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Examining MLB Totals

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/17/2011

If you don't like laying money on the favorites in baseball or hoping a +1.50 underdog can get the win, you might find baseball totals more suitable for your finances. Baseball totals are similar to point spreads in that you normally don't have to lay a lot of juice. There will be plenty of times when you lay nearly 11-to-win-10.

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 ballparks.

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 Houston Astros are having a tough season, yet when you examine the offensive numbers they aren't too shabby. The Astros rank seventh in MLB team batting average, in the same neighborhood as the Indians, Reds, Angels, and Rangers, teams that are at or near the top of their respective divisions. Then there's ballpark numbers to consider. The Astros own MLB's fourth best home park OBP and they're 6th in OPS at Minute Maid Park.

The problem, though, is the pitching staff, which is last (30th) in the Majors in total runs allowed overall, and second to last (29th) in team ERA. That combo explains why the Astros have been close to a 60% Over on the season in general and at home.
Some parks have huge outfields making them tough to score runs in (Dodger Stadium, Oakland's Overstock Coliseum, Petco in San Diego, Safeco in Seattle). These are known as "pitcher's parks" and are more apt to have low scoring games, but the reflection in the line can turn lower than average scoring games into an Over ticket. Oakland and Seattle home games have actually seen more Overs than Unders in 2011, despite being considered pitcher-friendly parks.

But Chavez Ravine is still Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers and their "guests" are on a 7-1 run to the Under in the last eight games at Dodger Stadium. A grand total of 41 runs were scored in those games, for an average of just 5.13 rpg. The only contest that went Over saw a combined score of only 7 runs with a total set at 6 1/2. In fact, we had a big play on the Under between the Diamondbacks & Dodgers on Saturday 5/14 and cashed when the game ended 1-0.

A major reason was the park, as Dodger Stadium has long been considered one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. Los Angeles currently ranks 22nd in home OPS and 23rd in home OBP. They're also in the bottom-third of Major League Baseball in home team batting average.

In the 1-0 loss to the Diamond backs, the Dodgers managed only four hits in 29 at-bats, and Chad Billingsley held the "Snakes" to one unearned run, one hit, and two walks in eight innings. Arizona is 24th in the Majors in team batting average. They'd be absolutely pathetic if not for the fact that they have been making serious contact in their home ballpark. Combine their poor hitting away from home while starting an "unkown" hurler (Josh Collmenter), and facing Billingsley in a pitcher's park and we had the recipe for the result...a dramatically low scoring game.

There happen to be more "hitter's parks" in baseball today in actuality, although many power numbers are down. These include Coors Field in Colorado, Fenway Park, Rangers Park in Texas, Wrigley Field, as well as the newer parks in Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

The best way to look for a high scoring game in baseball, of course, would be a combination of 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 type of concept to Unders. 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. Until this season, but for many years, we only had to look at the staff of the Minnesota Twins: some starters gave up hits, but they wouldn't walk anyone. That was their organizational philosophy of pitching to contact. 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.

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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