The Crack Of The Bet: MLB 2021 Season Sports Betting Preview

The wagering world welcomes the start of a (nearly) normal sports season
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There were ballgames in 2020, but you couldn’t take me, or anybody else, out to most of them.

With the opening pitch Thursday of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, the sports world — and by extension the sports betting world — begins what could be the first season of a major U.S. sport not to be dramatically altered by the COVID-19 virus since everything went haywire a year ago. MLB is planning a full 162-game schedule for every team, the availability of vaccines means an outbreak that shuts an entire team down for several days is highly unlikely, and there will be fans taken out to the ballgame — with attendance limits mostly in the vicinity of 20-25% capacity at the outset of the season.

It’s not the old “normal,” exactly. But it’s not far off.

Then again, what is “normal” as a baseball season approaches? Is it there being a degree of uncertainty in the final weeks before the season starts about whether there will be universal DH or exactly how many teams will make the playoffs? Is it the league admitting it will be “deadening” the ball this year, a not-so-subtle acknowledgement that it has maybe sorta kinda “juiced” the ball in recent seasons?

Is it one team opening at one sportsbook with a win total over/under of 104.5 games, which is 7.5 wins higher than any team has opened in the last 10 years? 

It’s hard to say what “normal” is anymore, especially after an offseason that saw the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox make a trade with each other for the first time in 35 years.

Not so long ago, it would have seemed deeply abnormal for betting on baseball games to be legal and regulated in 21 states plus the District of Columbia. But here we are. Bettor up!

National League odds: Dodgers … and everyone else

The 104.5-win number for the LA Dodgers cited above was specific to William Hill sportsbooks. The consensus number for the defending champs is “only” 103.5.

This is a team that went 43-17 in the shortened 2020 season (.717 winning percentage, which equates to 116 wins in a 162-game season), then went 13-5 in the postseason, then went out and signed free agent pitcher Trevor Bauer in the offseason. He gives LA a starting pitching rotation so potent that David Price, a former Cy Young winner on the books for $64 million over the next two years, won’t need to be in it.

The Dodgers are the favorites to win the National League pennant and the World Series, and it isn’t close. We shopped around at every major regulated mobile sportsbook, and here were the highest returns we found on each NL team to reach and to win the World Series, along with the consensus win total number.

TEAMNL PENNANT ODDSWORLD SERIES ODDSWIN TOTAL
Dodgers+180+350103.5
Padres+500+90094.5
Mets+550+120091.5
Braves+700+120091.5
Cardinals+1500+400086.5
Nationals+2500+400084.5
Reds+3000+600082.5
Phillies+7500+1250082.5
Cubs+3000+600079.5
Brewers+4000+750083.5
Marlins+5000+1000072.5
Giants+10000+2000076.5
Diamondbacks+10000+2000075.5
Rockies+10000+2000064.5
Pirates+20000+3000059.5

There’s one bizarre outlier price among those: the Philadelphia Phillies, at 75/1 and 125/1 at Golden Nugget sportsbook while being priced no higher than 25/1 and 50/1 at any other book. Whether or not you believe in this year’s Phillies team, it’s hard for a rational, mathematically inclined sports bettor with access to Golden Nugget’s platform not to take a swing.

That oddity aside, the teams chasing the Dodgers are exactly who you’d expect. Despite sharing a division with LA, the San Diego Padres are a threat to their dominance, especially after acquiring pitching help in the offseason. The New York Mets and Atlanta Braves figure to slug it out for NL East supremacy. And the St. Louis Cardinals appear in the mix after snagging third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies.

American League odds: Yankees vs. (the other) Sox

There’s no team in the AL quite as overwhelming on paper as the Dodgers, but the Yankees, the team with the highest payroll other than those Dodgers, come close. After adding pitchers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, the Yanks look to be the class of the Junior Circuit — although the Chicago White Sox and their new/old manager Tony LaRussa might have something to say about that.

The White Sox fell under .500 for seven straight seasons from 2013-19, but they reached the playoffs in 2020 and have plenty of young talent on the rise. Then again, the “South Siders” aren’t off to the best start, injury-wise.

After checking the lines at all of the major sportsbooks, here are the best payouts we found on each AL team for postseason success, along with the consensus win total number.

TEAMAL PENNANT ODDSWORLD SERIES ODDSWIN TOTAL
Yankees+240+55096.5
White Sox+450+100091.5
Twins+1200+250089.5
Blue Jays+1200+250087.5
Rays+1200+300086.5
A's+1200+300087.5
Astros+1500+300088.5
Angels+2000+400084.5
Red Sox+3000+600081.5
Indians+3000+750081.5
Orioles+7500+2000064.5
Mariners+7500+2000073.5
Royals+7500+2000074.5
Tigers+7500+2000069.5
Rangers+8000+2000067.5

The Twins, Rays, and Astros all look to have to some potential value in the mid-range if the Yankees and White Sox underperform. And at the bottom of the chart, we find the Texas Rangers with the longest odds to win the AL — breaking up a co-stranglehold the Orioles and Tigers feel like they’ve had on that honor for the last several years.

