Why predicting MLB win totals is part science, part instinct
By Sam Panayotovich
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
Setting Major League Baseball season win totals is much more difficult than Baseball Prospectus just running its sabermetric system, spitting out a number and slapping it on a piece of paper.
A bookmaker pores through endless data and projections to try to best compute the number of wins a team will have over 162 games — but the win totals market is powered by the almighty dollar.
If a sportsbook makes a mistake on a win total, it'll get hit immediately by bettors who believe they have an edge. For gobs of money.
So it’s a balancing act of taking said projections and tempering them with the intuition of how teams are bet — and how they’re perceived by the market.
There are also variables that require educated guesswork, such as players changing teams or leagues, and pitchers getting paid to relocate from easy divisions to tough divisions. You can’t exactly find quantifiable data that suggests how a player will perform with added pressure.
So how does the whole process start?
"I absolutely love FanGraphs’ RosterResource," Circa Sports sportsbook manager Chris Bennett told FOX Sports. "That’s where I start. It’s got the projected starting lineup, bench, starting rotation, bullpen and goes in-depth on all levels of the minor leagues. You get everything you need there. I go through every team on RosterResource before I actually make any numbers and combine all that information.
"It’s very qualitative for me. I don’t exactly plug numbers into an algorithm and have it spit out a season wins number."
That’s right. As complicated as the process is, somebody responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars behind a sportsbook starts his process for setting baseball win totals with a tool that’s available for everybody. How ‘bout them apples?
That's just the beginning.
Bennett then throws all his research ingredients into a crock pot before layering in years of experience, feel and understanding of the market. That’s how he gets to a number that makes him comfortable.
"It’s all a mental computation," he explained. "What was their number the prior year? How did they actually finish versus that number? Is the number they finished at above or below what it should have been based on their run differential? How tough is their schedule? Division opponents are the biggest factor in deciding how tough the schedule is. I’m combining all those factors mentally."
My head already hurts.
"After doing this for many years, I kind of just have a feeling [for the number]," Bennett admitted. "I know I’m going to be in the ballpark. I’ll get a feeling like, ‘This team is about 89 wins.’ Then I’ll bounce the number around in my head. ‘Are they more 90 or more 88?’ It’s not super-precise, but I know it’s going to get me pretty close.
"That’s the most important thing about hanging an opening number. If you’re confident that you’re close, you’re fine. You can take sharp action early as long as you know who’s sharp and you move the number accordingly.
"Given that you put these numbers up before all the free agents are signed and players are going to get hurt in spring training, it’s impossible to have a perfectly precise number in February."
Then there's the wrinkle of how the 2020 season played out.
As somebody who analyzes betting markets for a living, I have no idea how much weight to put into last year’s COVID-19-shortened regular season. A longtime baseball scout told me many years ago that every MLB team wins 50 games and loses 50 games. It’s the remaining 62 that decide the team's destiny.
In other words, last year was not a big enough sample to truly evaluate.
"You have to be careful," Bennett cautioned. "You cannot treat 2020 like a normal previous season. The biggest thing was how different the schedules were last year, especially for some of the pitchers in the Central divisions. They had significantly easier schedules than the pitchers in the East and West divisions.
"It’s not like I’m going to say Trevor Bauer sucks or Brandon Woodruff or Corbin Burnes aren’t really good pitchers. But look at who they faced last year. Some guys had it really easy with the schedule, and it could be much tougher for them this year."
This steered us into a conversation about a player who performed above market expectation.
"One guy that I was thinking of was Dinelson Lamet for the Padres," Bennett said. "He had phenomenal numbers before he got hurt at the end of last season. And he had a significantly more difficult schedule than Bauer and Yu Darvish, who were both NL Cy Young finalists. You need to be aware of the level of competition. It wasn’t quite equal.
"I’ve also been reading a few things recently about how certain guys weren’t fully prepared for last year. I know J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox said that he just didn’t or wasn’t able to get fully prepared for the season. Maybe he’s making excuses for his poor production, but I think there could be something to that.
