In last week’s column, I asked readers to weigh in with suggestions for interesting baseball bets that could be placed in Las Vegas on Saturday, April 9. Though I was a baseball-betting newbie heading into the weekend, I knew I wanted to lay some lumber on a few games, place some futures bets, maybe even go for a wacky prop bet or two. I just needed a push in the right direction.

As usual, you came through. I received a flood of suggestions for games to bet on Saturday. They included great pitching match-ups (Ben Sheets/Carlos Zambrano), starter battles that the Vegas line might gauge incorrectly (Kevin Gregg/Jose Lima) and games pitting good starters for bad teams against bad starters for good teams (Livan Hernandez vs….Scuffy Moehler!).

The common theme was pitching. Every piece of advice I received drove home this immutable fact: The three most important factors used by odds makers for baseball are the teams involved, who’s at home, and most of all, the pitching match-up. Those who set the lines are masters at both creating as much action as possible and making people make bets that win money for the casinos; staying out of those traps, it seemed, would be the best way to come out ahead.

On Saturday afternoon I set out to put this theory to the test, striding into the Mandalay Bay sports book with my buddy Bean. It took a few minutes to stop gaping at the giant screens and frenzied horse bettors before I could get my bearings. We then headed to the corner of the room, where that day’s baseball odds were listed on a sheet of paper, along with recent game results and other tidbits. It took a while to learn all the codes and terminology. Here’s a sample:

Bet #  Teams              Time    Pitcher      M/L       Total       Run Line
951   Milwaukee Brewers 11:20 AM  B. Sheets   +122   7 1/2  -120   +1 1/2  -180
952   Chicago Cubs                C. Zambrano -132          Even   -1 1/2  +160

Bet # is the number you read to the teller so he can quickly locate your bet. Teams, time and pitcher are easy, with the bottom team the one playing at home. M/L, as Gary, the incredibly patient teller explained to me, refers to the money line. So if you think the Brewers will win this game straight up, you’re betting $100 with a chance to win $122. If you think the Cubs will win, you’re betting $132 to win $100. The 7 1/2 under Total refers to the over/under on the number of runs scored in this game, with -120 and Even the corresponding odds.

The Run Line section is where baseball betting probably differs most from say, betting on football. In football, you can take the favorite or the underdog of a given game, bet it, and you have a chance to nearly double your money; the house benefits by collection a vigorish, or added fee, usually around 5% to 10%. In baseball, the scores are much lower and the games much closer. On Saturday, all the spreads were 1 1/2. Given how close the scores figured to be, only one game–Randy Johnson and the Yankees vs. Bruce Chen and the presumably overmatched Orioles–saw the team getting 1 1/2 runs pay better than even money. For Brewers/Cubs, you need to bet $180 to win $100 if you wanted to get the extra 1 1/2 runs on the Brewers, or you could bet $100 to win $160 if you thought the Cubs would win by two runs or more.

We knew over/under would be too difficult for two first-time bettors. The money line offered only one intriguing play, but Chen and the O’s getting +230 wasn’t an option, as we’d arrived after the start of that game. That left the run line as the logical place to take the plunge.

We went back to Gary the teller and asked for his opinion–more for research purposes than for advice. He liked Scuffy and the Marlins at home getting +180 to give 1 1/2 runs vs. the Nats. He also liked Horacio Ramirez and the Braves getting +135 at home vs. the Mets and Aaron Heilman and the Mets. “It’s their fifth starter, you know he’s going to go three innings and they’ll use a committee after that,” Gary confidently explained.

Hmmm, makes sense. Still, we wanted an expert’s opinion, so I called Nate Silver. He liked both those games. What about Barry Zito and the A’s getting 120 at Tampa vs. the awful Hideo Nomo? “Yeah, that’s a good one too zgklrgrg…” What’d you say, Nate? “Sorry I’m at the game. Zambrano’s the man!” We looked up at the big board–yup, a one-hit shutout qualifies as being The Man.

