Bettors cash in on baseball's winning hand

Mar 31, 2009 5:10 PM
by David Stratton |

Spring is in the air and a sports bettor’s fancy next week turns to baseball.

Although, the game is the least bet of the three major sports, it has held its own in Nevada sports books in recent years, and its followers are the most dedicated of all sports bettors.

Last year, about $522 million was bet on baseball in the state’s sports books, less than half the $1.2 billion bet on football, and a third less than the $740 million bet on basketball. Yet, the amount has increased 13 percent over the last four years, despite the slumping economy.

But most important to bettors, the house edge was only 4.5 percent, meaning 95.5 percent of every bet was returned to players.

The house edge or "hold" on baseball is less than any other sport, much to the delight of bettors and the dismay of bookies.

"It’s the only sport where I consistently win," said Franklin Purdy, a 55-year bettor who favors the "locals" casinos in Las Vegas. "I’m a bit of a statistics freak, and the game can be beaten if you invest the time and effort."

Indeed, baseball is a statistician’s heaven. No other sport is so deeply entrenched in an endless stream of stats, such as ERAs, on-base percentages, team averages, strike-outs to walks ratios, to name a few.

"One of the beauties of the game is you can miss it on TV but get a thorough recap from the box score," Purdy said. "And with games scheduled virtually every day, it’s impossible to watch every contest."

Purdy acknowledges the game might not be as exciting or emotional as football or basketball, but from a betting standpoint, teams more closely follow form, unlike, say, football.

"It’s the only sport where the defense controls the ball, with no time clocks or freak plays or whistle-happy referees to make a farce of the outcome," Purdy said. "As a result, you can count on favorites winning more than 60 percent of the time."

The sheer volume of games – nearly 2,500 over the course of the season – ensures plenty of action for players.

Moreover, bettors don’t have to deal with a point spread. The money-line or odds bets means picking the winning team equates to a winning bet.

The money line is a decimal equivalent of betting odds. For instance, if a team has odds of 2-1, its money line equivalent would be +200. In either case a bet of $1 wins $2 for a total return of $3.

Conversely, a team with odds of 1-2 has a money line of –200, which would pay $1 for every $2 bet, also for a return of $3.

Other examples of the relationship between odds and the money line include: a team with 8-5 odds has a money line of +160, while one at odds of 5-8 would be –160; teams at 9-5 are +180, while those at 5-9 would be –180.

Sharp-eyed readers with a talent for math by now realize that the money line is simply a decimal expression of the odds ratio. That is, odds of 8-5 means you win 8 for every 5 bet, and that ratio, 8:5, equates to a decimal equivalent of 1.60 (or 1.6 to 1). The converse, however, odds of 5-8 is expressed as a negative –160, rather than the actual decimal equivalent of 5:8, or 0.625.

Obviously, betting favorites with less than even money odds can be expensive. In fact, it’s possible to win two out of three such bets and simply break even.

Thus, there are legions of baseball bettors who either bet underdogs (with a "plus" money line), or lower priced favorites, whose money lines are less than –150.

Following guidelines such as the favorite/underdog money line rule is an example of the plethora of trends that baseball bettors embrace.

Home underdogs, first-time starters, pitching rematches, returning from layoffs, road favorites off a loss – these are just a few of the dozens of trends that help shape baseball betting decisions.

"One of the best trends is catching a team on a winning or losing streak," Purdy said. "At any given point in the season, you’ll find at least one time in the midst of a 10-game streak … that’s a lot of winning bets if you can get in on it early."

That’s the key – identifying a winning trend and betting on it.

In the end, Purdy says baseball is a good arena to exercise handicapping and betting talents.

"If you can control yourself and ignore ridiculous hype and other influences, baseball can be your most profitable sport of choice," he said. "It’s proven to be mine."