When cranking out baseball betting odds, Vegas and online sportsbooks have always used a combination of rigorous data analysis and information on individuals’ betting habits to ensure that picking winners is a challenge. We laypeople like to think we’re brilliant when we cross-reference the latest PECOTA, ZiPS, and Steamer projections against the prevailing odds. In reality, however, the books are fully aware of every projection system that exists, and probably have their own forecasters pumping out numbers most of us never get to see.
The sharps have always been smart. But it sure as hell seems like they’re getting smarter.
Welcome to Grantland’s 2014 MLB Over/Under Jamboree. Every year, I scrutinize the projected win totals for all 30 major league teams, then highlight the handful of clubs I think are most likely to finish over or under those figures. It’s one of my favorite annual traditions, but it’s also one that’s grown tougher each year. The oddsmakers aren’t simply getting better at putting out on-point numbers year to year; they’re getting better week to week, and with the lines constantly changing, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when to act. Look at the odds that Reno’s Atlantis Casino posted just three weeks ago, and then compare them to what’s out there today. This is no picnic.
Undaunted, we press on. It’s not all bad: The odds help establish a framework under which we can begin evaluating all 30 teams and figuring out how they might fare in the season ahead. Moreover, by sniffing out the teams that might go over or under the betting lines, we can gain insight into certain competitive advantages and disadvantages that broad-stroke predictions might not reveal. And hey, if we can all make a few Gummi Bears in the process, no harm there.
Since every sportsbook and online betting site offers slightly different over/under numbers and odds, and since transparency is one of the goals here, I’m settling on Sportsbook.ag as my baseline. That’s by no means an endorsement, and if you can find better odds elsewhere, you should take them.
Here are the MLB wagers I like most for 2014.
Cleveland Indians: OVER 80.5 wins
That number looks … off, doesn’t it? The Indians surged to 92 wins last year behind one of the most powerful offenses in the league and a young, effective starting rotation. Very little has changed for the worse. While losing Ubaldo Jimenez’s impressive 2013 numbers will hurt, getting a full season from Official 2013 Grantland Crush Danny Salazar and a breakout campaign from fellow right-handed starter Corey Kluber could mitigate that loss. With none of Cleveland’s five projected starters older than 28, there’s upside across the board here.
If you’re looking for an X factor, though, consider something for which the typical projection systems and even Vegas likely won’t properly account: This season, Carlos Santana will no longer be Cleveland’s primary catcher. Whether you’re examining multiyear or single-year numbers, Santana consistently grades out as one of the worst pitch framers in the game. And while analysts are just beginning to quantify the effects of pitch blocking and other defensive skills for catchers, the industry consensus has long been that Santana is a designated hitter who happens to wear a mask. Assuming the Tribe do the right thing by making Santana the everyday DH while handing primary backstop duties to Yan Gomes, who was one of the best receivers in the league last year according to the above metrics, it wouldn’t be a stretch to project something like a two- or three-win improvement based on that move alone. And that might even be understating it. If Gomes’s defensive skills are allowed to flourish over 120-plus starts, it could help push Cleveland’s young staff to elite status this season.
Combine all that with a balanced lineup that will get even better when top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor reaches the big leagues — and frees up the Indians to consider trading Asdrubal Cabrera to address whatever weaknesses might arise — and it’s really tough to imagine the Indians finishing below .500 … which is what would have to happen to lose this bet. This is my highest-confidence wager for 2014.
New York Mets: OVER 74.5 wins
Let’s start by talking about two players the Mets will sorely miss, one obvious, one a little less so. First, there’s Matt Harvey, who was by any measure one of the 10 best pitchers in the majors last year — and who’s likely not going to throw a single pitch for the Mets this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. And then there’s Marlon Byrd, who hit a splashy .285/.330/.518 in 117 games with New York before being traded to the Pirates.
Well, despite dealing with a mountain of crippling debt that likely won’t be paid off until Miley Cyrus’s 17th term in Congress, the Wilpons spent some actual money this offseason to fill those two voids, and to yank the Mets back to the brink of respectability. New starter Bartolo Colon turns 41 in May, but it’s tough to argue with the 2013 numbers he posted for Oakland, which included a 2.65 ERA that holds up well even by defense-independent standards. Newly signed outfielder Curtis Granderson hit just seven homers last year, and he’s never again going to top 40 homers like he did in 2011 and 2012,1 but he still projects as an above-average player if he can stay healthy for, say, 130 games. And new center fielder Chris Young is coming off a season in which he hit an even .200, but he’s still a solid defensive player who can draw walks and hit for power, making him a valuable piece if he can simply drag that average back above .240.
