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How to Predict MLB Season Win Totals

With spring training almost underway, that means we are close to one of my favorite times of the year as a sports bettor – the release of baseball season win totals. These are the most interesting props available in any sport all year because they are so interesting to think about, and because you can do pretty well on them if you put your work in. There are as many approaches to handicapping these win totals as there are people who handicap them. Over time, though, I’ve developed a rough formula for figuring out these totals – I told you I like these bets – and it works pretty well.  It’s not rocket science, but it gets you thinking the right way. The formula is this:

Last season’s total + luck factor + rotation changes + bullpen changes + net power addition + coaching changes + divisional strength = this year’s total

Let’s break it down:

Luck factor – The team earned whatever record they got last year – you can’t argue that. Inevitably, though, some teams got lucky and some teams really didn’t. If a team was really luck and won more games than they deserved to based on their production then I would adjust last year’s number downward. If the team played well and often wasn’t rewarded for that play then I would adjust last year’s total up for this year. The easiest way to do this is to compare a team’s Pythagorean expectation to their actual record.

Rotation changes – There is no single bigger factor to success or failure for a team than the quality of their rotation. It only makes sense then that the rotation is a crucial part of the analysis here. I look at this from three perspectives. First, I look at the returning players in the rotation. Is their performance from last year sustainable and repeatable? If not then do I expect more than last year for any number of reasons – injuries, experience and so on – or are they likely to perform worse than last year? Next, I look at new additions to the rotation. What’s expected from them? Are they an improvement over the player they are improving, or a downgrade? Finally, I look at what kind of luck they had last year. Was there a lot of injuries? Was there a revolving door at the bottom of the rotation, or was the lineup pretty stable? Based on all of that I look at whether the rotation can reasonably be counted on for more wins or fewer this year, and how many it might be.

Bullpen changes – I don’t typically think that the bullpen factors in significantly in these calculations. It’s not that bullpen’s aren’t important – they are crucial to the success of a team, and even more so if the rotation is suspect. I don’t worry about them too much here, though, because they are so hard to accurately assess – there are so many pitchers involved, and the circumstances they are used in can vary greatly from team to team. I only make an adjustment in this formula for one reason – a change in closer. If a team has added a strong closer after not having one I will add a couple of wins, and if they have lost a strong closer without replacing them then I will subtract a couple of wins.

Net power addition – It is so tough to assess a team’s offensive potential effectively going into a season because there are so many factors. The best way I have found to deal with it here is a simple short cut – for every ten home runs added to a starting lineup (based on what they did last year ) I add a win and for every 10 homers they lose I subtract a win. It’s a deeply flawed approach, but it does the job here.

Coaching changes – I give managers five wins to play with. A change from a struggling manager to a good one can add as many as five points to a total, and a downgrade in manager can cost that many. I also reserve as many as four wins each for coaching changes. If a team that underachieved on the mound has upgraded their pitching coach they can have to extra wins, and a team that couldn’t hit up to potential changes hitting coach they can have up to two wins as well.

Divisional strength – Teams play their divisional rivals more than anyone else, so it makes sense that any change in quality of those teams can have an impact on the expected win total. I put five wins on the line here, though it’s rare a team will get adjusted upward or downward by that much. In order for a team to get five wins added to their totals the rest of the teams in their division would have to have gotten markedly worse in the offseason.

This year’s total – Once I have adjusted for each of the factors I am left with an approximate win total for this year. Now all that is left to do is to compare them to the posted numbers. If my number is close – within five or eight wins either way – then I’m just not interested in that prop anymore. What I am looking for is situations where my number varies by 10 or a dozen wins – or even more. That will happen a few times a year. If I check it over and make sure I didn’t make a mistake then I have found some nice potential value.

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