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Bettors Betting Better: An Introduction to Baseball Betting

Our new insider outlines the basics of baseball wagers

Sports Betting In Delaware Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

[With a nod to the realities of sports wagering making inroads into all major sports, South Side Sox is inviting a new writer, Dahlia Zahava, to provide inside skinny and sharp tips on the baseball betting world, as it pertains to the White Sox. She launches her work with us by explaining the basis of baseball betting.—Brett]

The world is certainly changing where the mainstream perception of sports betting is concerned. You have probably heard advertisements before your favorite sports podcasts that tell you all about the great introductory offers for an established betting app, or you have seen pop-ups online. Legalized wagering on sporting events has become increasingly more common, with Ohio as of this writing becoming the latest state to give in.

Even if you are a lifelong fan of baseball, you might be very confused about how all this works. That is where this helpful primer comes in.

The Basic Idea

After horse racing, baseball was the second sport to really become a backbone for sports betting. A naturally analytical game, baseball has amazed many with its spectacular moments just as much as it has enamored those of us who have a keen mind for numbers. ERA, WHIP, WAR – these are just the top of the iceberg that is sabermetrics, and chances are you have become quite acquainted with those formulas just by way of being a baseball fan. Fantasy baseball fans perhaps have even more exposure to these ideas. With baseball betting, you can now make money with that knowledge, perhaps even enough for it to become a full-time job.

Types of Bets

All right, once you have figure out which online betting app or in-person oddsmaker you will be working with, you will want to understand the ways in which you can bet on baseball. These types of bets that you will see are just the most foundational kinds, as you will soon find out that you can bet on literally every minute aspect of the game.

The Moneyline

This is the bread-and-butter of betting. You have probably done a small wager with a buddy over the outcome of a big game in the past, and while a professional moneyline bet is a little bit more complicated, it is virtually the same. The idea is to make a binary choice between one of the two teams competing in a game. These two choices will be accompanied by odds; three-digit numbers that are preceded by either a + or -.

Let’s work with an example where the favored home team (let’s say the White Sox) has listed odds of -110, while the underdog away team has been given odds of +100 by the oddsmaker.

  • For this line, the White Sox are the favorite, but only slightly. Calculating the break-even rate on the favorite moneyline is simple: merely divide the line by itself less 100 (-100/-210). Therefore, you are looking at a 52.4% break-even percentage for this White Sox game.
  • The underdog team, with listed odds of +100, have a break-even percentage of 50%.
  • The winner of the bet is the team that leads at the conclusion of the game, including extra innings if they are necessary.

So, why would you not just repeatedly bet the favorite? Because baseball is wildly unpredictable, and you are out to make a profit. Underdogs, especially of the away-team variety (affectionately known in betting circles as road dogs), win frequently enough that you would be foolish to only bet on favorites. If you always bet $100 on a White Sox team that is -170, you would have to win at a rate of 62.9% in order to generate profit, and each loss at those odds would mean a loss of $100 each time. If you win that same -170 bet less than 62.9% of the time, you are looking at a financial loss.

This is why professional bettors who largely deal with big amounts of cash (these are known as sharp bettors) tend to look for profitable angles, like a road dog team that has a matchup advantage where starting pitching is concerned, or boasts a lockdown bullpen, or has an exciting new rookie hitter debuting in that game who will probably wreck baseballs like a demigod. The sharp bettor treats the odds listed by oddsmakers as a market, and the key to succeeding in any market is to become good at spotting inefficiencies before everyone else can.

Total Runs

The total runs bet is the other most common baseball bet. Here, oddsmakers set a number that represents the combined total runs in a game, which means all the offense generated by both the home and away squads. These numbers are, but not always, given in increments of half-runs. For example, if total runs are listed as 7.5, you will either bet the over (at least eight combined runs are scored in the game) or the under (no more than seven runs are scored in the game). These bets are typically straight 11/10 bets with -110 odds, so it comes down to analyzing things such as the ERA of the listed starting pitchers, the strength of the bullpens, or the quality of the hitters that are penciled into the lineup. Even if the Mets put Jacob DeGrom on the bump and he puts up seven scoreless innings, his bullpen or the hitters of his own team could push the game past its listed total runs in the blink of an eye.

The Run Line

Baseball does not have a point spread given by oddsmakers (as in, odds that a basketball team would win a game by at least -7.5 points or keep it close enough to end the game within +7.5 points) but there are major differences in quality when it comes to MLB teams, and that is where the run line bet comes into play. The favorite will always be listed as a -1.5 handicap on their final score (as in, the favorite needs to score at least two more runs than the other team) and the underdog will have a +1.5 handicap applied to their score (which means your action, or bet, will pay out if the underdog either wins or manages to keep the game close enough that they only lose by one run). There will not be any standard 11/10 bets as you would normally see with total run bets, and instead are usually offered at odds equivalent to a moneyline bet that is plus 80 to 110 points (the favorite) or minus 80 to 110 points (the underdog). If you are really confident that the White Sox can absolutely crush their opponent that day, it probably would be a good idea to take the juice (plus odds) on their run line, rather than reducing your potential winnings by betting on an expensive moneyline.

ACTION conditions, 5 Inning Lines, Player Props, and the Rest

What if you place your moneyline wager based solely on the starting pitcher or pitchers on the mound, and one of them, or even both, are scratched late? Have no fear, because ACTION conditions exist. When placing your moneyline wager, you have the option of protecting your bet in case of such a situation happening. If you really do not want to take the White Sox if Dylan Cease is a late scratch, then simply choose Cease as condition of the bet, and if he is unable to take the mound then that bet is simply canceled, even if the bet was made in conjunction with others, which is known as a parlay.

The 5 inning line cuts a normal baseball game in half, so the conditions of the bet either will or will not pay out based on what happens through the middle of the 5th inning. This action can be taken either as a moneyline or run line bet (typically at a lowered number like -0.5 or +0.5) and can be a smart play if you are confident in a starting pitcher or strong lineup but not necessarily jazzed about the bullpen situation. These bets take some of the drama out of the equation.

Player props are conditional on what an individual player achieves. An example of this sort of bet would be betting the over/under on Dallas Keuchel’s strikeouts, or taking straight action on Tim Anderson hitting a home run. Player props are fun side bets that can liven up your ticket and can also be combined in a parlay with more traditional bets like a moneyline or run line.

Now, you are probably ready to scrounge up some cash and place some wagers. Maybe you are interested in a basic occasional one-off bet on a Sox moneyline, or you want to be a hardcore bettor who targets market inefficiencies and goes for the huge paydays in the form of parlay bets.

I have won as little as $10 on a single bet, and then turned around and used that $10 to craft a parlay bet that generates massive income — like a bet I placed earlier this month that netted me over $4,000.

Either way, the most important thing to remember is that sports betting can be a fun, productive way to put your knowledge to work. If it stops being fun, then it is OK to take a break and mentally regroup. Baseball betting will still be there when you get back.