laying the run-and-a-half or taking it you need to know how often games are decided by a single run and how often games are decided by two or more. Not knowing that answer doesn’t by itself allow us to determine the viability of making a run line play. That is because some one-run games are won by the favorite (which impacts the run-and-a-half result).

Other one-run games are won by the underdog (which is not impacted by the run-and-a-half and actually costly to the underdog bettors who more often than not had to lay more than 100 to win 100 at plus a run-and-a-half versus having laid 100 to win more than 100 had they played the underdog straight).

And, of course, there is a distinction between the prices involved with a home team on the run line and a road team on the run line when both teams are identically priced on the straight money-line.

My baseball data base goes back to 1989. In order to examine the results that likely involve the same team being favored both on the straight money-line and on the run line I looked at all teams favored by -110 or more as teams favored by less than -110 could, in some instances, have been run line favorites and at other times have been run line underdogs.

Even by looking at straight money-line favorites of -110 or more there are still over 60,000 games that fit this profile from 1989 to 2016 with Home Favorites accounting for nearly 43,000 games and Road Favorites slightly more than 18,000.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this study is there is not much of a variance over the various time periods considered. More about this shortly.

Looking first at the 43,000 games involving Home Favorites, slightly under 30% of all games have been decided by exactly one run and slightly over 70% have been decided by two runs or more.

But – and this is key – of the roughly 30% of the games decided by one run about 60% are won by the Home Favorite and the other 40% by the road underdog. That 60% translated into just 18% of all games involving Home Favorites of -110 or more.

Stated another way, the run line wager versus the straight money-line wager is impacted in roughly two of every 11 games. Those in which favorite bettors were “better off” playing the home favorite on the straight money-line and underdog bettors did better by taking the 1.5 runs than playing the underdog at the straight money-line “plus” price.

In the other 82% of the games the reverse was true. Backers of the Home Favorite either won more or lost less when laying the 1.5 while backers of the road underdog fared better by playing the underdog straight rather than taking the 1.5.

Of course the prices attached to the run line at each straight money-line price point will determine the extent to which laying the 1.5 resulted in greater net returns than in making straight plays, and those results will vary.

In looking at Road Favorites the percentages are slightly different but still show dramatic contrast. In more than 18,000 games involving Road Favorites of -110 or more since 1988 the percentage of one-run games is slightly less than that involving Home Favorites (28% versus 20%). But the wins and losses are roughly flip flopped as about 40% of one-run games involving Road Favorites are won by the road team and 60% by the Home Underdog. About 72% of all games involving Road Favorites have been decided by two runs or more. Overall, in only about 12% of games involving Road Favorites of -110 or more has that Road Favorite won by exactly one run. That translates into roughly one game in eight.

Part of the reason Road Favorites win a smaller percentage of one-run games than Home Favorites is road teams can score an unlimited number of runs in an extra inning, getting to use its full complement of three outs. As soon as the home team has scored one more run than the road team, the game ends. Of course home teams can cover the run line in extra inning games when the game ends on a multi-run homer that often makes the final margin 2, 3 or 4 runs.

I noted earlier the historical percentages have shown little variation over the years. For example, from 1989 to 2016 the percentage of Home Favorites winning by exactly one run has been 18.1%. Over the past 10 seasons the percentage has been 18.2. Over the past five seasons it has been 18%.

Similarly, the percentage of games that have seen Home Favorites win by two runs or more has been in the range of 40.2% compared to 40.6% over those same 28, 10, 5 and 3 season periods.

Admittedly this is a somewhat elementary discussion of the run line but the point being stressed is to understand that whereas between one quarter and one third of all games are decided by one run, a significant percentage of those one-run games are won by the underdog.

In those games taking the 1.5 was to the detriment of the run line bettor as they collected less (while risking more) than did bettors who played the underdog on the straight money-line. And when the favorite wins by two runs or more those taking the run-and-a-half lose more than those who backed the losing underdog on the straight money-line.

Globally, considering all games involving Favorites of -110 or more (both Home and Road) 28.7% are decided by exactly one run. 56.6% are won by the Underdog; 43.4% by the Favorite. 

