We are 100 games into the long, long major league baseball betting season. That means we are still more than two months away from the end of the year. For a lot of teams, though, these last 60 games are just something that have to be endured before the season draws to a merciful end. There are eight teams in the league that are at least 13 games out of first place in their divisions, and none are likely to be any closer by the time October arrives. Because they really don’t have a lot to play for it’s hard to trust that they are going to put forth any real effort in a given game. It would be easiest just to ignore these teams for the rest of the season, but they are more than a quarter of the whole league, so you don’t want to do that when baseball handicapping. What you need to be able to do instead is to evaluate the bad teams to determine which ones are going to be trying and which ones likely aren’t. Here are six things to consider as you try to do that:
Performance against expectations – Not all .400 teams are created equal. A team like the Mariners that was expected to be a serious playoff contender is going to be deeply disappointed that they are stuck at the bottom of the division and more than 20 games out of the lead. Spirits aren’t likely to be high. Washington, on the other hand, isn’t that much better, but the outlook likely is. Stephen Strasburg is at least as good as expected, Bryce Harper is on board now, some key players have continued to move forward, and at .430 they aren’t nearly as bad as many people thought they might be this year. Ignoring all other factors for a minute, I would happily assume based on this that the general level of attitude and effort is going to be higher down the stretch from the Nationals than the Mariners.
Stability of manager – Nothing can kill the attitude around a team more effectively than a manager who is clearly and obviously headed for the unemployment line after the season. Guys will only go to war for a guy they trust, and a guy who they know can do everything possible for them. If a guy is a lame duck then players aren’t going to stretch for the catch, speed up to avoid the force out, or leg out that hit off the hands like they otherwise would. It’s the small things that will fall aside, and the small things add up in baseball.
Type of roster – The age and general makeup of a roster can give real clues about how a team can be expected to perform down the stretch. A young roster full of players just breaking into the league is going to be more focused on getting experience and learning to contribute in the majors than are with worrying about the losses that are piling up. A roster full of veterans, though, is going to be increasingly frustrated because every loss brings them one year closer to the end of their careers. By looking at the general age of the players that are playing as well as the direction that organization is moving and the players they are building around and relying on you can start to get a sense of mindset.
Roster moves they are making – By following the moves a team makes you can get a clear sense of what the team is thinking? Are they selling off veterans to anyone who will have them, or are they protecting their assets for the future? Are they using the opportunity to try out young pitchers and get them some valuable experience, or are they just trying to wring every last lousy inning out of the journeymen arms they have? Are they aggressively managing their roster on a game by game basis, or do they just seem to be randomly making up a lineup and then leaving them hung out to dry if things go badly?
How players are talking in the media – You can get a sense of how a team is feeling by how they are talking to the press. If the team is surprisingly silent then the team probably isn’t let them say much. That’s almost never a good sign. If players are loose and believably optimistic then the team is probably on a good track and you can expect them to play with a fair effort. if it sounds like they are just going through the motions and saying what they think people want to hear, though, then perhaps their hearts aren’t in to it.
Health – If a team has a marginal talent level to begin with then injuries can absolutely and utterly gut them. On the other hand, though, if those injured players start to come back to the line-up then the teams can enjoy a boost – suddenly their roster isn’t the one that caused them to lose so many games all year. Keeping a close eye on the DL and which players are getting on and off it can give you an edge when it comes to getting a feel for a team.