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Value in MLB Underdogs, Part 2

   by Bryan Leonard - 08/09/2011

Inexperienced sports bettors can have trouble backing dogs, and this is particularly true in baseball. Last week I outlined several areas that I examine when looking to possibly back a live underdog. Here are some more.

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 was 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 was former Tampa Bay lefty Scott Kazmir. In three straight seasons Kazmir was much 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. During one recent 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. In 2007 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 four 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.
One year Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano started 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 Boston righty Josh Beckett, who was battling back spasms and had a poor start. 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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