Thanks, Yankee Stadium!
The biggest reason to get at least a little excited, though, is the Mets’ young starting pitching. Harvey’s lost for the year, but we’ll get to see a full season from fire-breathing right-hander Zack Wheeler, who owned one of the most effective fastballs in the National League last year and just needs to improve his breaking-ball command a bit to set up a potential breakout showing. Meanwhile, 21-year-old righty Noah Syndergaard has electric stuff of his own, closed the 2013 season with 11 dominant starts at Double-A, and could make his MLB debut by midseason. Huge credit goes to GM Sandy Alderson for turning a Carlos Beltran rental and a sell-high on R.A. Dickey into two pitchers who have as much potential as Wheeler and Syndergaard. The result could be one of the best young pitching trios in the game come 2015 … and enough juice this year to nudge the Mets higher in a division that includes two very strong opponents and two possible pushovers.
Don’t make any World Series plans just yet. But topping 75 wins? Very doable.
New York Yankees: UNDER 86.5 wins
Yes, the Yankees bought a bunch of 30-plus players who probably won’t look too hot at the end of their contracts. Again. Still, let’s not be too cynical about these offseason pickups. Assuming he stays upright for a full season, Jacoby Ellsbury will give the Yanks terrific speed while augmenting their outfield defense, and Yankee Stadium’s short porch could invite a bit of a power spike, even if that spike falls a bit short of Ellsbury’s still-inexplicable 32-homer binge in 2011. Brian McCann could wind up being one of the biggest upgrades for any team at any position, as he’ll bring his lefty power, strong batting eye, and excellent defense to a roster slot that featured Chris Stewart and a bag of wet noodles in 2013. Carlos Beltran carries the biggest performance risk of the three as he approaches his 37th birthday, but he too could get a boost from Yankee Stadium’s friendly dimensions. Meanwhile, Masahiro Tanaka comes with some risk due to an increase in competition and all the innings already on his pitching odometer at age 25 … but things would have to go pretty badly for him to match the level of spookiness Phil Hughes delivered last year. Credit Brian Cashman for recognizing that the Yankees won 85 games last year, but also allowed more runs than they scored, thus profiling more like a sub-.500 ball club in need of a major overhaul than a true contender.
The problem is that spending more than $400 million on those four free agents still doesn’t make the Yankees the World Series contenders they’re hoping to again become. Frankly, looking at this roster, it’s hard not to wonder if the Yanks can even hit 85 wins again. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira will be back, but Jeter turns 40 in June and might not have much left in the tank, while Teixeira has admitted that the injured wrist that cost him most of last year won’t be 100 percent for a while, assuming it ever gets there this year. Losing Robinson Cano, of course, subtracts the team’s best player from the roster, and Brian Roberts is simply too old and injury-prone at this stage to expect much from him in 2014. Don’t sleep on Mariano Rivera’s absence, either. While the amount of pomp and circumstance thrown his way last year exceeded his value on the field, Rivera was still a very good relief pitcher whose loss will force others to occupy more high-leverage roles. David Robertson may be a fine closer, but expecting the newly signed Matt Thornton to handle a key setup role is likely asking too much, and the young power arms elsewhere in the pen have talent, but also carry plenty of risk.
The Yankees could be a pretty good team this year, and may even make it to Labor Day still on the fringes of the wild-card race. But I don’t see 87 wins here, due to what could be the worst infield in baseball and a bullpen that brings up more questions than a true contender should have to answer.
Los Angeles Angels: UNDER 87 wins
The Angels will almost certainly win more games than they did last year, when they went 78-84 but scored just four fewer runs than they allowed, a profile that tends to suggest something closer to a .500 team.
A run of miserable performances and injuries sparked the Halos’ struggles. A foot injury curtailed Albert Pujols’s production and ultimately limited him to just 99 games played, an especially brutal result given the size of his contract. Josh Hamilton’s first year as an Angel was also a bust; he was healthy, but hit just .250/.307/.432 after putting up MVP-caliber numbers the year before with the Rangers. And don’t discount the negative effect of bit players faring poorly: 132⅔ innings of a 6.04 ERA from Joe Blanton hurt a lot.
