The Beginner’s Guide To Baseball Betting

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Baseball is considered the “American Pastime,” and while it has many challengers for that title, it certainly has a lot of history on its side. Organized baseball dates back at least to the 1840s, and the Civil War spread the popularity of the game as soldiers brought the game and its rules with them as they fought across the American map.

Professional “major league” baseball dates back to 1869, and all these years later the game remains (essentially) using the same basic rules. Baseball players are bigger, stronger, faster (and richer) than ever, but in the majors they still use a wooden bat and swing at a ball that has 108 stitches.

While other sports get more attention for betting action, baseball attracts the dedicated sports fan, one who welcomes the grind of a long season. A fan who enjoys the deep dive it takes to understand the sport, the teams, the trends, and players at any given time. Baseball betting is popular, and getting more popular as Major League Baseball secures official relationships with betting and fantasy sports partners.

This guide to baseball betting is meant for the beginner, and will be updated periodically.

Baseball Betting Terminology

Chalk: The favored team.

Dog: The underdog team, which is not favored to win.

Futures: Futures bets are odds on events in the future, such as division winners or the teams that will win the pennant or the World Series. You can also place Futures bets on which players will win Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, and Most Valuable Player Award, getting better odds before or early in the season.

Listed Pitchers: The listed pitchers are the two starting pitchers announced by the teams participating in a game. In many cases, if either of the two listed pitchers does not make their start (due to injury or other factor), the bet can be voided.

Money Line: For this bet all you must do is select the winning team. It doesn’t matter how many runs they win by, or how many total runs are scored in the game: simply pick the winner, and you win. A Money Line bet is listed in this manner: +120 (for a team considered the underdog) or -120 (this team is the favorite).

Let’s say the Yankees are listed at -120 against the Tigers (listed by the sportsbook as +150). This means the Yankees are favored to win the game. If you bet $100 on them and they win, you’ll win $80 (your original $100 plus $80). If you bet $100 on Detroit and they win, you’ll win $150 (your original $100 plus $150).

The Money Line bet is how the sportsbook “evens” the action on a game, by offering bettors two ways to bet: on the chance that the favorite will win and on the underdog, where they can win more money for their same bet.

Off The Board: A game that is not available for betting for various reasons. This is rare, but occurs more frequently in baseball than any other professional team sport, because of the multitude of factors that impact odds from bookmakers.

Over/Under: The over/under is the predicted total score for a game set by the sportsbook. It’s also referred to as the “totals” or “run line” for MLB games.

Push: Suppose an MLB game between the Cardinals and Cubs has a totals line of 10. The game ends with a score of 6-4 or 7-3 or 8-2, and you bet on the over. What happens? You don’t win…but you also don’t lose. It’s a “push,” and the sportsbook refunds your bet amount.

Run Line: Many gamblers use the term “run line” to refer to the “totals” bet for a game. For example, in a Red Sox vs. Rays game if the totals is 8.5, they may say “the run line is 8 1/2.” The most common run total (historically) is seven. But run totals have been dropping in recent years.

Spread: For almost all Major League Baseball games the spread is set at plus or minus 1.5. For example, the favorite is listed at -1.5 and the underdog is listed as +1.5 for the game. Because baseball games are more difficult to handicap, oddsmakers set the spread at 1.5 and use a money line to entice bets on the outcome. For example, one team may be favored (-1.5) but the money line on them is only +102 (meaning you will only win $2 on a $100 bet). Betting on the spread in MLB over the long season is a difficult thing to do, which is why most gamblers select to bet the run line or totals, or bet a money line on certain games where they feel the odds are in their favor.

Top Half: Some sportsbooks will offer bets for the first five innings of the game. This is called betting “the top half.” In this form of bet the game is considered “over” at five innings, and your bets are factored on the runs, outcome, hits, home runs, etc. for the first five full innings.