WS wagers, wins, and awards

Here’s a look, courtesy of DraftKings, at the 10 most popular World Series wagers at its sportsbooks across 11 states.

draftkings 2021 world series splits

DraftKings has also shared betting splits on win totals. A listing of the most lopsided, in terms of handle:

  • 98% over on A’s (86.5)
  • 98% over on Phillies (80.5)
  • 97% over on Cubs (78.5)
  • 96% over on Brewers (82.5)
  • 92% under on Reds (82.5)
  • 91% over on Mariners (72.5)
  • 90% over on Padres (94.5)
  • 89% over on Astros (87.5)
  • 87% over on Blue Jays (86.5)
  • 87% over on Rays (85.5)
  • 87% over on Indians (81.5)
  • 85% under on Orioles (64.5)
  • 84% over on Angels (83.5)

And here are the top three contenders for each major individual award, based on the highest available odds across all sportsbooks:

NL MVP

  • Mookie Betts: +800
  • Juan Soto: +850
  • Fernando Tatis, Jr: +900

AL MVP

  • Mike Trout: +225
  • Aaron Judge: +1200
  • Alex Bregman: +1500

NL Cy Young

  • Jacob deGrom: +425
  • Trevor Bauer: +750
  • Max Scherzer: +1000

AL Cy Young

  • Gerrit Cole: +350
  • Shane Bieber: +400
  • Lucas Giolito: +500

NL Rookie of the Year

  • Ke’Bryan Hayes: +400
  • Sixto Sanchez: +550
  • Ian Anderson: +800

AL Rookie of the Year

  • Randy Arozarena: +425
  • Jarred Kelenic: +1000
  • Andrew Vaughn: +1200

NL Manager of the Year

  • Jayce Tingler: +350
  • Dave Roberts: +450
  • Brian Snitker: +525

AL Manager of the Year

  • Kevin Cash: +450
  • Tony LaRussa: +450
  • Aaron Boone: +500

Bet the under?

If baseball is a game of inches and betting baseball is a game of cents, can a sharp bettor add a few pennies to his overall expected value by adjusting for a difference of 12-24 inches on long fly balls?

That’s how much less a ball traveling over 375 feet is expected to fly this year due to changes Rawlings made to the balls MLB will use, according to a memo the league sent to teams.

For whatever reason, MLB wants to make it harder to hit home runs this season (while still permitting the infield shift, which encourages the boring “three true outcomes” approach to hitting and would be easy to ban, but that’s an argument for another day).

The question is, should a bettor adjust to the new un-juiced balls, and if so, how?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, runs scored per game in spring training were down to 9.4, more than a full run below 2019 spring training averages. And homers per game dipped to 1.11, the lowest preseason figure since 2017. In the 2019 regular season, an average of 1.4 home runs were hit per team per game.

But for now, the sportsbooks don’t seem to be adjusting totals on games, or lines on season-long player props. Any injury-prone slugger is always a decent bet to go under his HR or RBI total, and this season, sharp bettors who are willing to park some funds for six months have one extra reason to fade those power stats.

Sportsbooks make their Opening Day pitch

Sportsbook promotions vary a bit by state, but for the most part, the big books are fighting for customer dollars by offering incentives to use them to bet MLB action. By looking at multiple books, you might find your own plus-EV opportunities — like, say, a ridiculous 22-RBI gap for a middling Phillies slugger.

But there are also numerous potential bankroll builders you don’t have to work as hard to find:

  • FanDuel Sportsbook’s “MLB Risk-Free Same Game Parlay”: For any opening day game, FD bettors can get up to $10 back (in site credit) on any losing three-or-more-leg SGP with final odds of +400 or higher. For those bettors who drool over the much-publicized 10-leg parlay that pays 200/1, wishing it could be you, this is your chance to pick a game and try to turn $10 into $2,000. If it fails, you’re guaranteed your 10 bucks back to bet again.
  • DraftKings Sportsbook’s “MLB Opening Day Mystery Boost”: If you bet $5 or more pre-game on the Yankees-Blue Jays game that kicks off the season at 1:05 p.m. ET Thursday, you will receive a profit boost on a subsequent bet. The amount of the boost is randomly decided from among 25%, 50%, 100%, and an MLB-season-appropriate 162%.
  • FOX Bet’s “$10 Free Parlay Bet”: If you place a $10 parlay bet on MLB Opening Day (minimum three legs), you’ll receive a $10 free bet for use on another MLB Opening Day parlay. (A reminder for those unfamiliar with the concept of a “free bet”: The bettor only ends up with the winnings, not the stake, so it does not have the same value as “site credit.”)
  • PointsBet’s “Home Run Insurance”: Focusing on a relatively local team in each state where PointsBet operates, if you bet on a player to hit a home run, you’ll get a refund in free bets (up to $25) if he doesn’t hit a homer but his team wins the game.
  • BetMGM’s “Home Run Boost”: Wager at least $25 on any Opening Day game (odds -200 or longer), and you’ll receive $1 in free bets for every homer hit around the league on April 1.
  • BetRivers’ “MLB Opening Day!” special: BetRivers has the same deal as BetMGM, except it’s pricier to qualify. You have to bet $100 or more on Opening Day — which can be spread across multiple bets — and you’ll get $1 in free bets for every Opening Day home run.

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today Sports

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