If Pujols and Hamilton bounce back, and newly acquired young lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs deliver even half-decent showings at the back of the rotation in place of Blanton & Co., the Angels could easily tack on six or seven wins. Moreover, the team’s offseason moves could produce even better results than some are speculating. For starters, the Peter Bourjos–for–David Freese swap isn’t nearly as bad as some analysts made it out to be; it’s widely known that the Angels shopped Bourjos around and generated only a few subpar offers of fringe talent before settling on Freese, thus using their surplus of quality young outfielders to fill a gaping hole at third base. What’s more, losing Mark Trumbo might not hurt that much, since Trumbo offers little beyond his tremendous power, and makes a frightening number of outs when he doesn’t hit the ball to the moon.
Still, this team carries a lot of “ifs.” Santiago, Skaggs, and Garrett Richards offer a modicum of upside given their youth, but they’re also so untested that the Angels are reportedly considering an eight-man bullpen, which would be a silly misuse of roster space. We can’t ignore Pujols’s age concerns or the possibility of more injuries this year, nor the chance that Hamilton’s swing-at-everything approach might not play that well if his bat speed and reaction time have truly started to slow. The bullpen has been shaky for several years now, and the acquisition of Joe Smith might not be enough to compensate for the pedestrian relievers around him. Throw in some very tough AL West competition, with Texas and Oakland likely vying for the division crown again and the Mariners improving their offense by leaps and bounds, and we get an Angels team that could win the 88 games required to lose this bet, but that would need to have almost everything go right for that to happen. Well, everything, or a Mike Trout cloning program.2
Which would be cool enough to overlook losing the bet.
In addition to the four wagers I actually made, here are a few more I considered, but ultimately resisted.
Tampa Bay Rays: OVER 88.5 wins. The Rays beat the book every year, playing above their raw talent level by relying on everything from aggressive defensive shifts, to expert pitch framing, to heavy position-player platoons, to smart bullpen usage. In last month’s offseason edition of The 30, I listed the Rays as the best team in the American League, which implies that I expect them to get the 89 wins they’d need to beat this bet. With David Price back and hopefully healthy for a full season, impact 2013 rookies Wil Myers and Chris Archer around for a full campaign, and the core of last year’s 91-win team3 back for another run, you could do a lot worse than betting on the Rays here.
The standings say 92 wins, but that’s counting the Rays’ Game 163 win over the Rangers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: OVER 81 wins. This line was originally 80 wins, which somehow looked a lot better; maybe the fact that Arizona won exactly 81 games in each of the past two seasons has something to do with that. Still, this does look like a promising team, and possibly a wild-card contender. I mentioned Trumbo’s warts earlier, but he could hit 40 home runs at Chase Field (a better park for power hitters than Angel Stadium), which would certainly bolster the lineup. Miguel Montero is due for a rebound season after struggling last year. We could see full seasons for Aaron Hill (quite possible) and Brandon McCarthy (extensive injury history, but the skill is there); Bronson Arroyo’s on board to soak up innings; and Archie Bradley, who might be the best pitching prospect in the game, could make his major league debut fairly soon. If the NL West didn’t look so tough this year with the loaded Dodgers, the sleeper Padres, and the bounce-back contender Giants, I probably would’ve jumped on this bet.
Houston Astros: OVER 63 wins; Miami Marlins: OVER 69.5 wins; Chicago Cubs: OVER 69 .5 wins. All these lines started lower before the sharps got smart and adjusted. Still, there’s upside in these bets. The Astros finally took steps toward present-day respectability when they acquired Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman over the winter. The Marlins will start two infielders who weren’t even in the majors last year in Casey McGehee and Rafael Furcal, but they also have a potentially electric young starting rotation, especially if top prospect Andrew Heaney pulls off anything close to a Jose Fernandez 2013 impression. The Cubs, meanwhile, figure to get better as Starlin Castro shakes off an oddly ugly 2013 season, Anthony Rizzo continues to develop, and the first members of the mega-talented prospect brigade start to arrive. These also-ran teams could go into selling mode and wind up with worse second-half rosters than first-half rosters, but considering how few trade chips they have, taking the over might be smart.