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Examining Baseball Totals

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/19/2010

If you don't like laying money on the favorites in baseball or hoping a +150 underdog can get the win, you might find baseball totals more suitable for your finances. Baseball totals are similar to point spreads in football, with a set number such as 9, and then you normally don't have to lay a lot of juice either way.

So what should you look for with baseball totals? Many novice bettors focus on home runs (power hitting line-ups against pitchers who serve up a lot of dingers). Home runs are certainly an important consideration, but two other factors are even more important: Walks and the ballpark.

When it comes to offense in baseball, on-base percentage is a key. This is the ability of a batter to get on base, either by a hit, a walk or getting hit by a pitch. For instance, the Milwaukee Brewers are having a tough season, yet when you examine the offensive numbers they are terrific. The Brewers rank second in the NL in runs scored, right alongside the Phillies, and tops in on base percentage.

The problem, though, is the pitching staff, which is near the bottom of the NL in runs allowed. That combo explains why the Brewers are on a 15-5 run over the total. In addition, the Brewers play their home game in a small, hitter friendly park and they've been very strong over the total at home.

And that's another factor to consider: the ballpark. Some parks have huge outfields making them tough to score runs in (Dodger Stadium, the Oakland A's, Petco in San Diego, Safeco in Seattle). These are known as "pitcher's parks" and are more apt to have low scoring games, which can be reflected in the line.

For example, the Dodgers and Padres just played a series this weekend. The big news was that the Dodgers swept the first-place Padres: The Dodgers have won nine of their last 10 games and, by sweeping their six-game trip against National League West rivals San Diego and Arizona, got right back in the race. But sports bettors took a very different take on the series: All three went under the total with scores of 4-3, 4-1 and 1-0.

A big reason was the park, as San Diego is the best pitcher's park in baseball. However, some other subtle factors stood out. The Dodgers, who have had pitching problems, actually had three of their best lined up for the series. Plus, their best hitter, Andre Ethier, was injured and out.

In the 1-0 finale, the Dodgers managed only two hits, but Chad Billingsley held the Padres to four hits in 7 1/3 innings. The San Diego offense is third worst in the NL, yet the pitching is tops – both significantly influenced by the home park. In fact, the Padres are on a 10-1 run under the total.

There happen to be more "hitter's parks" in baseball today. These include Coors Field in Colorado, Fenway Park, the Ball Park in Texas, Wrigley Field, as well as the newer parks in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

The best way to look for a high scoring game in baseball, of course, would be a combination these factors: a pair of pitchers who walk too many batters who happen to be hurling in a hitter's park, and at least one strong offensive team.

You can apply the same concept to pitchers. It's important for a successful pitcher to throw strikes and be stingy about walking batters. For a pitcher, allowing free passes is a no-no. Look at staff of the Minnesota Twins: some starters may give up hits, but they don't walk anyone. They've been that way for years, too, going back to the days when Brad Radke would throw 200 innings and walk 28 or less (which he did four times).

He'd give up home runs, too, but who cares? Home runs are not as damaging as free passes. In 2001, Curt Schilling, the MVP of the World Series, allowed a whopping 37 home runs, tied for most in the NL. Yet, he was 22-6 with a 2.98 ERA. The reason the home runs didn't hurt was that no one was on base: Schilling walked only 39 batters in 256 innings pitched, an incredible ratio.

Randy Wolf of the Brewer, for instance, is struggling with his new team with a 4.66 ERA. He's allowed 9 homers in 48 innings, which is awful, but the real problem is 20 walks. The team is 6-2 over the total in his eight starts.

By contrast, look at Mat Latos of the Padres, an under the radar pitcher at age 22 who is throwing very well. The team is 4-1 under the total his last five starts, and note that he's walked only 9 in 43 innings with 34 strikeouts. The 7 home runs he's allowed, which is a little high, really hasn't hurt him because of his exceptional control.

So make sure you understand the importance of on-base percentage in baseball, for both hitters and pitchers. Understanding this and the strengths and weaknesses of different ballparks give you an edge when betting baseball totals.

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