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Baseball Underdog Betting

   by Bryan Leonard - 07/30/2008

I’ve found that inexperienced sports bettors have trouble taking dogs, especially in baseball. Favorites are no problem. It’s easy to spot games that favored teams should win, especially with the better starting pitcher. But identifying dogs and getting the courage and confidence to back them often takes time, patience and careful analysis. With that in mind, here are a few tips on what I look for when assessing to back a live underdog.

Are They Hitting/Pitching Well the Last 7 Games? A team may have a terrible batting average on the season, but what interests me more is: What have they done over the last week? Individual players can begin to get hot just as slumping star players will

begin to crawl out of a slump at some point. The Yankees were a great example three years ago. The star-studded lineup was awful offensively in the first month of the season.

After a 11-19 start, they made some adjustments, benching aging Bernie Williams, moving speedy Tony Womack higher in the order and bringing up the rookie Robinson Canu to play second base. The offense and defense improved culminating in a 15-2 run. After a struggling start last season, the LA Angels got hot because of adjustments to the offense. Reggie Willits came up from Triple-A and took over the lead off spot, Chone Figgins got healthy and newcomer Gary Matthews Jr and Vlad Guerrero continued to drive them in. Teamed with a strong pitching staff, the Angels took over first place by ripping off a 17-5 run.

This season, the small market Royals started 6-2 before going in the tank, soon losing 12 of 13. A good handicapper tracks individual players as well as team batting averages daily. Other times, teams will bench guys who haven’t been productive and give bench players or Triple A kids a shot. You have to be on top of your game at all times to beat the bookies.

Home/Away Play: This requires breaking down teams and players by how they perform both home and away. I’ve mentioned this many times, but it’s worth repeating: One team can perform very well on a regular basis at home and appear to be a completely different team on the road. If I see the Houston Astros as a home dog, for example, I look carefully at the game – is it worth a play? If I see the Astros as a road dog, I’m much less

likely to play them because they have a recent history of playing very poorly away from home.

Many teams can fall into that home/road disparity. Last season the Angels were a .500 road team, but sensational at home, starting 24-9. The same situation developed with the Indians, who started a sizzling 21-7 at Jacobs Field. This season the Rays, Cubs and Red Sox have had extreme home/road disparities. Again, do your homework daily to keep up on these teams (and players), and you can find spots where the dog offers value, both home and away.

Runs Scored on the Road: Often I find that some teams simply can’t hit or score runs on the road. They are often road dogs, and one must be careful when preparing to back them. However, some teams have just as productive an offense on the road as they do at home. This is very significant. Some teams rely on their home park to help them score runs, so they can be a liability on the road.

You can find out by simply examining their average runs scored home and away. If a team is just as good offensively on the road as at home, you can find good spots to back them as a road dog, providing they are a competitive road team. Oakland was been a good example last season, scoring significantly more runs on the road than in their cavernous home park. Teams like the Astros, Reds, Rays, Red Sox and Rockies have a recent history of playing significantly better offensively at home, taking advantage of their hitter-friendly parks, so they can be worth a play as a home dog, or a go-against on the road.

Pitcher Home/Away Performance: The home/road breakdowns on pitchers are especially fascinating, offering not only insight into what makes certain pitchers tick, but even where oddsmakers come up with some of their numbers, both sides and totals. That’s the only way to handicap someone like Curt Schilling when he was healthy.

From 2004-07, Big Schill went 26-6 at Fenway park but 24-17 on the road. His overall stats are similar, but it’s clear the offense scores more runs for him at home where he pitches better. The point is, if you have a chance to back Schilling at a reasonable price at home, he’s worth a look. But often a name-pitcher like that is a big favorite, in which case you’d find better value going against him on the road than at home.

Another one is Tampa Bay lefty Scott Kazmir. The last three seasons Kazmir has been stronger at home with a 2.97 ERA, but a 4.41 ERA on the road. His home runs allowed during that stretch:

27 on the road, 12 at home. Sometimes there are reasons for this, such as the guy throws in a tough pitcher’s park at home and is not comfortable. Other times it’s less obvious, such as pressure a guy puts on himself in front of the home fans. Regardless, you can’t ignore when stark numbers come up like this. Putting the odds in your favor is what turning a profit in sports wagering is all about.

When 50-50 Turns Into a Big Dog: Sometimes after doing all the research and compiling data, I find that a game seems to be rated evenly. For instance, the pitchers are comparable, the visiting team is able to score consistently on the road, both teams have been playing well over the last week. Yet, in what should be roughly a pick ‘em game, the home team is a considerable favorite. Naturally, this would be the time to back the dog, as there is value. In short, if a game is rated evenly and either team has a 50-50 chance, in my judgment, of winning, then I’m getting extra value with +145 or +170 road dog. You won’t hit all of these, of course, but even hitting 40% turns a profit when you’re getting +150 or +160 value.

East Coast, West Coast Trip: Long road trips are common over the course of 162 games. Visiting teams that are favored despite flying a long way can offer good go-against spots. In May, the Red Sox had a 7-game home stand and won all 7 games, then they flew all the way to the West Coast and got swept at Oakland. That started a 1-5 skid, all on the road.

This is nothing new. A year ago, the Red Sox played the Yankees in a 3-game weekend series, with the final game being the Sunday night ESPN telecast. After the game, which ended around midnight on the East Coast, the Sox had to hop on a plane and play Oakland the next night. Despite being a favorite in 3 of the 4 games in Oakland, the Red Sox lost three scoring 7 runs in 4 games. The only game they won was 1-0.

The travel-factor can give a significant edge to the home dog. Remember two years ago when the Yankees opened this season on the West Coast? They lost 4 of their first 5 games. Keep tabs on how many time zones a team may be crossing and if they are playing in a back-to-back spot.

If A Pitcher is Hot: This appears obvious, though it is a sometimes overlooked area. A pitcher may have a poor overall ERA, but I look at his last three or four starts to see if he’s as consistently bad as his overall numbers suggest. Many times, particularly with young pitchers, you find hurlers who are getting significantly better.

Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano started last season 1-4, giving up 21 runs in 27 innings in his first 5 starts. Zambrano may be a name pitcher, but he wasn’t throwing like an ace. It was his contract year, which might have been on his mind. Another factor could be an injury that a pitcher is not letting on about. That appeared to be the case last season with Detroit lefty Nate Robertson, who was getting lit up for a month before going on the DL. Look at recent stats to see how a pitcher is throwing and don’t be afraid to draw your own conclusions.

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