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."
|Team||2021 O/U||MY PICK|
|Boston Red Sox||80.5||Under|
|Chicago White Sox||90.5||Under|
|Kansas City Royals||73.5||Over|
|Los Angeles Angels||83.5||Under|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||102.5||Under|
|New York Mets||90.5||Under|
|New York Yankees||95.5||Over|
|San Diego Padres||94.5||Over|
|San Francisco Giants||75.5||Over|
|St. Louis Cardinals||86.5||Over|
|Tampa Bay Rays||85.5||Over|
|Toronto Blue Jays||86.5||Under|
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:
|Tampa Bay Rays||+4|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+3|
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).
|San Diego Padres||+22.6|
|Chicago White Sox||+22.5|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+19.4|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+12|
|Kansas City Royals||+11.2|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||+10.1|
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:
|Boston Red Sox||-19.2|
|New York Mets||-15.8|
|New York Yankees||-13.9|
|St. Louis Cardinals||-10.0|
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.
|Kansas City Royals||72.5|
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?
|New York Mets||+20.3|
|Boston Red Sox||+15.7|
|Los Angeles Angels||+13.3|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||-13.6|
|Tampa Bay Rays||-22.5|
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
|Kansas City Royals||+3.3|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+0.1|
|San Francisco Giants||-0.7|
|Chicago White Sox||-3.0|
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.
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.
|White Sox||$50 under on 90.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|Nationals||$25 over on 84.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|Astros||$25 over on 87.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|Tigers||$100 under on 68.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|Texas||$25 under on 66.5 games||Bottom Feeder|
|Toronto||$25 under on 86.5 games||Book Non-Mover|
|Twins||$50 over on 88.5 wins||Book Mover|
|Tampa Bay||$50 over on 85.5 wins||Book Mover|
|Dodgers||$25 under on 102.5 wins||Wild Card|
*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:
|2020||Won||Pittsburgh Pirates||$100 on less than 25.5 games||Book Non-Mover|
|2020||Lost||Chicago White Sox||$25 on less than 31.5 games||Book Mover|
|2020||Won||New York Yankees||$25 on less than 37.5 games||Wild Card|
|2020||Lost||Los Angeles Dodgers||$25 on less than 37.5 games||Wild Card|
|2020||Won||Tampa Bay Rays||$50 on more than 33.5 games||Wild Card|
|2019||Won||Kansas City Royals||$50 on less than 69.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2019||Lost||San Francisco Giants||$50 on less than 73 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2019||Lost||Texas Rangers||$25 on less than 70 games||Book Non Mover|
|2019||Won||Baltimore Orioles||$50 on less than 58.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2019||Won||Washington Nationals||$25 more than 88.5 games||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2018||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$100 to win fewer than 85 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2018||Won||Detroit Tigers||$50 on less than 66.5 wins||Book's Non Movers|
|2018||Won||San Diego Padres||$25 on less than 72.5 games||Johnson Effect|
|2017||Won||Tampa Bay Rays||$50 win more than 78.5 games||Johnson Effect|
|2017||Lost||Pittsburgh Pirates||$100 win more than 82 games||Reverse Plexiglas|
|2017||Lost||Los Angeles Angels||$50 on less than 79 wins||Book's Non Movers|
|2017||Lost||Texas Rangers||$25 on win more than 84.5 games||Book's Biggest Movers|
|2017||Lost||Baltimore Orioles||$50 win more than 80 games||Wild Card|
|2016||Lost||Chicago Cubs||$25 win less than 93.5 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2016||Lost||Milwaukee Brewers||$50 win less than 70 games||Bottom Feeder Bet|
|2016||Lost||New York Yankees||$25 win over than 85 games||Wild Card|
|2015||Lost||Houston Astros||$25 win less than 75.5 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2015||Won||Los Angels Angels||$25 win less than 88.5 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2015||Won||Texas Rangers||$25 win over than 76.5 games||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2015||Lost||Boston Red Sox||$25 win over than 86.5 games||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2015||Lost||Baltimore Orioles||$75 win over than 82.5 games||Book's Biggest Movers|
|2015||Won||Cincinnati Reds||$25 win less than 77.5 games||Book's Non Movers|
|2015||Won||Tampa Bay Rays||$50 win more than 78.5 games||Book's Non Movers|
|2015||Won||Oakland A's||$100 win more than 81.5 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2014||Lost||Cleveland Indians||$25 win less than 82 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2014||Won||Houston Astros||$25 more than 62.5 games||Bottom Feeder|
|2014||Won||Philadelphia Phillies||$50 under on 74.5 games||Book Non Mover|
|2014||Won||Oakland A's||$25 over on 86.5 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2014||Lost||Tampa Bay Rays||$100 over on 89 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2013||Won||Toronto Blue Jays||$50 under on 89 games||Book Mover|
