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Baseball: The Post Steroid Era

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/05/2008

If you want to pick winners this year in major league baseball, you might need to adjust your expectations a little bit. While walking around various Vegas sportsbooks this week, I’ve heard a lot of comments from baseball wagerers:

*They’re surprised at all the low scoring games.
*They’re surprised at all the one-run games.
*They’re surprised that many big name hitters are getting off to slow starts.
*They’re surprised at how baserunning and bunting strategies seem to be more prevalent.
*They’re surprised at the poor starts for some of last year’s playoff teams.

I could go on and on. If you think about it, much of what we’re seeing shouldn't be surprising anybody at all. The attention paid to both steroids and HGH in the offseason has made it very likely that we’re seeing the “cleanestâ€쳌 baseball we’ve had in several years. Now, there still may be some cheating going on. There’s still no test for HGH, meaning somebody somewhere is hoping to get away with using it. And, there are plenty of “old schoolâ€쳌 techniques that may be getting dusted off as we speak. The point is, all of the “surprisesâ€쳌 are actually consistent with “cleanâ€쳌 baseball.

*Scoring is likely to go down because home runs and extra base hits will go down. It’s now becoming understood that one reason home runs went up in the steroid era is because so many pitchers as well as hitters were using chemical enhancements. Fastballs were faster, and they were traveling farther when hit. Clean baseball isn’t about fireworks shows where both teams light up the scoreboard.

*When scoring goes down, victory margins go down. You’d expect to see more one-run games because it’s harder for either team to run away and hide.

*Big name hitters are the guys most likely to be affected by a clean game. They aren’t enjoying chemical enhancements. One of the benefits of those drugs was that it helped you recover from a burst of activity quicker, and avoid the ravages of aging to a degree. Trust me, as you get older, it’s harder to get up and moving in the morning, and it’s hard to move freely in colder weather! Sluggers are going to get off to slower starts.

*Baserunning, bunting, hit and run, and other “one runâ€쳌 strategies (those designed to try and get one run on the board rather than ignite a big inning) become much more important in close low scoring games. A run in a 3-2 or 4-3 game is huge. A run in a 10-5 slugfest is less important. Fans are seeing some “classicâ€쳌 baseball strategies pay off this week.

*Poor starts for playoff teams? Playoff teams typically rely on sluggers and veteran pitchers to get the job done. Those teams are very likely to have slow starts in a clean game. Young, fast teams who thrive on “small ballâ€쳌 are ready to hit the ground running.

Sorry folks…given the offseason developments, and the cool weather across the nation, there’s almost NOTHING about the first week of baseball that should have surprised you!
Now, I’m not saying the whole season is going to be like this. The weather will be warming up soon. Veteran players will be finding their form. We’ll see plenty of home runs and some high scoring games to be sure. Just be ready to adjust your handicapping to fit the times. This isn’t 1999, or 2005 any more.

Here are some tips:
*Look to play Unders unless the environment for an Over is IDEAL (strong offenses, bad pitchers, high scoring ballpark, etc…).

*Look to take underdogs against veteran teams until those veteran teams get rolling.

*Consider taking underdogs on the run line (+1.5 runs). That really increases your win potential in low scoring situations. I don’t think the lines have adjusted properly to that this season.

*Be less leary of fly ball pitchers than you used to be. They’ll be getting fly outs when they used to be allowing gopher balls.

*If you follow umpire tendencies, put more weight on the Unders with umpires who have big strike zones, and a little less weight on Overs with umpires who have small strike zones. I think the Under guys are going to have a very low scoring year. The Over guys may see scoring come down in their games just because it’s tougher to score in general now.

*If you follow weather tendencies, go strong on Unders in cool weather or when the wind is blowing in. You’ve already seen the benefits of that approach in this first week. It’s harder to score in a “cleanâ€쳌 game in those negative conditions.

I’ll be watching run scoring this year very closely. I’ll provide updates if need be later in the season. We really could be watching a “throwbackâ€쳌 style of baseball that will confuse the public and the oddsmakers for a lengthy period of time. As handicappers, it’s our job to stay ahead of the curve!

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