Over/Under Win Totals 2021: Dare Fade the Dodgers?

Before each season the last 20 years I've written a story at RotoWire with my best bets for season-long win totals. I'm a big fan of the season win total bets ever since I started making them in person in Las Vegas in the late 1990s. I've used several concepts of sabermetrical analysis to find teams that appeared to be good historical bets.

I've had a good track record, winning 53 of 92 bets (with one push) for a 57.6 percent win rate. My best bet each season is 19-14 (I had multiple biggest bets some years). I'm a little better on bets of \$100 or more (I vary my bet size to emphasize how strongly I feel about the pick) where I'm 14-9 (60.8 percent). I'm most impressive when looking at the total amount bet, where I've been correct 62.2 percent of the time (\$3,375 in winning bets, \$2,050 in losers — not factoring in the vig*).

However, this season might be the toughest exercise in the last two decades. The abbreviated 2020 season due to the pandemic gives us a much smaller sample size for many of the sabermetrical theories I've used each season. Nevertheless, let's look at the 2021 season from a wagering perspective.

Here's my take on each team with more analysis below on those I selected as my "bets."

For this exercise, I'm using odds from DraftKings sportsbook on March 25.

When I look at an upcoming baseball season, there are eight methods I use to judge which teams might be a good bet: Three are statistical, four are observations I've had watching the bookies set season-long lines for MLB and other sports and lately I've thrown in a wild-card pick with no particular theoretical basis. Here's the breakdown on these theories and the teams I decided to actually wager on.

The Johnson Effect

The Johnson Effect argues that a team that scores more runs or allows fewer runs than most statistical formulas would suggest, is bound to regress the next season. For example, if one team scores more runs than sabermetrical formulas such as Runs Created or OPS might suggest, then it will score less the next season. The theory works based on the fact that sometimes a team has more success than it should just based on pure luck. A bad bounce here, a fluke play there — they can add up in one season and make a team look more powerful than it should be.

My favorite type of statistic for this analysis is a tool called the Pythagorean Theory. You probably learned the Pythagorean theory in trigonometry, but in baseball it means that the ratio of a team's wins and losses will be similar to the relationship between the square of its runs scored and the square of its runs allowed. If the runs a team scores and gives up in any given season don't translate into the expected win total from the Pythagorean Theory, that means something odd took place that should turn around next season.

Using the Johnson Effect and applying the Pythagorean Theory, who looks like they'll rebound in 2021? Here are the top teams that should have seen more or less wins based on their 2020 runs allowed/created than they actually tallied:

I usually like to look for teams that have a differential of 10 or more games. Of course, it's a question whether the Pythagorean Theory works in such a short sample size of 60 games. The Marlins clearly played above their talent level as no one expected them to make the playoffs and their lineup featured a plethora of replacement-level older veterans. However, the starting rotation is young and will possibly become one of the best in the league sooner rather than later. So, I'll pass on making a bet based on this theory.

The Plexiglas Principle

This theory says that any team that improves dramatically in one season is likely to decline the next season.

What teams made such dramatic moves from 2019 to 2020? (The wins below are pro-rated from a 60-game season to 162-game season).

The win improvements are going to be exaggerated with just a 60-game season, as any team can get hot or cold for two months. Still, the Marlins, Padres and White Sox had significant improvements.

Since 1970, teams that have improved by 19 or more games declined by 7.15 wins the following season. The decline is even sharper for teams that have improved by 23 or more games (-10.97 games).

The sportsbooks have the Marlins declining by 12.2 games. That may be too much as their young staff will make them a tough matchup. I'd take the over on 71.5 wins, but I'm not confident enough to make a bet given the lack of talent in the lineup.

The White Sox are expected to decline by just three wins. While the Padres are expected to decline 5.4 wins. Both teams were the "winners" of the offseason, acquiring impact talent — most notably Yu Darvish and Blake Snell for the Padres. While the White Sox added Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Adam Eaton.

