Tips for Handicapping a Shortened MLB Season
As of now, it appears that Major League Baseball will play in 2020 albeit using an abbreviated schedule. Memorial Day is being discussed as a target date which offers the chance to play as many as 125 regular season games and a postseason that runs into late October. Should the start date be later, which given the fluid nature of the coronavirus situation is very possible, the regular season could be even shorter. But regardless of how many games are slated to be played, it will be unique for all parties involved, including bettors. Let’s take a look at some of the key factors bettors should consider once the season begins.
Weather – Handicapping baseball in March, April, and even May often involves checking the weather, particularly the temperature. With the cooler months not in play, bettors should be cautious when using season-long statistics and betting results from past years with cold weather teams. A 40-degree game in Cleveland in mid-April is going to play a lot different than it would during July. For example, in 2019 the Indians played 11 home games in April where the average total was 7.68. The average total for home games in July was 9.5. Last season, the Minnesota Twins had one of the best offenses in MLB from a season-long perspective yet April marked their lowest output of runs, home runs, batting average, and on-base percentage. From March through the end of May, Twins’ home games went 10-17-1 O/U. From June on totals went 30-24 O/U.
Starting Pitching – Along with warmer weather and stronger offenses is the issue of how quickly pitchers can get into rhythm?
“There will be a little halt in some throwing programs and some pitcher pitch counts,” Rockies Manager Bud Black said. “Position player-wise? Fine. If you look at the big picture for position players, physically and mentally, they’ll be fine once we get to a hard target. The pitching staff and, most importantly, the starting pitchers, that’s where it’s going to impact.”
Last season, in the months of March and April combined, the median WAR among starting pitching staffs was 2.4. That number dropped to 2.1 in May, and then to 1.8 in both June and July.
Bullpens – Teams with stronger bullpens should be positioned to perform better during a shortened season. Bullpen arms won’t be as taxed as they normally are and can be leaned on a bit more by managers. A relief unit such as San Diego’s that is projected by FanGraphs to log the third most innings and register the 5th-best WAR in MLB should be able to leverage that strength much more than other teams. Meanwhile, weaker bullpens could be even more exposed early on as starters continue to “stretch out” and up their pitch counts.
Variance – The beauty of a 162-game MLB season is that it’s hard to fake your way to success. That could change under an abbreviated schedule. FanGraphs broke down the postseason and World Series probabilities of a full season, 140 games, and 110 games. Using their full season model, the Kansas City Royals have a 0.3% chance of making the playoffs. Under the 110-game format, it jumps to 6.5%. The Los Angeles Dodgers are currently priced at +280 to win the World Series at CRIS which accounting for a sportsbook’s hold, falls in line with FanGraphs’ full season projection of 18.5%. But using the 110-game format, LA’s chances drop to 12.6%. This suggests that there may be more value in betting long shots compared to past seasons.
Injuries – There will be some teams that benefit more than others from a shortened season, particularly those currently dealing with injuries. The New York Yankees were projected to start the season without the services of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and James Paxton. All three are excepted to be healthy once the season does begin. Justin Verlander, Mike Clevinger, and Michael Conforto are some other high profile players currently dealing with injuries that can heal during the time off. The extra rest will also help those pitchers who participated in last year’s postseason. One of the games biggest workhorses, Max Scherzer, admitted during spring training that he was still fatigued from Washington’s World Series run.
Scheduling – The most fascinating and potentially impactful factor of a shortened season is what MLB will do in terms of scheduling. The Yankees were slated to play 17 games against Baltimore, Detroit, and Toronto in April. Even with multiple key injuries, it set up well for a strong start. Teams typically play 47% of their games within their respective division. Under a 110-game format, that’s 52 games. If you are a bottom feeder of a strong division (i.e. Baltimore), you’d prefer to play as many non-divisional or Interleague games as possible.