Totals: For our purposes, “totals” are the same as “over/under” in that you are betting on the total runs that will be scored in one MLB game. The totals bet has a “total line” (-110 or -125 and so on) that serves as a money line for that bet.

Types Of Bets In Major League Baseball

Why Betting On The Spread Is Difficult In Baseball

Sportsbooks issue a spread for MLB games, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wise bet to make. Here’s why:

  • The home-field advantage is lower in baseball than in any sport.
  • Baseball games can hinge on one play or one freak inning. For that reason, “bad” teams (say a team that will lose 95+ games) can beat good teams (a team that will win 95 games). It happens a lot. Rarely does a terrible team beat a really good team in football or in basketball, but it happens frequently over the course of a baseball season.
  • Pitchers control a lot of the outcome, and they can be unpredictable. Even high-scoring team can be shut out, and bad teams can score many runs off a good pitcher.
  • The baseball season is very long (162 games played over a 184-day period). Because there are so many games, the variables are extremely high, which can make outcomes difficult to forecast.

Sportsbooks typically list the game spread at +/- 1.5 (meaning the underdog can lose by one run and still deliver on a bet). But these odds are difficult to win with over the course of a season. That’s why most MLB gamblers will look at the money line or run lines, or bet on the over/under (totals).

How To Bet Totals

Betting the “totals” is when you wager on whether the combined run total in an MLB game will exceed or fall below the total set by an oddsmaker. With a totals bet, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses the game.

A sportsbook will typically list a total (say O/U 10, which means you would bet whether the two teams will combine for more or less than 10 runs). The sportsbook will list a money line, such as 110, which means the bettor must wager $110 to win $100.

Game Prop Bets

Don’t want to risk your money on the outcome of a baseball game? You’re in luck, because most sportsbooks offer individual game prop bets. For example, you can bet on which player will hit a home run, or bet on whether a player will get two hits (or three, four, five hits). You can match on things like “home run and team wins” or bet on any number of in-game totals, like how many runs in an inning, or total home runs or hits in the game.

Some of the most popular game prop bets are related to starting pitcher performance. You can bet on how many strikeouts the starting pitcher will record, or how many earned runs, or match those bets on that pitcher’s team winning, and so on.

Important Factors To Consider

There are several factors taken into account by the oddsmakers when they set the line for a Major League Baseball game. Here are some of the most important:

Starting Pitchers

The most important game factor that impacts the betting lines for most MLB games is who the starting pitchers are. The starting pitcher literally holds the baseball in their hand at the start of play. If a top-notch starting pitcher is scheduled to start, it impacts the chances of a team winning the game, and more importantly, it lowers the expected runs scored for that contest. A game where two excellent starters are facing off is called a “pitcher’s duel.”

Be mindful of how the starting pitcher has been pitching recently, and pay attention to whether they have had tough luck (losing games where they pitched well, or if they have a good strikeout-to-walk ratio even if they have surrendered fluke hits).

Injury Report

Which players are healthy, and which players are on the Injured List are important factors. If star players are on the shelf, you should adjust your betting accordingly. Even when a player is returning from the IL, it may take a few games for them to return to their expected form.

Host Ballpark

Parks like Coors Field in Denver or Fenway Park in Boston are conducive to run-scoring. Conversely, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego are notorious for favoring pitchers. Keep tabs on this when betting the over/under or totals for an MLB game.

Weather

Generally, colder weather equals fewer runs scored. When the weather heats up, the baseball starts to soar.

Umpires

All umpires are not the same. Over the course of their careers, umpires develop patterns. Some are pitcher’s umpires, calling strikes off the plate, and others are favorable to hitters, refusing to call the low strike, for example. Consult sources like StatCast (available from MLB.com) or baseball-reference.com to view umpire tendencies.

Where To Bet On Baseball

These states offer multiple ways to bet legally on baseball online:

Other states offer some forms of baseball betting in-person at licensed operators or casinos/sportsbooks.

Here are some of the leaders in online sportsbooks offering betting on Major League Baseball:

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.

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