Last season, I doubted the improvement of the White Sox and lost a bet they'd improve the equivalent of 13 games. They seem a good bet to regress more than three games as their youth may have been playing a bit over its head. (And yes, I had this bet in mind before learning Eloy Jimenez was out 5-6 months with a torn pectoral muscle.) Chicago might need to take a step back before making a run. Plus switching managers to someone who seems sub-optimal for their youthful renaissance (76-year old Tony LaRussa, who hasn't managed for a decade) adds uncertainty. I'll bet \$50 the White Sox don't win 90.5 games. The Padres, however, brought in two of the top starting pitchers in the game. I'll pass on a bet on the Padres.

The Reverse Plexiglas Principle

When a team has consistently been a winner and then experiences a sudden drop, there is a strong likelihood that its win total will rebound. Or at least that's my theory. I haven't had a lot of success with this bet (1 for 4). However, this is a much different season. There's going to be some overreaction to teams that under performed in a small sample.

Here are the teams that declined the most in 2020:

The Nationals have had a pattern of alternating between 80-win seasons and 90-win seasons the previous eight years. The Nationals struggled from out the outset last season and won the equivalent of just 70.2 games. They also struggled in the first two months of 2019, but after going 19-31 they caught fire and made the playoffs and ultimately won the World Series. The core of that team is still largely in place. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are older, but their stars on offense (Juan Soto, Trea Turner) are younger and in their prime. I'll bet \$25 the Nationals win over 84.5 games.

The Astros had a losing record in the regular season (29-31) but still made the playoffs. They got hot in the postseason, winning two series and going 9-4. The Astros are far removed from their World Series teams before they were penalized for stealing signs in their 2017 championship run. However, this team still has a good base of talent as they had won 100 or more games the prior three years. Even after losing George Springer, the team has Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez (who basically missed last year) as younger impact players ready to step up. Plus, Houston has a bumper crop of young arms in the rotation. They might still be on the decline from their World Series appearances, but could once again be the best team in the AL West. I'll bet \$25 the Astros win more than 87.5 games.

The last thing I look at is what teams the bookies think will have the biggest improvement or decline.

The Bottom Feeder Bet

This is totally from a non-scientific study of watching the bookies set lines on expected wins over the years. People tend to care less about the bad teams in any sport, so the line is set a bit lower to entice folks to bet on these doormats.

As bad as the Pirates are forecast to be in 2021, the sportsbooks have Pittsburgh improving by 8.1 games over the team's 2020 performance (the equivalent of 51.3 wins). That's despite the Pirates shedding talent over the winter (losing Joe Musgrove and Josh Bell). While Ke'Bryan Hayes might be an impact hitter, there's little else coming soon from the farm system to help (the system is ranked 16th by The Athletic's Keith Law and eighth by MLB Pipeline, but most of the talent is years away.). Still, 59.5 wins is just one win higher than the lowest win total offered by sportsbooks since 2001. The Pirates were offered at 58.5 wins for most of March until moving up a win on March 25. Both the prior projected 58.5-win teams actually won fewer games (2013 Astros, 2019 Orioles). Still, it's hard to take the under on a near-record low total.

The other teams still headed downward are the Rockies (trading Nolan Arenado in his prime for little return), Tigers and Rangers. The Tigers are also scuffling in their rebuild, though they have some top talent reaching the majors. Detroit improved by a pro-rated 15.1 games last year, but that was likely a mirage given its talent base. The Rangers were expected to be bad last year amid a rebuild but were worse than expected. Still, Texas traded talent this offseason (Lance Lynn, Elvis Andrus). The sportsbooks have both teams set to improve. I think they'll still trend downward since their top prospects are not yet ready to make an impact (Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize will need to take their lumps) and few others (especially in Texas) are likely to reach the majors. I'll bet \$100 the Tigers don't win 68.5 games. I'll bet \$25 the Rangers don't win 66.5 games. The Rockies are projected to fall 6.7 games to 6.5, which seems about right. They could be worse, but I'll pass on a bet.

The Book's Biggest Movers

Which teams do the sportsbooks think will make the biggest moves this season?

The teams that don't appear to fit directionally are the Pirates, Rangers, Twins and Rays. The Rays are coming off an AL championship and lead the AL in wins. Sure, they shed some high-priced stars as usual (Blake Snell, Charlie Morton) but that's been the case seemingly every season and they always seem to defy expectations. They have won 90 or more games each of the last three seasons. Furthermore, the Rays have the top farm system in the game (No. 1 by both Keith Law and MLB Pipeline) with talent ready to help, including most analysts' top overall prospect in Wander Franco. A decline of 22.5 wins seems too much. I'll bet \$100 Tampa Bay wins over 85.5 games.

