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The Deceiving Nature of Small Favorites

MLB Betting: The Deceiving Nature of Small Favorites

By Loot, MLB Handicapper,

It's important as baseball bettors for us to negotiate our concept of favorites with the utter parity that is Major League Baseball. No other sport comes close to MLB in terms of the small gulf that lies between the best and the worst teams. In other sports, the gap is Grand Canyon-Sized, with the separation of wealth being gigantic. In baseball, it's a little different.

MLB would be like a society where the rich make 100k a year and the bottom-rung on the economic ladder cleared about 60k, with most people falling in the middle. Compare that to the NFL where it's more like the rich make 140k with the poor getting 10 or 20k. The worst team in the NFL might win one game a season. The worst teams in MLB win 60 games.

We have already talked about the dangers in laying big numbers in MLB. In this sport, a big favorite would be -300, for example. But even moderate and small favorites are iffy a lot of the time. We might look at a favorite at -140 or -160 and think "OK, that's reasonable." Consider that for a team to average being -160 all season, a team would have to win 61.5% of its games to justify it. In 2012, no MLB team managed to win that high a percentage of games.

And that's only -160. Take a good team that gets a lot of betting support. Most of the time, they're laying even bigger numbers than -160--a number no team in 2012 deserved averaging out at. Sure, it all depends who is pitching and which teams they are playing. But to be -160, you don't need a great team with a top guy in the rotation starting. Look at baseball odds on a given day and you will see teams that are merely pretty good with mid-rotation pitchers starting at -160 or more.

Look at how many teams that are supposed to be really good and that are favored in most of their games that only win 90 games. That's by no means a bad season. 90 wins isn't bad. That's how many games a team would have to win if they just averaged out as a -125 favorite over the course of a season. And you can bet there are a ton of teams that win 90 games that averaged out at a higher number than -125.

We need to remember what sport we are operating within and how that should affect our perception of odds. In other sports, a -125 favorite is small-potatoes. We would lay that all day long. Teams can justify being a -125 favorite. In the 2012 regular MLB season, only 9 of 30 teams would have been a profitable bet had they averaged out to merely -125 a game.

Next time you look at a full schedule of baseball odds, count how many teams are getting odds at -125 or higher. Everyday, it will be more than 9. That tells us something. It says that favorites are usually a little more of a favorite than they should be. This is why if you were to blindly bet on every favorite in every MLB game in a given season, you would do worse than if you did the same thing with every underdog.


Examine your wagering. Don't start shying away from high-value favorites because there will be many. By the same token, if you look at your past bets and notice a preponderance of favorites, you're probably less successful as a result. There will be a ton of minor favorites where you need a microscope to see a true edge for that team. You think they will win, but maybe you're thinking 55-45 in terms of probability. If in cases like that, you're laying a price of even -125, you're not looking at a rosy longterm result.

The term minor underdog is misleading. We may tend to think favorites in MLB with a money line of -140 is a mild favorite, but this sport is not built like that. For a team to be an average of a -140 favorite in all their games means they are one of the better teams in the league. And we don't see -140 only on teams who are the best in the game, do we? It's usually higher. That should clue us in that betting on favorites exclusively is a numbers game we might not be able to win.

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