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March 7, 2013

Skewed Left

PECOTA vs. Vegas

by Zachary Levine

In retrospect, it was actually pretty easy to take PECOTA with me to Las Vegas over the weekend. When I heard that its guardian, our own Colin Wyers, seemed to have acute grade III avian sniffles on the Cubs season preview podcast Friday, I figured he’d be an easy target for burglary. And when I went to lift PECOTA, he’d already passed out, presumably from fake and/or real outrage over Tony Campana and/or Luis Valbuena. You can’t be sure.

Anyway, once the not-so-brazen heist was complete, PECOTA and I were off to Vegas, and let me tell you: best travel companion in the history of ever. It—actually “he” if it’s named after Bill Pecota, right?—doesn’t hog the armrest on the flight, quietly whirrs instead of snoring across the hotel room, and doubles as a tip calculator. Really, you couldn’t ask for much more.

Make no mistake, though, that this was a business trip. The Vegas lines have been out for a few weeks, and after some amateur attempts at steering the public away from certain bets early in the offseason, I was excited to have a little performance-enhancing technology on my side.

“You know they think we’re pretty stupid,” PECOTA told me as we hustled through McCarran Airport just south of the Strip. “Okay, maybe not stupid, but pretty Goddamn cocky about our teams.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, not really accustomed to having teams after spending the better part of the last decade as a writer sterilizing myself from the pulls of fanhood.

PECOTA, in a matter of nanoseconds (I assume; I can’t really count that low) showed me an image of the 30 win total Over/Unders and asked me to add them up.

“Hell no, I’m not adding them up,” I shot back. “Why do you think I brought you here?”

“Fine. 2,439 wins. In a 2,430-game season. They must think that people come here to bet on optimism. So don’t be surprised if quite a few of our tickets come back with the word ‘UNDER’ on them.”

Our first stop was on the edge of town. There would be plenty of time for the glitz later, but this was one of the little places—the William Hill outfits—and it was the usual game. Over/Unders paying the usual 10/11 on either side, maybe throw in a few division title bets because PECOTA spits out that number directly.

We walked up to the window, and PECOTA handed me two outputs, encouraging me to bet enough to get a free drink coupon with them.

Yankees OVER 86.5 (PECOTA projection: 92-70)
Phillies UNDER 85.5 (PECOTA projection: 80-82)

They were PECOTA’s surest bets on the board, the only ones where our system’s projection was more than five wins off from the line. With two teams with decidedly negative narratives, the computer seemed to be ignoring one of them. It loves the Yankees even in a competitive division with their personnel losses and lack of an offseason build.

I had to tell him about the Mark Teixeira injury because he doesn’t read the New York papers beyond Page Six, but still, that shouldn’t subtract much more than a win over a quarter of the season, so he was still buying.

PECOTA laughs, like most would, at the Over/Under of 85.5 set for the Phillies, predicting that total of 80 that’s tied with the Mets for third/fourth in the National League East.

Bets and an early cocktail in hand—I do all the drinking to avoid short circuitry problems in my travel companion—we head back toward the strip. PECOTA has this quiet strut going that I don’t quite understand. I think he’s mentally cashed the Phillies ticket already, but he denies this.

“It’s all intervals, brah. It’s just a range, never one number. All intervals.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I concede. “Hey, I thought we were betting all unders. Anybody could have picked the Phillies. Who else don’t you like?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I never liked Vin Scully. Everybody thinks it’s the greatest schtick ever, but his stories aren’t that interesting, and if he didn’t have any capital built up, it would just be all like, ‘Shut up McCarver and let us watch the game.’”

I have nothing to say to this, so we keep walking, he more determined than I now even though I was the one doing the kidnapping for personal gain. We get to another house of vice and he spits out three more.

They’re all teams for which PECOTA’s projected total is 4.5 wins lower than the oddsmakers’ line.

White Sox UNDER 80.5 (PECOTA projection: 76-86)
Braves UNDER 86.5 (PECOTA projection: 82-80)
Orioles UNDER 78.5 (PECOTA projection: 74-88)

The Braves one surprises me a little bit, especially after going under on the Phillies, but I do it anyway. Turns out PECOTA is a bit of a Mets optimist, sensing some good things on both sides of New York. The system projects that the Nationals and Marlins will be clear bookends in a division where the other three teams finish within a win of .500 either way.

White Sox and Orioles seem like naturals, so I make the bets, get the latest drink coupon, ask for Jack and Dr. Pepper, get told to go back to Texas, cry for a little while, settle for Coke and move on into the evening.

Before we leave town, we find ourselves back at the casino (funny how that works out) and ready to play some more when I realize we haven’t taken advantage of the playoff odds. The house has odds for the World Series and pennant, but I say forget the coin flips of the postseason itself and let’s just play divisions. A hundred and sixty-two games to get where they’re going, and PECOTA gives out division odds in addition to the more complicated odds of making the playoffs.

One needs to be really confident to overcome the house edge in these wagers, so there are only a few of interest here, and the two that stand out aside from what’s already been done are both in the NL.

Dodgers at 5/6
Mets at 20/1

“Five-to-six to win the division with the champs,” I asked even after I’d read the window clerk my bets, almost afraid to hand over the cash.

PECOTA sprung into action, showing me that 5/6 meant that we required a 54.5 percent chance to win the division in order to take the bet, and the Dodgers were pegged at 62.2 percent. The Mets, even though they weren’t supposed to be very good, required only a 4.7 percent chance to make 20/1 palatable, and they were projected to win a surprising 13 percent of the time in simulations.

So with seven tickets in hand, we hopped on the return flight, taking complete comfort in the fact that I had somebody else to blame if I lost all my money.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  PECOTA,  Las Vegas,  Odds

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