The Twins have similarly been strong the last two seasons, winning 101 and 97.2 (pro-rated) games. Of course, they've flopped in the playoffs with an 18-game losing streak, the all-time longest in professional men's sports. Minnesota arguably improved in the offseason by adding defensive wiz Andrelton Simmons and making lateral moves elsewhere. Losses of Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill likely are offset by J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. And while Eddie Rosario left via free agency, the Twins feature several top prospects ready to fill in at left field (Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker). Minnesota has a farm system that, while not ranked as high as Tampa Bay's (eighth from Keith Law, 12th from MLB Pipeline), has most of its prospects in the high minors and poised to contribute. I'll bet \$50 that Minnesota wins more than 88.5 games. Full disclosure: I'm a Twins fan, though that hasn't offered much insight either way. I'm 3-3 the last 20 years when deciding to bet on Minnesota for this column.

The Book's Non Movers

The Royals and Blue Jays would appear to be candidates to be better this season. However, Toronto improved a pro-rated 19.4 games last year, so this would just be sustaining a big jump. The Blue Jays had an impressive offseason adding George Springer and Marcus Semien. In addition, their young core gives them a lot of upside. Still it's not best to expect any team that jumps 19-plus games to improve the next season, as on average it declines 7.15 wins the next year. Plus the team plays in the tough AL East and their starting pitching is mediocre beyond Hyun Jin Ryu. I'll bet \$25 that Toronto doesn't win 86.5 games.

Kansas City could be set for a large improvement given the marginal improvements it's made (taking a shot on upside by trading for Andrew Benintendi, and signing Carlos Santana) and with an influx of young starting pitching talent nearly ready for the majors. However, I'm not confident enough that will be enough this season for more than a three-game improvement. If I could take the over on 2022 wins, I'd be in. Maybe a bet to make the playoffs (+900 on Draftkings) wouldn't be crazy, but I'd want even better odds.

Wild Card

Always bet less than 100 wins.

Since I've been keeping track in 2001, only three teams have been picked by the sportsbooks to win over 100 games: the 2005 Yankees (102 wins) and two last year with the Dodgers and Yankees (both at the equivalent of 101.25 wins). The 2005 Yankees and 2020 Yankees didn't reach 100 wins (or the equivalent). However, the 2020 Dodgers had the equivalent of 116.1 wins, easily covering. Still, that's two of three failing to reach 100 wins.

The Dodgers are projected once again to win more than 100 games at 102.5 wins. That's the highest win total since I started tracking these in 2001. As just a matter of principle I have to take the under. A lot has to go right for a team to win 100 games. And yes, I know the Dodgers are the most talented team in baseball and even added CY Young winner Trevor Bauer after winning the World Series. Still, I'm betting on some regression even though their roster looks like it could win 120. I'll bet \$25 the Dodgers don't win 102.5 games.

To recap, here are my over/under win total bets for 2021. I've made the most bets ever in one year, as usually I try to limit myself to the wagers I feel strongest about. I guess I just love the opportunity provided by overreactions to a 60-game sample size.

*One note: My bets/track record doesn't account for the variations in extra juice you need to pay. Most lines are -110, meaning the sportsbook takes about five percent on each bet. The "vig" tends to be higher on these bets than for single games. Sometimes the vig can vary widely, such as when 2016 Rangers under of 83.5 wins was at -140 (the under was +110). It's another method for the bookmakers to alter how the money is coming in on each side so it gets to their comfort level. Or it's a way to change the odds without moving the win total.

If you are making a lot of bets, this is a serious factor in the math. But I don't bother to take that into account because I'm more focused on the overall wins number for a team perspective. Plus, I forgot to keep track of the vig in early years.

I vary the dollar amounts below as a way to show how confident I am in the bet (the \$300 bet on the 2004 Royals is my all-time high), so there are some holes in the math if you added in all the varying vigs.

And why should you care what I think? I've made money 12 of the last 20 years (with one push). Here's the breakdown: