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October 23, 2012

Western Front

Better Than Setting Cash on Fire

by Geoff Young

My wife and I drove to Las Vegas this weekend for an aunt's 90th birthday party. The aunt is a Dodgers fan, but we love her anyway. She, likewise, tolerates our affection for the Padres.

I typically don't make sports bets because setting fire to one's cash is more efficient, but once in a while I do. In 1997, shortly after the Padres acquired Kevin Brown from Florida, I put $20 on them to win it all the following year at 50-to-1. They got swept by the Yankees in the World Series, and I regretted not having bet on them to win the National League, which would have netted me $500.

I've placed a few other bets here and there, but for the most part I don't indulge. Still, I find the culture of sports betting fascinating and cannot resist picking up a copy of the sheets that explain all the various ways one can set fire to one's cash.

For instance, in futures—such as my bet on the Padres 15 years ago—it's fun to look back at the opening lines of teams. According to the sheet I got from a reputable establishment, the Phillies were 3-to-1 to win the NL and 5-to-1 to win it all. The Rangers were 7-to-2 to win the AL and 6-to-1 for the whole shebang.

The opening lines of each team that actually made the playoffs are interesting as well:

Team

League

World Series

Rangers

7/2

6/1

Yankees

4/1

6/1

Cardinals

4/1

8/1

Tigers

9/2

8/1

Giants

7/1

15/1

Braves

8/1

18/1

Reds

10/1

22/1

Nationals

18/1

30/1

Orioles

40/1

75/1

Athletics

50/1

100/1

 

Why is this interesting? Well, for one thing, most of these teams were considered less likely to win the World Series than were the Phillies, Rays, and Red Sox. The Cubs (35-to-1) and Rockies (50-to-1), who spent the summer fighting the Astros (250-to-1) in Draft Derby 2013, got much better odds to win it all than two playoff participants. Oakland was considered least likely to win the AL.

This stuff is hard to predict, which is what makes it so easy to love.

* * *

On the drive out of Vegas, south along I-15, there are billboards advertising all manner of curiosity. Mainly divorce lawyers and doctors who specialize in vasectomies: What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but regret knows no boundaries. There is even a billboard for a beer manufactured by former big-league slugger Frank Thomas.

I cannot speak to the quality of said beer, but I can tell you this: Among players to hit exactly 12 home runs in a season, none did so with fewer hits than the 23 Thomas had in 2005. (Why are you looking at me funny? I keep lists of things) This is important to know because you may find yourself in position to make a bet on it over one of Thomas' or someone else's beers. And although I have likened most sports bets to setting one's cash on fire, I make an exception in the case where you know the answer.

So if you are looking to take a few bucks from your 90-year-old aunt, hypothetically, you could bet her that no player in major-league history has collected fewer hits while knocking exactly 12 home runs in a season than Thomas did in 2005. And when you win, not only will you get her money, but you can also taunt her for not knowing the correct answer. Because she has experience and should have known. It is not your fault that she so easily parted with her cash, which she might as well have burned.

* * *

This is why I don't bet. I'm kind of mean.

* * *

You can also bet on individual games. This is straightforward. For example, in Game Six of the NLCS, you could have bet on the Cardinals or the Giants. If you put money on the winning team, you get a certain amount of money back in return. If you put it on the losing team, you don't.

So the key is to guess which team will win an individual contest. Which is even harder than guessing which teams will perform well over 162 games.

Or not. You could think of it as a coin flip that is weighted slightly in a way that you cannot determine. If you like betting on coin flips, this might be your thing. Like I said, I'm more into fire, but that's me.

Where things get fun are in the more esoteric bets. Stuff like who will score the game's first run or hit its first homer. The best ones obliterate the team nature of baseball and pit player against player. Here are some that were on my sheet for Game Six of the NLCS:

The total-base battles fascinate me because, how did anyone come up with these? What is the thought process that leads an oddsmaker to decide that the world wants to bet on Molina vs. Belt? That's a bad example because the answer is obvious. Hint: It is not obvious at all.

Odds are laid. Vogelsong is considered slightly more likely to throw more pitches in the first inning than is Carpenter. On the total-base side, Sandoval and Molina have slight advantages over Freese and Belt, while Beltran is well ahead of Scutaro. The others are even.

* * *

You watch the game. You aren't paying attention to who is winning or even what the score is. You only want to know how efficient the starting pitchers are. Or maybe you are thinking about Jay vs. Pagan. When Vogelsong strikes out Jay on five pitches to start the game, you might have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you are glad that Vogelsong resolved the at-bat so quickly because you've got money on him over Carpenter. On the other, you've got Jay over Pagan and really could have used a double there.

You tell yourself to relax. It's early. The Vogelsong/Carpenter issue will resolve itself shortly, and then you can stop worrying about pitchers. Then you can focus on what matters. You might remind yourself which teams are playing. Or wonder if you should have tried some of Thomas' beer while you were in Vegas. Or set your cash on fire.

* * *

Carpenter vs. Vogelsong
Vogelsong averaged 16.1 pitches per inning in 2012. He strikes out the side on 18 pitches.

Carpenter was more efficient during the regular season at 15.2, although the fact that he made just three starts renders this meaningless. However, his total in 2011 was 15.2 also, and in 2010 it was 15.1. He has a history of not wasting pitches.

Carpenter needs 19 to navigate the first inning on Sunday. He loses by the closest of margins. Also, if you bet on the Giants to score first (considered by the oddsmakers at this particular establishment less likely than the Cardinals scoring first), you are in luck. San Francisco takes an early 1-0 lead on a Posey groundout.

Giants fans also would be pleased by this development. We mustn't forget fans of actual teams.

Irrelevant to the bet but true: Vogelsong dominates the second inning. He uses 13 pitches, while Carpenter needs 33.

Jay vs. Pagan
Regular season: Jay, 177 total bases (.400 SLG); Pagan, 266 (.440)

  1. Jay strikes out swinging, Pagan pops out to second. Tied, 0-0.
  2. Jay fouls out to left, Pagan strikes out swinging. Tied, 0-0.
  3. Jay grounds out to second, Pagan lines out to shortstop. Tied, 0-0.
  4. Jay grounds out to pitcher, Pagan flies out to center. Tied, 0-0.
  5. Jay doesn't bat, Pagan grounds into fielder's choice to shortstop. Tied, 0-0.

Holliday vs. Posey
Regular season: Holliday, 298 total bases (.497 SLG); Posey, 291 (.549)

Holliday is not in the lineup, so there is no action.

Craig vs. Pence
Regular season: Craig, 245 total bases (.522 SLG); Pence, 262 (.425)

  1. Craig strikes out looking, Pence strikes out swinging. Tied, 0-0.
  2. Craig strikes out swinging, Pence strikes out looking. Tied, 0-0.
  3. Craig singles to left, Pence singles to left. Tied, 1-1. No bonus points for symmetry.
  4. Craig grounds into fielder's choice to third, Pence strikes out swinging. Tied, 1-1.

Freese vs. Sandoval
Regular season: Freese, 234 total bases (.467 SLG); Sandoval, 177 (.447)

  1. Freese strikes out swinging, Sandoval doubles to center. Sandoval 2, Freese 0.
  2. Freese strikes out swinging, Sandoval singles to center after fouling off four full-count pitches. Sandoval 3, Freese 0. Freese's second trip to the plate doesn't come until after Sandoval's third. If you've lost track of the score, this reminds you that Freese's team is getting killed. In fact, the score is 5-0.
  3. Freese grounds out to third, Sandoval flies to center. Sandoval 3, Freese 0.
  4. Freese strikes out swinging, Sandoval fouls out to third. Sandoval 3, Freese 0.

Molina vs. Belt
Regular season: Molina, 253 total bases (.501 SLG); Belt, 173 (.421)

  1. Molina grounds out to shortstop, Belt triples to right. Belt 3, Molina 0.
  2. Molina grounds out to third, Belt strikes out looking. Belt 3, Molina 0.
  3. Molina lines out to center, Belt flies out to left. Belt 3, Molina 0. You wonder about the odds of Molina hitting a triple. He has done it three times in more than 4,000 plate appearances: against Roger Clemens in 2005, Ian Snell in 2009, and Sean O'Sullivan in 2011.
  4. Molina flies out to left, Belt singles off the right side of second baseman Daniel Descalso's face. Belt 4, Molina 0.

Beltran vs. Scutaro
Regular season: Beltran, 271 total bases (.495 SLG); Scutaro, 251 (.405)

  1. Beltran strikes out swinging, Scutaro walks. Tied, 0-0.
  2. Beltran grounds out to first, Scutaro doubles to left. Scutaro 2, Beltran 0.
  3. Beltran doubles to left, Scutaro singles to center. Scutaro 3, Beltran 2.
  4. Beltran strikes out swinging, Scutaro flies out to center. Scutaro 3, Beltran 2.

* * *

Final tally:

  • Vogelsong beats Carpenter, 18-19.
  • Jay and Pagan tie, 0-0.
  • Holliday and Posey are disqualified.
  • Craig and Pence tie, 1-1.
  • Sandoval beats Freese, 3-0. This is the only favorite that wins.
  • Belt beats Molina, 4-0.
  • Scutaro beats Beltran, 3-2.
  • Giants score first.
  • Nobody homers.
  • Giants beat Cardinals, 6-1.

* * *

No cash was harmed during the writing of this article. Bets were not placed and 90-year-old aunts were not taunted. Even if maybe they had it coming.

3 comments have been left for this article.

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