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Baseball's Changing Conditions

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/06/2008

One week into the Major League baseball season, I posted an article regarding how to handicap baseball in the post steroids era. I was responding to how a low scoring week in the sport had befuddled bettors. That low scoring week turned into a low scoring month! Gamblers using the proper strategies for low scoring action made big money in April. Now it's time to switch gears just a little bit. April and early May haven't been low scoring exclusively because the game has cleaned up. There were other issues in play that I believe will be turning around in short order.

*The weather was cold in much of the country. It's about to warm up. Warm weather means more offense in baseball. The ball travels further, the hitters are much more comfortable, and starting pitchers tire faster in hotter temperatures.

*Many big name stars had slow starts. I don't expect them to have slow seasons! If you take chemical assistance out of the game, it just means veterans show their age more. It doesn't mean they lose all of their skills. Slow starts are expected for this type of player. I think we're going to see several guys get into the swing of things very quickly.

*Managers got into the habit of focusing on "one-run strategies" to try and win close games. This usually means trading or risking outs to pick up bases. They help your chances of scoring one run, but hurt your chances of having a big inning. If both managers are doing this, you're going to have lower scoring games. Now that things are opening up, more guys will play for the big inning. They'll get them. We've already seen some of that this past week.

I'm confident that we're going to see increased offense very soon. It would be hard not to see increased offense the way things are going, particularly in the American League. Handicappers who focus on stats are going to be in trouble if they don't make the proper adjustments.

*Stat handicappers will be rating many average pitchers as studs just because they posted great stats in April. Conditions are changing. Most pitchers will be unable to live up to their early season stats this year. If you're making predictions on faulty data, it's garbage in, garbage out.

*Stat handicappers will be rating many offenses as bad just when they're about to get things rolling. There are many teams this year who have been slumping because veteran players are taking longer to get into the flow of their seasons. Once they're in the flow, they'll be performing at a much higher level than they did in April. If you're making predictions based on calculations from April numbers, you may be off by a mile.

*Stat handicappers will be rating many ballparks as "pitcher's parks" because there were so many low scoring games. But those 2-1 and 3-2 outcomes were happening in cold temperatures with slumping veterans. The data won't be relevant again until next April!

If you're trying to pick winners in any sport, a stat-based approach always has some risks. Sometimes you have to look outside the numbers to make sure you're seeing the big picture. If a football team plays in a blizzard one week, but a dome the next, the stats in the blizzard are going to be irrelevant. Turn it around, and stats in great conditions won't help you understand what's about to happen in bad football weather. If a basketball team just played five games against weak opponents, those stats won't tell you what's going to happen when they step up in class against a national contender. Turn it around and bad results during a tough schedule stretch doesn't mean the struggles will continue against a cupcake.

Adjust for context!

In baseball right now, that means being aware that offense is likely to pick up in May, and could pick up a lot as we get closer to the heart of summer.

Here are some ways to take advantage:

*Look to play Overs in games where temperatures are in the 80's and back-of-the-rotation pitchers are on the mound.

*Don't be afraid to lay 1.5 runs on favorites in high scoring scenarios. One-run games are much less common in good conditions. You can get teams in blowout situations at underdog prices by laying 1.5 runs, in games they're destined to win 6-3, 8-4, or even bigger. Don't do this in projected pitchers duels, or in the lower scoring West Coast parks. Pick the right spots and make the right plays.

*Look to go against fly ball pitchers in good home run parks. I mentioned a month ago that it's safe to take fly ball pitchers in colder weather, or when sluggers are slumping. That's about to turn around!

*Look to take ground ball pitchers throwing in front of good defenses. When the power game plays a bigger role in the outcome, it's pitchers like these who can stem the tide and still get victories.

Be prepared for baseball's sharp turn ahead.

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