Handicapping Divisional Baseball Games

When it comes to betting baseball, not all games are created equally. You can essentially break the season into three broad types of games that teams play – division games, games outside the division but in the league, and inter-league games. Each type of game has different characteristics which the successful bettor will recognize and look to exploit. Today I want to look at division games – why they are unique, and how to deal with them.

Pitchers see teams more often – A pitcher who has a regular spot in the rotation and stays healthy all year is very likely to face a division rival more than once in a season. That can be a gift and a curse for bettors. On one hand, it means that a pitcher that relies on tricks or the element of surprise isn’t going to remain as effective because the opponents will get used to him. This is particularly true for pitchers who use changes of speed to get batters off balance and keep them there, or a pitcher who has abnormal movement on their pitches. The more often a batter sees a pitcher, the less unique his pitches become, and the better the chances that the hitter can be effective against them. On the other hand, regular appearances against a team can be an advantage for skilled veteran pitchers. They get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing hitters in a more meaningful way and can gain an edge as a result. In divisional games more than other games, then, it is crucial that you pay close attention to the past history of a pitcher against a team, and particularly the progression of those games – has a pitcher generally had more or less success against a rival the more he sees them?

Games mean more – When your team and a rival are both playing separate opponents then a loss doesn’t really mean anything as long as the rival loses as well. When the teams are playing against each other, though, then one team is obviously going to lose when the other wins, so the impact on the standings can be – or at least feel – more significant. The more significant a game feels to a team, the more significant their reaction can be – either positive or negative depending upon the makeup of the team. It’s especially important, then, to consider context when you are handicapping a divisional game. The Rays likely won’t get anymore fired up to play the hapless Orioles than they would any other random team even though they are in the same division, but you can be sure that Tampa Bay will be more focused, more tense, and more on edge when they are playing the Yankees or the Red Sox. The schedule is also important to consider here – that same Yanks-Rays series won’t be nearly as tense and pressure-filled in April as it would be in September if the teams are still fighting for the divisional lead by then.

Fans could be more of an impact – The biggest reason that playing at home is an advantage is because the team gets to bat last. That advantage can obviously be amplified, though, if the crowd is large and loud. That’s not an issue for the stadiums that are always sold out or close to it. For less popular teams, though, a rival in town can mean that the empty seats are suddenly full – it’s far more exciting for Atlanta fans to head to the stadium to watch the Phillies than the Pirates. Taking a guess at what the attendance is likely to be, and then looking at how the team has generally responded to full, raucous houses in the past can give you a nice, often overlooked handicapping edge.

Oddsmakers have better sense of matchup – One of the key factors that oddsmakers consider when they are setting a line is what has happened in previous head to head meetings – both between the teams, and between the pitchers and the opposing teams. The more teams have seen each other, then, the larger the sample size that oddsmakers can draw from, and the better the chances that the line is accurate. You obviously don’t want to assume that lines in divisional games are perfect and that there is absolutely no value to be had, but you do want to be especially sure that you have an edge in these games before you make a value bet because the margin for error is likely to be smaller. The deeper we get into the season, and the therefore the more the teams have seen each other, the more relevant information the oddsmakers have to deal with.

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