With the one-and-done playoff “series” in the books, it’s time to fire up the Division Series. The two AL series kick off tonight, as the Toronto Blue Jays visit the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox take on the Cleveland Indians. Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be taking a look at all of the games in the picks and analysis write-ups that I did throughout the regular season. First, before we look at the games, here are a few tips for betting playoff baseball.
Bet numbers, not teams – This is a strategy that most professional handicappers employ regardless, but it’s not necessarily something that I preach for Major League Baseball. Postseason variance is wild and crazy. For me, it’s all about line value in the playoffs because anything can happen. You can make a strong case that all sporting events are like that, but I feel like I can get a better handle on variance during the regular season. There aren’t a whole lot of situational spots. All of these teams are good. Line value is always important, but it goes up a few notches at this time of the year.
Live bet whenever possible – Feel free to take a pregame position, but live betting is the best way to approach the MLB playoffs. You can pick up on things throughout the game that you cannot handicap before the game. Is a pitcher losing his release point and becoming erratic? Well, he just got out of the inning, but the heart of the order is coming up next inning. Maybe that’s the time for a live bet. Also, bullpens and managers really increase in importance. The managers that can best leverage relievers usually win games. The better bullpen usually wins games and series. Starters don’t go as long and often get pulled at the first signs of danger in the middle innings.
Don’t overvalue experience – Many people believe that past playoff experience matters because of the nerves and the high stakes. Read this from Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus. It will surprise you.
Valuing home field advantage – Since 1995, home teams are 41-43 in the LDS round and 21-21 in LCS round. In a general sense, it seems like home field advantage is worth about 25 cents for a regular season game, give or take based on park factor. Look for situations where the playoff HFA seems to be too big or too little.
Be responsible – As I mentioned above, variance in the playoffs is huge. Since 1995, the 27 teams to have the best record or be tied for the best record during the regular season have won the World Series four times. Twelve of them failed to win a round, including the St. Louis Cardinals last season. It’s a small sample size of games. Be responsible with your money. Make smart plays when you feel like you have an edge. It’s okay to pass on a game. There’s a lot other stuff going on.
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Toronto at Texas (-135); Total: 9
Game 1 of this 2015 rematch features Marco Estrada against Cole Hamels. The Blue Jays won in thrilling fashion in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday and then hit a flight to Texas on Wednesday for this game. They should be just fine with the travel and the small time difference, especially with this game slated for a mid-afternoon start time.
Something to keep in mind right away here is that Roberto Osuna left his appearance on Tuesday night with a shoulder injury and he’s questionable. Managers don’t screw around with relievers in the playoffs. They go with guys that they trust. If Osuna cannot go, that really shortens the bullpen for Toronto.
Why is that significant? Because Marco Estrada is the Game 1 starter here. Estrada, who has been pitching with back troubles, rallied over his last three starts, but it was pretty clear that he was ailing throughout August and September. He’s a fly ball pitcher, so Globe Life Park isn’t an ideal venue for him, but the Blue Jays do have a solid outfield defense, so that should help him in this outing.
One of the injury signs with Estrada in August and September was that the spin rate on his fastball has dropped pretty dramatically. Most pitchers are amped up for playoff starts and may throw a little bit harder than normal. With a declining spin rate at regular velocity, with more time to rotate on the way to the plate, some of Estrada’s fastballs may really flatten out in this start. It’s interesting to point out that Estrada cut his changeup usage dramatically in early September before going back to it later in the month. That’s when he had success. That’s his money pitch. His changeup has to be his best offering or he will struggle.
Once again, the bullpen will come into play here. Estrada hasn’t been as efficient this seasons he was last season. He’s struck out more batters and walked more batters. The Blue Jays bullpen could be called into action early.
Experience shouldn’t be a big factor, as mentioned above, but it will be a talking point for Cole Hamels’s start. This will be the 16th playoff start of Hamels’s career and he’s been fantastic with a 3.03 ERA. He was solid in last year’s ALDS against Toronto, but the defense really let him down. Hamels had some issues in the first half. He gave up a lot of dingers and walked 9.8 percent of the batters he faced. He cut both of those numbers down in the second half. Righties did hit .251/.326/.396 off of him and that’s a concern because Toronto is loaded with right-handed sticks. He really neutralized lefties well, but righties had success. He also had some weird home/road splits that may come into play.
What I like about Hamels in this spot is that I think he can work deep enough into the game so that Jeff Bannister doesn’t have to bridge the gap to his primary relievers. Hamels is an efficient starter. I am concerned that the Blue Jays ranked third in runs above average against changeups this season, since that’s Hamels’s best pitch, but I’ve been impressed with the adjustments that he has made over the course of the season.
That’s the key to this game for me. If Estrada and Hamels go toe-to-toe, then Toronto can win this game. If Hamels pushes through another inning or two, it will limit the exposure on Texas’s middle relievers, which haven’t been great this year.