|2013||Won||Oakland A's||$25 over on 84.5 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2013||Won||Tampa Bay Rays||$50 over on 86.5 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2013||Lost||Kansas City Royals||$50 under on 78.5 games||Billy Beane Theory|
|2013||Won||Baltimore Orioles||$25 over on 78.5 games||Wildcard|
|2012||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$200 under on 86 games||Plexiglas Principle|
|2012||Lost||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 72.5 games||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2011||Lost||Kansas City||$100 under on 68 games||Book Non Mover|
|2011||Won||Houston Astros||$50 under on 72 games||Johnson Effect|
|2011||Won||Milwaukee Brewers||$25 over on 86.5 games||Book Mover|
|2011||Lost||Los Angeles Angels||$50 under on 82.5 games||Wild Card|
|2010||Lost||Houston Astros||$150 under on 75.5 games||Johnson Effect & Book Non Mover|
|2010||Won||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 82.5 games||Wildcard|
|2010||Won||Washington Nationals||$50 under on 72 games||Book Mover|
|2009||Lost||Los Angeles Angels||$50 under on 88.5 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2009||Won||Detroit Tigers||$50 over on 81.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas|
|2009||Lost||Baltimore Orioles||$50 over on 72.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2009||Lost||Kansas City Royals||$25 over on 76.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2009||Lost||Philadelphia Phillies||$50 under on 88.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2009||Lost||Oakland A's||$25 over on 82.5 wins||Billy Beane Theory|
|2008||Won||Seattle Mariners||$200 under on 84 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2008||Lost||Chicago Cubs||$50 under on 87.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2008||Won||Oakland A's||$50 over on 73.5 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2008||Push||San Francisco||$50 under on 72 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2007||Won||Cleveland Indians||$50 over on 85.5 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2007||Lost||Chicago Cubs||$50 under on 83.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Lost||Oakland A's||$50 over on 85.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Lost||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 84 wins||Book Mover|
|2007||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$100 over on 78.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2006||Won||Chicago White Sox||$100 under on 92 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2006||Lost||Arizona Diamondbacks||$25 under on 73 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2006||Lost||Tampa Bay Devil Rays||$100 over on 68 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2006||Lost||Milwaukee Brewers||$50 over on 81 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2006||Won||Minnesota Twins||$50 over on 83 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2005||Won||New York Yankees||$150 under on 102 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2005||Won||Milwaukee Brewers||$50 over on 69.5 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2005||Won||San Diego Padres||$25 under on 86.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2005||Lost||Minnesota Twins||$25 over on 89.5 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2004||Won||Kansas City Royals||$300 under on 81 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2004||Won||Houston Astros||$50 over on 91 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2004||Lost||Detroit Tigers||$100 under on 66.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2004||Won||San Francisco Giants||$50 over on 85 wins||Book Mover|
|2004||Won||Florida Marlins||$50 over on 83 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||Anaheim Angels||$100 under on 91 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2003||Won||Oakland A's||$50 over on 93.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||New York Mets||$50 under on 86 wins||Book Mover|
|2003||Won||Toronto Blue Jays||$50 over on 79 wins||Book Non Mover|
|2003||Won||Boston Red Sox||$50 over on 91 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2002||Won||Oakland A's||$200 over on 90.5 wins||Book Mover|
|2002||Won||Philadelphia Phillies||$100 under on 82.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2002||Won||Pittsburgh Pirates||$50 over on 68 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2002||Lost||Seattle Mariners||$50 over on 94 wins||Reverse Plexiglas Principle|
|2002||Lost||Colorado Rockies||$50 over on 77 wins||Johnson Effect|
|2002||Lost||New York Yankees||$50 under on 99 wins||Reverse Bottom Feeder|
|2001||Lost||St. Louis Cardinals||$100 under on 89.5 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Chicago White Sox||$100 under on 88 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Houston Astros||$100 over on 82.5 wins||Johnson Effect & Plexiglas Principle|
|2001||Won||Philadelphia Phillies||$25 over on 74.5 wins||Bottom Feeder & Johnson Effect|
|2001||Won||Minnesota Twins||$25 over on 73 wins||Bottom Feeder|
|2000||Won||Arizona Diamondbacks||$100 under on 93 wins||Plexiglas Principle|
|2000||Won||Minnesota Twins||$100 over on 64 wins||Bottom Feeder|