Last Updated: 2017-05-08
This article is intended to give a sense of clarity to those who bet on, or would like to bet on, baseball. Betting on baseball does require a slightly different skill-set than betting with a point spread, but in general there are the same risk/reward consequences. The laws of probability still apply.
When we bet on a football game using a point spread we are typically paying a vigorish, or vig, of 10%. That’s the number (-110) that implies a 52.38 win percentage, or the number of bets one needs to win in order to break even.
Since baseball does not have a point spread per se, we are almost exclusively using a money-line when we bet on a team to win.
Of course most games are not the standard -110 that people are more familiar with. When a great team with a great pitcher is playing a weak team with a weak pitcher, the money-line, or price you pay to bet on that team to win, can be as high as -300 (or higher). That means two things. First, you are risking $300 to make $100. Secondly, the win probability jumps to 75%, meaning that to keep your bankroll 100% in tact you must win 75% of those bets.
Conversely, the underdog in that scenario would only have an implied 25% chance of winning, according to the market, which as we know is all driven by money coming in on one side or the other. The upside of betting on the underdog in that scenario is that you would be risking $100 to make $300. That also implies you need only to win 25% of your bets to break even.
But wait, there’s more. The bookmakers don’t offer you a price of +300. If the favorite in that scenario is -300, the best price you can generally find on the underdog is +280. Quite often some of the more recreational bookmakers might only offer you +260, which is why you hear over and over that you need to shop around, or “have more outs”, to put it into gambling jargon. Bookmakers price things to their advantage, not ours.
Giving away .20 of your bet before you start is a sure way to lose money over a period of time. It’s the dictionary definition of “leaving money on the table”, and winning is hard enough already. Shopping for the best price is more often than not time better spent than thinking about who you’re going to buy, or bet on as this case may me.
Think about it this way, especially if you’re familiar with betting on football. If New England is a -3 favorite over Atlanta, the money-line, or cost to bet on the Patriots just to win, regardless of by how many, is -150. That implies a 60% win probability, meaning you’ve got to win 60% of the time to just break even. It doesn’t sound like much more than 52.38%, but it’s a staggering difference.
It’s all math. If New England is a -6 favorite then betting on the Patriots to simply win the game is going to cost -300, or a $300 risk to win $100. Or, just as in the baseball example, it’s an implied win rate of 75%. Of course, taking Atlanta to win the game outright is exactly the same as taking the baseball team to win that’s got an implied win rate of 25% – it’s only going to cost you $100 to win $280.
That’s the simple answer. But, just like football or any other sport with a point spread, that number is fluid and not a static.
The market may open a baseball team at -140, or an implied win rate of 58.3%. As the money comes into the market, that number (cost) moves just as a point spread would. The bookmakers adjust the price based on their exposure, and the number could go either way, and often many times during the betting cycle. Once you’ve made up your mind as to what team you want to bet on, the onus is on you to find the best price. The onus is on you to anticipate what the market will or won’t do.
This chart is an example of a recent betting cycle of a baseball game between Kansas City (the favorite) and the White Sox. Currently, you can buy the White Sox to win at +107, or bet $100 to make $107.
That’s all well and good, but you could have had them at +124, or have bet $100 to make $124. Over the long haul, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table.
Additionally, this chart is just one bookmaker. As I am writing there are options ranging from +100 at Bovada/Bodog (a very recreational bookmaker) to +107 at 5Dimes (another recreational bookmaker) to +105 at Pinnacle Sports, considered by many to be a very sharp, or “professional” bookmaker.
The bottom line to betting money-lines in baseball (or any sport) is that you once you’ve decided who you’re betting on (or against) is to invest your money in the right place at the right time so as to increase the return on your investment, or, decrease the risk, depending on your perspective.
Dave Essler is a professional handicapper at Pregame, featured on ESPN, CNN, & Fox Sports.