"I’m trying to keep up with what players and coaches are saying to the media. You need to dive into the details of the individual players and teams and see how they did last year, and you can’t just pull records and run differentials and individual stats and run with it."
Circa’s lowest win totals for 2021 are the Pirates (58.5), Orioles (63), Rockies (65), Tigers (67.5) and Rangers (68). Their highest totals are the Braves (91), Mets (91), Padres (94.5), Yankees (95.5) and Dodgers (104).
My brain is wired to automatically think that’s too many wins. A quick glance at their rotation – Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, David Price – and eh, maybe it’s just right.
"They are loaded," Bennett said of the reigning world champions. "Not only with the pitching but the lineup as well. Dustin May could be a No. 2 on some teams, and he’s like No. 6 on the Dodgers.
"The thing when you get into these really high win totals, if you clinch your division with 15 games to go, what are you playing for from that point on? Let’s say you clinch your division and you have 97 wins. Maybe you don’t get to your wins number now because you’re not pushed. That’s sort of the danger of betting 'Over' that big of a number.
"Going off L.A.’s talent, it’s more than justified. I think the Padres are capable of pushing them all the way, and [San Diego] could even win the division. So as big of a number as that is on the Dodgers, it’s perfectly justified.
"And with so many teams in baseball really not making an effort to spend money and put together the best team possible, the discrepancy from the best teams to the worst teams is maybe the widest it’s ever been."
I’ve often wondered how a bookmaker views a superstar player changing teams. There’s a definite ripple effect that involves a player’s old team, his replacement and his new team. How much calculus goes into this?
"The WAR metric is very helpful in determining a player’s worth," Bennett declared. "Let’s look at the Rockies' win total. If you go back to last season before the pandemic arrived and the season got shortened, Colorado’s number was 73.5 or 74 wins. Coming into this season, it’s pretty much the same team aside from Nolan Arenado being gone.
"The market has the Rockies between 63.5 to 65.5 wins right now. So that’s saying he’s worth at least eight wins. And he’s not even the best player in baseball.
Circa’s Rockies total is 65, so Bennett and his team are on the high side of the market. It’s their mathematical admission that the Rockies certainly got worse, but they don’t believe it’s as bad as other sportsbooks think.
I couldn’t end my conversation with Bennett without asking about my beloved Chicago White Sox. I’m extremely excited about all the amazing players general manager Rick Hahn has acquired over the past five years, and their window to win a championship is back open.
But many people in baseball circles are still baffled by the hiring of 76-year-old Tony La Russa to manage an exciting, young, up-and-coming ball club. La Russa hasn’t sat in a Major League dugout in a decade.
"I generally don’t think a manager has a lot of impact on how many wins a team gets, especially in the American League," Bennett opined. "That said, I did not think hiring La Russa was a wise decision. So it gave me some pause. I was sort of envisioning a scenario where they start out slow and there’s some acrimony. You can’t really predict that, though.
"Even if the players don’t really like him, there’s still all of this talent, and unless he’s just incredibly stupid and isn’t starting the best players, he shouldn’t have much of an impact.
"Maybe they’ll all get along great. And then you would look like an idiot as a bookmaker. You stuck your neck out and said the team was going to be a disaster and you purposefully wrote a bunch of ‘Over’ money, and they go out and win 95 games. They’re perfectly capable of that. I know the White Sox will get public betting support, but I don’t think the number is too high."
As you can gather, making the sausage for Major League Baseball win totals is no easy task. It’s an extremely complex calculation that combines data, gut instinct, liability and sense of market.
And the best part? Bookmakers will still miss the mark on a handful of teams. That’s just how it works.
It’s up to you to find the right ones.
Sam Panayotovich is a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and NESN. He previously worked for WGN Radio, NBC Sports and VSiN. He'll probably pick against your favorite team. Follow him on Twitter @spshoot.