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Handicapping All-Star Hype

   by Scott Spreitzer - 07/06/2008

We've reached the week in Major League Baseball where you hear ranting and raving about All-Star selections. It's all over newspaper columns, sports call-in shows, sports bar discussions, and of course, in Las Vegas sportsbooks.

The discussions invariably revolve around "snubbed" players who had great stats in the first half of the season, but didn't quite make the team. The most vitriol is aimed at established stars who made the team despite having ordinary seasons by their standards. This has happened for as long as I can remember. Many of you who were baseball fans as kids were probably arguing with your buddies about the All-Star teams of the time.

The heart of these discussions actually shed a lot of light on why bettors lose money in baseball and other sports. They typically overrate recent form, and underrate established quality.

Imagine for a second that you're building a team from scratch. You want to build a champion that has the best chance to win tomorrow, and in the second half of the season.

*Are you going to take a guy hitting .320 in the first half of the season whose career average is closer to .265?

*Or are you going to take an established star from the past two seasons why may only be hitting .290 or so this year?

If you're smart, you'll take the established talent. He's likely to return his normal level in the foreseeable future. If you're not, you'll take the relative nobody who's playing way over his head for a few months.

I've always been amazed how often media pundits throw tantrums because some mediocrity on a hot streak isn't getting recognition. Fans do the same thing if that guy plays on their local team. They don't understand the role randomness plays over a few months of baseball. They don't understand that statistics can be very misleading over the short term. Apparently, they believe a guy who's always been 15th or 20th best at his position is now among the elite, because he's put up some good numbers over 80 games. A year later, they don't notice that the player has returned to his normal form because they've become obsessed with a new hot player at a different position.

Many casual sports gamblers do this all the time. Well, ALL gamblers do this much of the time, including sports bettors! Partiers at the craps tables believe in hot runs and cold runs. Tourists at the blackjack tables adjust their bet sizes based on whether they're "running" hot and cold. Baseball bettors make this kind of mistake in two different areas:

*Baseball bettors will invest in pitchers or teams who are playing over their heads, rather than betting that they will return to normal form.

*Baseball bettors will adjust their own betting patterns after misjudging their own abilities. Not only do they misread athletic performance, they misread their own betting performance.

When waiting to place a bet at a Vegas sportsbook, I've often overheard other gamblers talking about their reasons for a pick. They'll say stuff like:

*These guys are swinging the bats well.

*This pitcher has a great ERA his last two starts.

*This team has won three in a row

It doesn't matter if the batters just got to face bad pitching in a great hitter's park. It doesn't matter if the pitcher got to face anemic offenses in a great pitcher's park. It doesn't matter if the team just swept the worst team in baseball. They're all "hot," and gamblers love to bet on hot.

And, if the bettor himself is on a good run, he'll overbet his bankroll significantly on the assumption that his amazing percentage is going to continue. He'll go 4-1 on small bets one day, but then go 1-4 on big bets the next and get crushed. His "hot" teams or pitchers regressed to the mean, and his "hot" betting disappeared too. He went 50/50 but lost BIG!

If you're trying to handicap a baseball game, or really any sporting event, multi-season, long-term performance will give you the best sense of expectations. A pitcher coming off a few good starts hasn't turned into Cy Young. A hitter with a few home runs the past few days isn't Willie Mays. A team that's been beating up on losers during a soft spot in the schedule isn't the '27 Yankees. You need to handicap based on the reality of the athletes, not on short term illusions.

Think about that this week if you become a part of any All-Star discussions regarding snubbed players. Check to see if the debate is really "established star vs. mediocrity playing over his head." See if your own baseball selections are a bit too heavily weighted toward short term stats rather than confirmed characteristics. Are you backing quality? Or, are you just trying to ride hot hands?

Professional gamblers bet on quality…whether it's on sports bets, while playing No-Limit Texas Hold-em, or sitting at a blackjack table when the count is favorable. Be sure you're applying the pro mindset to your baseball bets this week.

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