Handicapping July Baseball
The first half of the 2019 MLB season is in the books and it has been a historic season thus far. We’ve seen 3,691 home runs hit already and it’s only going to get hotter in July and August. Home run records will be broken on several levels. Outside of the National League Central, the division races are virtually non-existent right now. No team outside the NL Central is within five games of a division leader. The Wild Card races, on the other hand, are extremely competitive. There are 13 non-division leading teams that are currently within three games of a Wild Card spot. Almost two-thirds of the league has a realistic shot at the postseason, which is higher than usual at the All-Star break.
So, where do we go from here from a betting perspective? Handicapping games after the break is different than handicapping games earlier in the season. The trade deadline is at the end of July and you start hearing a lot of chatter about which players are on the move after the break. Teams have to decide whether they are going for it this season or focusing on the future. It’s hard to do both unless your team is incredibly deep like the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers. Teams that are looking to the future will start shopping their veterans who still have value.
Guys like Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman, Zack Greinke, Whit Merrifield and Kirby Yates could be available for the right price. How does this impact team performance historically? July can be emotional month for players in both directions. How are the Diamondbacks, a team that is currently one game above .500, going to feel if Zack Greinke gets dealt? The proverbial raising of the white flag is enough to suck the life out of a team. Sometimes the rumors alone are enough to do it as players aren’t dumb and they know what’s inevitably coming. On the other end of the spectrum, teams can get a big shot in the arm when they acquire a big name that they feel puts them over the top (Justin Verlander at the 2017 Astros for instance). It can benefit the acquired player but also raise the performance of the players around them. These are human beings with real emotions after all. If you don’t believe in the effect, all you need to do is look at the historical performance of favorites in July.
Favorites have dominated in July over the last 10 years compared to underdogs by a whopping 284-unit margin! That kind of margin doesn’t happen by accident, although the impact is clearly lessening. The effect also remains in August to a smaller extent.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why favorites perform so well in July, but I believe that part of the reason is that the All-Star break marks the point when many teams begin deciding between this season and the future. As I mentioned, the players are smart and they typically know what’s coming. How motivated are you going to be if you’re the Cardinals and you start hearing that the club is shopping Marcell Ozuna and Andrew Miller (it’s not true yet but don’t be surprised if you start hearing these grumblings if the Cardinals start the second half slowly). It’s enough to kill player motivation. All of a sudden, guys aren’t showing up to the ballpark three or four hours early to work on their swing. Pitchers aren’t putting the same amount of time in with their coaches because they know the organization only cares about the future. And we haven’t even mentioned the daily lineups, which could start to feature younger players who an organization wants to take a good look at.
The opposite happens when a team makes a big move to go for it. Players ARE showing up several hours earlier to push themselves. They know a World Series is within reach with the recent acquisitions. They start spending more time on the little things because they know what’s at stake and they don’t want to be the guy that costs their team a chance at a championship. Again, it’s just human nature.
The change in the weather is also an impact in July. Let’s face it, temperatures are on the rise this month and these are the beginning of the so-called “dog days of summer.” It takes a little more effort to accomplish anything in extreme heat. Heck, I often pass on even going out to my mailbox to get my mail on extremely hot days. Imagine how baseball players feel being out in the sun for 3-4 hours. If you know your team isn’t in it to win it, you might take some shortcuts during your workout when it’s 96 degrees and humid.
Are you going to make a lot of money blindly betting every team that makes a big move and fading the teams that start dumping valuable veterans? You certainly could, although I wouldn’t recommend it. But you will almost assuredly increase the size of your edge if you simply take into account the motivation for each team, especially in the month of July where things can change drastically. The impact definitely lessens in August and September, and the reason is that the books adjust their numbers considerably and often start to overcompensate for the fact that they got crushed on big moneyline parlays throughout July. But stay with the trend this month and get inside the head of every team leading all the way up to the deadline…because it matters.