Betting Major League Baseball totals is one of the best opportunities to make money in sports gambling. Baseball totals continue to be one area of sports betting where public perceptions are wrong, despite plentiful contrary information being available. This contrarian approach creates an edge for those who are willing to deviate from common thought patterns and go against initial betting instincts. The multitude of (165) regular season games played each year, plus the postseason, often with a dozen or more matchups per day, also creates more wagering opportunities to make smart bets than other sports which have far fewer contests. This column is designed to make you aware of some of the factors you should be considering when wagering on baseball totals.
_WHAT’S A BASEBALL TOTAL? A baseball total is the combined number of runs scored in a game by both teams, which includes extra innings. Totals posted by sportsbooks are heavily influenced by the two starting pitchers (and more specifically, the ERA and WHIP of the two starters). However, starting pitchers are but one of many factors that influence how many runs are predicted to be scored in a game. Fortunately for us, the betting public seems to ignore many other important aspects of totals betting which I'm about to discuss.
_WHY BET UNDERS? It’s generally advisable to look for UNDER opportunities, rather than OVER opportunities. Why? Most novice sports bettors like to bet OVERs (this is true for all sports) because they seek excitement in the viewing experience. Simply put, it’s more fun to watch a baseball game when you’ve got money riding on it. So, higher-scoring games are usually more appealing to those casual fans. This doesn’t mean that there are more UNDERs than OVERs during the course of a complete season. In fact, most seasons end with about an equal split on totals. But think of it this way: For an OVER to occur, the pitching for both teams must break down at some point and/or hitting must come to life. In the event that just one of the teams has either a good pitching outing or a very bad night hitting, the game will more often than not go UNDER the total. I tend to look for situations where one pitcher is capable of throwing a solid game backed by a rested bullpen, and/or one of the teams is currently in a hitting slump.
_WHY IS THE STRIKE ZONE SO IMPORTANT IN TOTALS BETTING? Rule changes over the years, including varying parameters of the strike zone, created a fluctuation in totals. For instance, 15 years ago the strike zone became larger. That meant there were more called strikes (which is very good for pitchers, and bad for hitters). Predictably, there was an increase in the number of lower scoring games in 2001 versus they years before. In fact, statistics from year to year showed that scoring went down an average of about half a run per game. That might not seem like a big number, but a half a run is monstrous when the typical total is 7 or 8 runs. All other factors being equal, that’s like picking up a 12 percent edge.
_WHO’S THE UMPIRE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER? Since strike zones are a huge factor, another thing to look at is the home-plate umpire and trends. Baseball is officiated by humans, and while the league tries to implement universal rules and field decisions, some umpires tend to see the strike zone differently. There are clearly two camps -- UNDER umpires and OVER umpires. You can find this information as to who is who online at several sports gambling websites. They tend to be consistent from year-to-year. Trouble is, many wise bettors have caught on to this critical information.
_ARE THERE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AMERICAN AND NATIONAL LEAGUE TOTALS? National League games are more inclined to go under the number, versus the American League. This is because the pitchers come to bat in National League games. Think of it this way -- 12 percent of the hitting lineup is essentially “dead” in the National League (since pitchers hit and their batting averages are much lower than the rest of the team). Since there is a 12 percent disparity in the NL (3/27th to be exact, assuming that no pitcher gets a base hit), this means totals should be about a run less on average for each NL game. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little to make a point -- since the typical pitcher hits about .150 lower than the average hitter. However, pitchers are terrible run producers. So, National League games are usually lower scoring.
_WHAT TIME OF YEAR IS IT? Time of year is also something to consider. Pitching in early to mid-season games is generally stronger (and often more predictable) than pitching in late season games. This is because by mid-August and September, many pitchers’ arms are worn out. Most teams are out of playoff contention. Novice pitchers are brought up from the minor leagues to face contending teams. I tend to do a flip-flop in totals betting when considering games before and after the All-Star break. I always bet more UNDERs the first half of the season. Then, I start looking for OVER plays in late July. Of course, much depends on the lineups and what is happening around the league. But my view is that games become slightly higher scoring as the season progresses (albeit by a small margin -- but we are looking for every possible edge).
_STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT? When researching games, look for situations where one team’s bullpen has been stretched to the limits in a previous couple of games or series. Games where atv least one of the teams has given up double digits in recent games are prime candidates to go over the total in the next game (especially with a shaky starter on the mound). Since these teams are desperate to give their middle and late relief pitching a rest, they will often leave an unreliable starter in longer than is warranted (meaning they are more likely to get hammered). If the starter gets knocked out early, the bullpen is in serious trouble. This points to an OVER.
_ARE STRONG HOME TEAMS GOOD UNDER PLAYS? When betting UNDERs, look for strong home teams, since that potentially eliminates three additional batters coming up in the bottom of the ninth inning if the home team is winning. Eliminating a half-inning means close to 5 percent less a chance of scoring will take place. Sure, a home team winning the game and not batting in the bottom of the ninth inning is worth “only” 3/54 to a baseball total, but everything should matter in sports betting. By contrast, look for OVERs to occur when the road team has a definite advantage in overall talent or with their starting pitcher.
_WHAT’S A “KEY NUMBER” IN BASEBALL TOTALS? Another consideration: Look for key numbers, such as OVER 8 and 8.5, versus UNDER 9 and 9.5. Games which are tied 4-4 will always go OVER the total when the posted number is 8/8.5. By contrast, games that are tied 4-4 in extra innings will usually go UNDER the total when the number is 9.5. A total of 10 is often a wise UNDER bet, since it takes 11 runs to lose the wager. Unless the game is in Colorado (one park where more runs are scored largely because of air density and altitude), 11 runs is a lot of scoring in a baseball game. One more hint: Beware of laying more than -115 on any total, unless you have a decided edge (such as a key starter, an NL game, and a home team that’s favored). Laying -120 or -125 on total is rarely a wise play. Also, almost never go UNDER in a game where the total is 6.5 or 7 runs. Back in the era when starting pitching was dominant (up until the mid-’80s), two starters would duel for nine innings and produce many 2-1 final scores. But complete games for pitchers are now extremely rare occurrences. There’s lots of volatility when bullpens are called into play.
_DO RIVALRIES MATTER? In intense rivalries (San Francisco vs. Los Angeles and Boston vs. New York, for example) be more inclined to bet UNDER the total. Teams get fired up playing against their rivals and often hitters are not as relaxed in the batter’s box. Managers tend to exert more control over their teams and are not as willing to take chances. It’s a small consideration, but something to think about.
_IS A HALF RUN REALLY A BIG DEAL? Finally, never underestimate the power of a half-run on a baseball total. The difference between 8 versus 8.5 and 9 versus 9.5 is monumental. I can’t even begin to count the number of totals I’ve won or lost by a run, or half a run. Just as pro football produces “key” numbers such as 3 versus 3.5 (indicating a huge line move in a game expected to be close), baseball games often land on the fringes of a total. The point is, it’s a very good idea to shop around and find the best number possible.
_ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nolan Dalla has spent the last 25 years wagering on sports, playing poker, enjoying gourmet meals, and drinking fine wine, usually from the sale rack. He pretty much wasted away the rest. Dalla also pens a popular daily blog, filled with controversial political commentary, vile rants, stories (mostly true), and blistering reviews which can be read at: www.nolandalla.com. Dalla resides in The Lakes section of Las Vegas with his wife and two cats. He was recently bitten on the ass by a black widow spider.