This works out to Favorites winning 16.2% of all games by one run and underdogs winning 12.5% of all games by one run.

Favorites have won 41.3% of all games by two runs or more and Underdogs have won 30% of all games by two runs or more.

OK. Enough of the math. In next week’s column, which coincides with the All Star break, we shall take a look at those teams that have fared the best in winning games by more than one run when favored and those that have lost a high percentage of their games by two runs or more when in the Underdog role.

Here’s a preview of three series played over this weekend heading into the All Star break.

NY Mets at St. Louis: The Cardinals and Mets are meeting for the first time this season. Both were considered Wild Card contenders prior to the season but start second-half play with records of 39-42 and 38-43 respectively, 6.5 and 7.5 games out of the second Wild Card. The Mets might decide to become sellers if they cannot reach .500 within a week of the trade deadline as they start this week 9.5 games out of first in the NL East. By contrast, St. Louis is just 3.5 games out of first in the NL Central where the Cubs sit second at 41-41.

Thus despite their disappointing first half, the Cardinals remain very much in contention to win their Division title. Both teams historically have relied more on pitching than hitting for their success, and injuries to the Mets rotation is largely responsible for their dismal first half performance. But Stephen Matz has looked sharp since he returned from the DL and Jacob deGrom has also pitched very well in his last several starts. Carlos Martinez has clearly been St. Louis’ best starter. Look to back both Matz and deGrom as favorites of +125 or less not facing Martinez or as underdogs of any price against Martinez.

Otherwise look to back the Cardinals against other than Matz or deGrom if laying no more than -140. The Mets continue to be a very strong OVER team this season (47-25-9 through Sunday). Look to play OVER 8.5 or less in starts not involving Matz, deGrom or Martinez. Should Martinez be matched against either Matz or deGrom look to play U.

Baltimore at Minnesota: This is a four-game series that begins Thursday. Neither team was expected to contend for the Playoffs prior to the season, yet at the halfway point both the Twins and Orioles are within a game of .500 with Minnesota one game above and Baltimore one game below. In their only prior meeting this season the Twins swept a three-game road series in Baltimore.

Although the Twins outscored the Orioles 20 to 10 one of the games was decided by one run and another by two. In fact, after the Twins won the opener 14-7 the next two games stayed UNDER the Total with Minnesota winning 2-0 and 4-3. Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios are the only Minnesota starting pitchers to consider backing in this series. Dylan Bundy would be the only Baltimore starter to consider playing.

Otherwise all other starters are effectively “go against” pitchers, which would suggest the OVER, provided the Total is no higher than 10. Consider UNDER the Total in starts by Santana or Berrios (a combined 18-7-2 to the UNDER) but only if the Total is 9 or higher. Santana and Berrios can be backed if laying no more than -125 against any Baltimore starter. Bundy can be backed not facing Santana or Berrios but only if made an underdog. This has the potential of being the highest scoring series of the weekend with both lineups performing better now than when they met in Baltimore in May.

Kansas City at LA Dodgers: Kansas City is two seasons removed from their World Series championship and the Dodgers are on a path to representing the NL in this season’s Fall Classic. In fact, through Sunday the Dodgers led the majors by a wide margin in runs differential at plus 153, 29 runs better than second best Houston. Most of that differential is due to an MLB fewest 286 runs allowed, 36 fewer than second best Arizona. But the Dodgers have also been explosive at the plate, averaging better than five runs per game.

Kansas City struggled early in the season and was 10-20 in early May. But the bats have heated up and the Royals started this week a game over .500 and just three games behind Cleveland in the AL Central and one-half game out of the second Wild Card. Lefty Jason Vargas has been an ace for the Royals and can be backed in this series against any Dodgers starterm, although the price must be at least +150 if matched up against Clayton Kershaw. In such a matchup UNDER 7 or higher can also be considered.

Otherwise Kansas City can be backed as Underdogs of +150 or higher against any starter other than Kershaw, whereas the Dodgers can be played if laying -140 or less not facing Vargas. With the exception of a potential Vargas vs. Kershaw matchup, consider a play on the OVER at 8 or lower in games not involving Kershaw or Vargas.

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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