We started the process of elimination. A’s +120 was one of the worst payoffs for any run line underdog, and the A’s offense is suspect, especially without Bobby Crosby, so no. The Astros were getting +170 at home vs. Houston, with the decent Brandon Backe going against the decent Paul Wilson. We couldn’t say for sure that Houston would win outright, but was it so unlikely they’d win by two or more that a 70% premium was warranted? Great odds, but something seemed fishy. No go. We couldn’t do Marlins +180 vs. the Nats for two reasons. First, Scuffy Moehler–‘nuf said. Second, how could two lifelong Expos fans venture to Vegas, place their first-ever baseball bet in the casino, and make it against the team that seven months earlier was still Nos Amours? Bad karma. Of course the stathead alarm in my head went off as soon as I uttered the word karma and set aside the analytical element of the equation, but so it was.

That left us with three games. The Twins were getting +140 at home, Brad Radke against Jon Garland. OK, that one looks good, Radke’s solid, Twins are the better team, decent odds. Pirates-Padres, scintillating Oliver Perez vs. ready-for-rocking chair Woody Williams? Nothing doing on the run line side, -185 for Pittsburgh. The money line had the Bucs at +120, though–if the Pirates could simply win straight up, we’d get a 20% bump above doubling our money. Finally, I liked Gary’s logic about Heilman likely getting knocked out early, so we banged the Braves for +135.

Bean bet $20 apiece on each game and I put down $30 each, so we could have $50 each on all three games. The last time I was in Vegas I’d gone two-for-two putting $50 each on a pair of college hoops underdogs, so maybe a repeat would bring more luck. Karma, luck…I could just hear myself justifying a fourth pick by playing up the Royals’ clutch hitting and clubhouse chemistry.

We looked at our watches–we’d spent an hour agonizing over these games, and we were in Vegas. Time to go do other stuff (big shout out to the cash machine at the $3-$6 Hold’em table at The Mirage–my wallet thanks you).

A few hours later, we hit the Mirage sports book to check in on our games. Braves up 4-0 on the Mets, yes! Brian Jordan of all people clubbed a grand slam off Heilman. It’s still early, but nothing in Heilman’s track record since Notre Dame points to a quality major league starter–the Mets will likely need to look elsewhere soon. Jordan’s improbable granny aside, the Braves spread their hitting around. Instead, what caught my eye was this:

                          IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Adam Bernero (H,1; W,2-0) 2  1 0 0  0  2  0 3.00
Jorge Sosa (H,2)          1  0 0 0  1  0  0 0.00

Adam Bernero and Jorge Sosa, pitching with the game still in doubt, against a key NL East rival. The same Bernero and Sosa projected for 4.90 and 5+ Equivalent ERAs by PECOTA this season. And yet, who’s to say Leo Mazzone won’t turn these two into Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond-type relief monsters, only younger and with more upside? The battle of the Braves’ no-name pen vs. the Mets’ no-name pen could well decide what figures to be a tight NL East race this year.

Bean heads off for a while and I see a guy yelling at the TV. I look up…uh-oh, he’s yelling at Radke. The Sox had jumped to a 3-0 lead, but the Twins had rallied back to tie it at 3, making this a very winnable bet heading toward the late innings. Instead, the top of the 7th went like this:

Timo Perez homers (WHAT?!)
Aaron Rowand singles to center
A.J. Pierzynski lines out (OK, maybe we get out of here down one and the Twins come back)
Joe Crede singles Rowand to second (uh-oh)
Juan Uribe singles home Rowand (5-3), Crede to third (there goes this bet)
J.C. Romero in
Scott Podsednik beats out a potential double-play ball, run scores, 6-3
Podsednik to third on wild pitch (aw, come on!)…then scores on a passed ball (%&$^#%@)

When Timo Perez hits the go-ahead homer off one of the ten best starters in baseball, no amount of analysis is going to explain it. Such are the dangers of betting on a single game, where anything can happen.

