As of this writing, the cumulative batting average across Major League Baseball sits at .236. If the season ended today, that would be the lowest batting average in the history of the game. Currently, the 1968 season holds the record, with a .237 batting average. That was the year of Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA, and it marked the last season when the pitcher’s mound was 15 inches off the ground. In 1969, it was moved to 10 inches in an effort to (literally) level the playing field.
Along with the abysmal batting average is the fact that another league-wide record is in the process of being set: Nearly 18 strikeouts per game. (By the way, here’s a favorite set of stats to demonstrate the state of the game: When facing New York Yankees pitcher Gerritt Cole, Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo has the following numbers: Twenty-four plate appearances, 16 strikeouts, five hits — four of which are home runs — and two walks. Anyway … )
Add in fielding shifts, higher-than-normal home runs and walks, long stretches of time between pitches … and on and on and on, and it’s no wonder baseball has gone from the national pastime to national perhaps past its prime.
But despite all the doom and gloom, MLB streaming and TV ratings have bumped up this year. Is it because the games are better? Is it because Americans are embracing the sport again? Is it because of a post-COVID return to Mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because of sports betting. Live sports betting, to be precise.
Live betting on the rise
“We’ve seen a marked uptick in live MLB betting this season, with in-play action on baseball accounting for almost half of total handle,” said Mattias Stetz, the COO of Rush Street Interactive, which operates under the BetRivers brand. “That’s on par with NBA splits and slightly higher than last season’s NFL splits. Overall, in-play betting on baseball is up around 5% this year. It speaks to the nature and cadence of a baseball game and how it can effectively be broken down into mini-betting events — be it an inning, an at-bat, or even pitch by pitch. Add in the fact that there are so many natural pauses of a few seconds to a few minutes and you have the recipe for a sport that lends itself extremely well to live betting.”
Stetz isn’t the only one who has noticed how perfect baseball and live betting mesh — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver noticed it as well, and made a point to pass along his feelings to his counterpart at MLB, Rob Manfred.
During a Sportico Q&A back in April, Manfred was asked about how baseball was dealing with legalized gambling, and his answer was telling.
“The biggest issue is that sports betting is the biggest opportunity of fan engagement,” Manfred said. “I’ll tell you a funny story — one night I was coming back from an event and the phone rang and it was Adam Silver. And we were talking about something and he said, ‘Rob, you gotta stop talking about the pace of game. Your pace of game is going to be absolutely perfect for sports betting.’ And he’s right.”
"We favored the idea of federal legislation. Having said that, the states have evolved…the biggest issue is that sports betting is a massive opportunity for fan engagement" – Rob Manfred – Commissioner of Baseball
— Sportico (@Sportico) April 27, 2021
“Adam Silver gets it,” said noted pro gambler “Captain” Jack Andrews. “Baseball is pretty ideal for in-game betting. First, it’s not played with a clock so there are frequent and consistent stoppages of play. Second, baseball is highly statistical. Every game situation in baseball has been played out before. It gives bookmakers more confidence in their numbers. It also gives bettors more confidence in their betting. Lastly, baseball is an easy sport to multitask. You can watch more than one game at once in a sportsbook or with the MLB streaming product.”
Johnny Avello, the head of the DraftKings sportsbook, sees baseball betting through the same prism.
“Bettors are definitely gravitating toward live betting baseball,” Avello said. “It’s good because there’s breaks in between each pitch, in between each inning.”
He compared it to the NBA, where the score can change a half dozen times in 30 seconds of play, and where it’s more difficult for the oddsmakers — and the bettors — to keep up.
And while Avello notes live betting on baseball is still in its relative infancy in America, he sees baseball as a huge growth market, and is especially curious to see how things play out in the summer months of 2021.
“It’s growing,” he said. “Baseball is growing. One of the things about baseball is once we get into the middle of June, July, August, you can bet any sport you want … as long as it’s baseball. We’re doing pretty well right now, and when it’s isolated, it’s going to do better. Live betting continues to grow, it’s the future of sports betting, and baseball is growing right along with it.”
Baseball today, golf tomorrow?
“In 2019, live betting made up 20% of PointsBet’s overall baseball handle, while this year, live betting is accounting for 30% of the overall baseball handle,” said Mike Korn, a PointsBet sports analyst. “With expanded in-play betting options, as well as the natural pace of a baseball game, bettors feel comfortable waiting until the game gets going to join in on the action.”
It’s an important point: Jumping into a middle of a baseball game doesn’t really negatively affect a would-be bettor, especially considering batter vs. pitcher matchups are almost always independent of what else is happening in the game. Each pitch is its own mini-drama, whereas in other sports — specifically fast-moving ones — the game flow is of tantamount importance.
It’s pretty simple: Baseball and live betting mesh very well together, and while it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason why TV and streaming ratings are up this year, it’s not unreasonable to think legalized sports betting — specifically live sports betting — is one major reason why.
“It’s unique among the major U.S. sports for how well it lends itself to in-game betting,” Andrews said.
But baseball better watch out, as Andrews sees another spring and summer U.S. sport that is even better suited to live betting: golf.
“If the broadcast can become more agile, bettors would love to bet hole-by-hole on golfers or even shot-by-shot,” Andrews said. “Golf is also not played with a clock and there are plenty of natural breaks in the course of play for each golfer, but the aggregate action among all golfers on the course makes for a high frequency of betting.”
Perhaps MLB and the PGA should put their heads together. Split screen some Sunday afternoon action, perhaps?
Photo by Jason Getz/USA Today