I felt like the opening line of -150 was pretty reasonable. I definitely understand the desire to take the road dog at a big price, but I’d be looking at the home team here in this one. Toronto’s bullpen minus Roberto Osuna is a worry. If he’s able to go, then so be it, and you can live bet to get out of your Texas position if you want. That’s why live betting can be really favorable at this time of the year.
Boston (-145) at Cleveland; Total: 8.5
Regular readers of these picks and analysis pieces or regular BangTheBook Radio listeners know my love for the Cleveland Indians, so you know I’m totally jacked up for tonight’s game. I do promise that I will be impartial in these write-ups. I’d also like to point out that my good friend Mike Hattery did a solid write-up on how the Indians should attack Rick Porcello for Waiting For Next Year, so go check that out if you want some reading material this afternoon.
Before we even dig into tonight’s game, let’s talk about overall perception. You can see it right away in this line and in this line movement. Because the Indians are down Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, they’ve already been buried. I haven’t seen anybody (myself included) take the Indians in this series. The Red Sox have this David Ortiz Retirement Tour and the possible Cy Young Award winner in Rick Porcello, but they are being overvalued in this series. I would fully expect this number to close in the -160 range as public bettors get involved. The Red Sox are such a public time in all facets. The Indians faced a situation something like this in 2007 when they had home field advantage against the New York Yankees. They didn’t suffer any big injuries going into the playoffs, but they won that series in four games and won both games at home. It was a long time ago and most of the guys from that team are no longer playing, but the best team doesn’t always win. Hell, the Indians took HFA from Boston in the final weekend of the season. HFA doesn’t matter a ton, but it seemed to matter to the Indians, for whatever that’s worth. There’s a link in that Carleton piece above to his work about momentum heading into the playoffs. Peruse that article as well.
So, with that, let’s cap this game. I’m going to get this out of the way right now, these two bullpens are both tremendous, so finding an edge in that respect will be hard. The Indians made a suspect decision to not carry a second left-hander in Kyle Crockett, so there could be a big spot in the middle innings where they need a lefty and don’t have one because Andrew Miller is the only one on the roster. That may be a factor here at some point in the series, but the overall strength of both pens is pretty comparable.
Rick Porcello has been outstanding this season. His strikeout rate is down a little bit from last year, but his walk rate is excellent. Recently, the Indians have gotten a little bit more aggressive and being aggressive is the gameplan against Porcello. If he gets you to two strikes, he can make you swing at whatever he wants. If you swing early, when he’s trying to get ahead in the count, that’s the way to have success. With two strikes, hitters batted .149/.195/.222 against Porcello. Other pitchers have the same types of slash lines, but Porcello’s .241 BABIP against as a mostly sinkerball pitcher shows just how weak the contact has been in that split.
We’ll have to see how the Indians play it. My guess is that they will be aggressive. They have a lot of young hitters that don’t have a lot of playoff experience. In a general sense, that will lead to more early-count swings. The reason experience isn’t big from a numbers standpoint is because guys can get hits at any time. The Mets swung early on Madison Bumgarner a lot and it didn’t work. It may work here. It’s the best course of action in my mind and I think the hitters will buy in as well.
Along with the negative sentiments about the Indians driving this line, the fact that Trevor Bauer is starting Game 1 with a 4.26 ERA can’t help. Bauer did have better advanced metrics with a 3.99 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP, but those are still pretty pedestrian numbers for a Game 1 starter. Bauer has made a pretty significant change this season to his arsenal that has allowed him to induce more ground balls. He used to primarily work up in the zone with his four-seamer, but he’s gone to a two-seamer more often. As a result, his ground ball rate is up 9.5 percent from last season. That pitches to the team’s defensive strength. That’s why he’s been a better pitcher overall this season.
Terry Francona will have to walk a fine line with Bauer. The former UCLA standout has shown a lot more emotion this season than in past seasons and seems to be more comfortable in his own skin and in this clubhouse. On the other hand, he’s a very cerebral guy, capable of overthinking a lot against a lineup with very few weaknesses. Every plate appearance is a struggle against this team. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Chris Gimenez get the nod behind the plate as a veteran guy that won’t be caught up in the moment and it may be the sole reason that the Indians carried three catchers. If it’s Roberto Perez, I think that could give Boston an advantage. He’s a much better defensive catcher and a better framer, but he’s also very young and game calling is important against Boston.
I think my favorite bet here is the first five over. I think these starters have a hard time settling in and the offenses are aggressive early on. From a side standpoint, my lean would be to Boston. I am a huge Trevor Bauer, but I literally have no idea what to expect here. I know that Porcello will find a way to keep Boston in the game, but I’m not sure how things will play out with Bauer.
Good luck and remember those key points above!