To further drive that point home, the Pads and creaky Woody Williams run roughshod over purported stud Ollie Perez and the Pirates, 11-3. Perez is now 0-2 with an 11.00 ERA. Despite a monster 2004, we’ve worried about Perez’s workload catching up to him. The Pirates–wisely, it would seem–forbade Perez from doing his usual routine of pitching in winter ball, then babied his stiff shoulder through spring training, using him only sparingly. At this point, he could be: a) still shaking off spring rust, b) injured, c) anyone can have a couple bad starts, quit your bellyachin’, or d) TINSTAAPP, point finale.

Meanwhile, Xavier Nady went 4-for-5 as he battles Pat Burrell for mashingest beginning to the ’05 season. While the smitten San Diego media has fretted over Nady’s playing time once Dave Roberts returns from the DL, it looks more like a pleasant problem to have. Teams with depth are able to withstand the rigors of a long season. If the Padres can rotate Nady in with Roberts, Ryan Klesko and Sean Burroughs and develop a bench featuring more of a DaVanon-Figgins-Quinlan look, they’ll have a legitimate shot at winning a weak NL West.

All well and good, but after three games, I was down $19.50. Time to lay a futures bet or two and try to make it up. Unfortunately the Paris casino, which I’d been told had some great wacky prop bets (I loved Guillermo Mota at 50-1 to win the NL saves title) had taken those props off the table with the season now underway. I scanned the odds for league winners. Because of the short-series nature of the playoffs, you’re often best off betting on simple division winners, or if that’s not available, betting on LCS winners instead of World Series ones. Just as Billy Beane’s s*** may not work in the playoffs, trusting your betting dollars to short series instead of long bodies of work like the regular season negates much of the analytical edge that might be gained by using BP’s tools to place a bet.

Of the odds on the LCS sheet, a few jumped out at me. In the AL, the Yankees were pegged at even vs. Red Sox at 8/5–an even wider spread than the 7/5 for the Yanks, 3/2 for the Sox margin seen when the odds opened in December. Does Vegas know something about Tony Womack that the rest of us don’t? The A’s clocked in at 20-1 (after opening at 25-1), the fourth-longest odds of any AL team for the pennant. That one looked like a great value.

The NL offered more interesting options. The Dodgers at 10-1, in a National League race which could claim no dominant team if the Cards regress as expected? Nice. The Marlins at 6-1, after opening at 15-1? Dammit, I should have kept my mouth shut! Ah, here we go–Phillies at 15-1, after opening at 8-1. The Phils were the consensus NL East pick in BP’s preseason author survey, Burrell could join Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome as legit stars in the middle of the lineup, and the no-star rotation has the look of the solid and underrated Cards staff of 2004 (especially after the Jon Lieber snag). Twenty bucks to win $300 looked great to me, so I went for it.

Losing two out of three games taught me a few lessons:

  • Vegas wants you to bet the pitching match-up, as that’s where many bettors go wrong. Zito got crushed by the Rays 11-3.

  • Your gut will often be wrong. In addition to losing the A’s game had I bet it, Livan did beat Scuffy and the Marlins, albeit 3-2 in a well-pitched game by both sides, and the Astros won by just one run, meaning I’d have lost that one too.

  • Thinking too much doesn’t help. I could have saved myself from looking like an ass by pulling out stacks of PECOTA printouts at Mandalay, thrown a dart and had as good a chance of winning any single-game bet. If you want to use advanced tools to make wagers, go for bigger-sample affairs.

I took my own advice on that last one, laying $20 more on the Phils at 15-1 to win the NL pennant, and another 20-1 to win the World Series. That’s $1,000 if the Phillies win it all, on a $60 wager. For those of you wondering when I’d pick a new team to root for–I sure as hell have one now.

Set your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will be Devil Rays at Red Sox, Sunday April 17, 2 p.m. ET (Channel 740 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Scott Kazmir will take on Tim Wakefield in what promises to be a fun contrast in pitching styles. Crack open a cold one and we’ll compare notes next week.

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