In the never-ending quest to find advantages over the sportsbooks, bettors look far and wide to find ways to win. One of the inefficiencies that seem to be present in the MLB betting market is an accurate valuation of defensive metrics. There are a lot of reasons for this. For starters, defensive metrics are still unreliable, though they are significantly better than they used to be. Another reason is that defensive metrics have a low correlation year-to-year from a team standpoint. Individual players tend to be good defenders, bad defenders, or somewhere in between, but that does not always translate to full team statistics. Another reason is that oddsmakers feel that they don’t need to worry about it because bettors aren’t going to dig that deep.
Lines in baseball are largely made up of the starting pitchers against the opposing lineups with assorted variables thrown in. This is especially true of totals. There are not many systems or models that are reliable on a game-by-game basis, but sports betting is not about the sprint. It’s about the endurance to run a marathon. The big picture is what’s important. Long-term results are far more important than short-term variance.
To illustrate that point, we’ll take a look at five years worth of totals results for teams that rated the best in defensive runs saved. The results are going to open your eyes in a big way.
Let’s start with the 2010 season. Keep in mind that defensive metrics have been getting better and better over the last five seasons. Teams have gotten better about creating proprietary defensive metrics that the public does not have access to and the people that track defensive performance have improved at their craft as well.
Here are the top five defensive teams by defensive runs saved (DRS):
Padres (+81): 70-82-10
Athletics (+76): 68-84-10
Cardinals (+48): 70-84-8
Rockies (+42): 76-83-3
Rays (+41): 73-82-7
Total: 357-415-38 (53.75%)
As you can see, blindly betting unders with these five teams yielded a profit above the break-even mark of 52.38 percent. That’s a full-season sample, so bettors would have had to be prepared to start right away with those teams. This does not include games played against each other, which could certainly skew the data a little bit.
Rays (+85): 65-88-9
Diamondbacks (+54): 75-82-5
Padres (+46): 81-74-7
Reds (+44): 83-69-10
Rockies (+34): 83-73-6
Total: 387-386-37 (49.93%)
The Tampa Bay Rays saved under bettors from having a horrible season. This was the one major exception over the five-year sample.
There was a shift in ideology around this time across Major League Baseball that has affected totals numbers. Beginning in 2012, teams started to use defensive shifts at a much higher frequency. Small market teams are consistently looking for ways to gain an edge over the large market franchises and they started to find out that focusing on defense was the best way to do that.
Braves (+70): 67-88-7
Angels (+58): 75-78-9
Blue Jays (+58): 77-77-8
Red Sox (+43): 78-77-7
Reds (+32): 60-89-13
Total: 357-409-44 (53.39%)
Here’s a substantial profit for us, especially from the Braves and Reds.
Royals (+93): 61-92-9
Diamondbacks (+86): 71-84-7
Pirates (+68): 71-85-6
Brewers (+58): 76-82-4
Dodgers (+47): 73-82-7
Total: 352-425-33 (54.69%)
Here we go. That’s what we’re talking about. The last two seasons, 2013 and 2014, have been among the worst offensive seasons in four decades. Note how four of the five teams on this list play in smaller markets. The Pirates are one of the teams that established a philosophy of defensive shifting and they have used it to their advantage in a big way with back-to-back playoff appearances.
You may be wondering why the worst defensive teams are not represented in this article. It’s because 2013 was the only season that blindly showed a profit in this study.
Reds (+67): 71-85-6
Cardinals (+64): 73-82-7
Orioles (+49): 69-89-4
Royals (+40): 73-81-8
Padres (+37): 61-95-6
Total: 347-432-31 (55.45%)
This record certainly speaks for itself. As teams have gotten more concerned about defense, the oddsmakers have not adapted.
Another defensive metric, UZR, or ultimate zone rating, has gotten some steam as a good way to evaluate individual defensive players. Using that stat, we have some more examples of how sportsbooks don’t adequately value defense in the totals market.
Here are the top teams in UZR in 2012:
Red Sox: 78-77-7
Total: 363-409-37 (52.97%)
Total: 351-418-42 (54.35%)
Red Sox: 71-86-5
Total: 347-427-36 (55.16%)
Over the last two seasons, betting unders with the top defensive teams in the league has been very profitable. The problem is that it can be difficult to project what teams will be in the top five in that category when all is said and done. But, we can try anyway based on what we already know.
St. Louis Cardinals – The St. Louis Cardinals are going to be among the best defensive teams in the league. Yadier Molina is one of the league’s top catchers on the defensive side. Matt Holliday was perfectly average, with Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos in center field,, and Jason Heyward in right field gives the Cardinals one of the league’s best defensive outfields. Kolten Wong is a terrific defender at second base and Jhonny Peralta, who was blasted for a lack of range in Cleveland earlier in his career, has developed into a strong shortstop. Matt Adams is good at first and Matt Carpenter is average at the opposite corner. This is a contender for the best defensive team in the league.
Kansas City Royals – The state of Missouri is well-represented because the Kansas City Royals should be in the mix for the third straight season. Having Alex Rios patrol the outfield could be a concern, but Alex Gordon is an elite defender and Lorenzo Cain can go and get it in center field. Alcides Escobar is a quality defensive shortstop and Salvador Perez, while not a great pitch framer, controls the running game. Omar Infante is serviceable at second base and one of the biggest reasons why the Royals made the playoffs last season is because the defense helped out a marginal, at best, starting rotation.
Baltimore Orioles – The Birds will have Manny Machado back at the hot corner and he and J.J. Hardy are one of the best left sides of the infield in the league. Matt Wieters’s setback will actually help defensively with Caleb Joseph behind the dish. Nick Markakis was an average defender, so the Orioles should have no problem replacing that production. Jonathan Schoop is good at second and Steve Pearce and Chris Davis are above average at first. There’s some good defensive value in this team.
Cincinnati Reds – The Cincinnati Reds could have a lot of value in the totals market because of their starting rotation. This is one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Billy Hamilton and Zack Cosart are the anchors, but the corners are in good hands with Todd Frazier and Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips is still a good defender, even though his bat is regressing. Jay Bruce is serviceable in right field and Marlon Byrd is not bad for being an outfielder late in his 30s. There’s going to be value on Reds unders this season.
Remember that oddsmakers mostly focus on the starting pitchers and the offenses when setting totals. Following teams that play good defense has been a very profitable under strategy over the last two seasons and should continue to be for the third straight year.