Zerillo’s 2021 MLB Win Totals and Futures: Riding the Houston Astros to the Moon

Zerillo’s 2021 MLB Win Totals and Futures: Riding the Houston Astros to the Moon article feature image
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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images. Pictured: Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.

The idea of playing MLB win totals — and tying up your money with a book for several months at a relatively small edge in terms of expected value — is naturally unappealing to many bettors.

Just by placing these wagers, you’re both diminishing your accessible bankroll in the short term and providing the house with an interest-free loan for at least half a year.

From a personal perspective, however, win total over/unders are my favorite preseason markets to try to beat in any league, and also serve as a guide for teams that may be underrated in the divisional and World Series futures markets.

But, there are a few things you should always keep in mind when surveying the odds in these markets:

  1. Books over-inflate their win total markets; which means that the total number of wins among the 30 teams adds up to more wins than are available during an MLB season (2,430).
  2. Similarly, books over-inflate their divisional odds markets; meaning the combined probability, as indicated by the implied odds, of all teams in a division to win that division will exceed 100%.
  3. Finally, books also over-inflate their pennant and World Series markets; meaning the combined probability, as indicated by the implied odds, of all 30 MLB to potentially win the World Series will exceed 100%.

Keeping those points related to market inflation in your mind when we eventually discuss value, let’s jump into my 2021 projections:


AL East

 

 

The Rays have the No. 1 minor league system in baseball, including top prospect Wander Franco. And though they struggled to score runs in the playoffs last season, you might see their team profile begin to shift to the offensive side in the coming years; with Franco joining fellow prospect Vidal Brujan and established major leaguers like Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena.

The organization is a pitching factory that will continue to revolutionize on-field strategy. Don’t be surprised when Michael Wacha (37:7 strikeouts to walks in 34 IP in 2020, despite a 6.62 ERA), Chris Archer, Collin McHugh, and potentially Rich Hill turn into multi-inning relief stars down in Tampa.

I anticipate the Rays letting more of their pitchers roll through two- to four-inning stints this season, which makes them an incredibly difficult team to project.

My colleague, Collin Wilson, immediately jumped on the Blue Jays Over, but I still have concerns with their starting pitching depth. And I feel similarly about the Red Sox, whose only addition (Garrett Richards) is as risky a bet to toss 100 innings this season as Chris Sale is to return fully healthy from Tommy John surgery.

Tampa Bay and Toronto are both on the cusp of completely shifting the balance within this division, and the Yankees have built somewhat of a high ceiling/low floor team for 2021, making their own risky bets on pitchers like Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon.

With average injury luck, New York should eventually pull away from the pack, but there’s still not enough value (1.1%) on their listed divisional odds (-195, implied 66.1%), relative to my projection (67.2%) to find an actionable play.

I would need a price closer to -157 (implied 61.1%) to consider making a play at a five-percent edge. There is also actionable value on their World Series odds, but I prefer a different team in the American League, and you might find better odds on the Yankees during the regular season.

That being said, with four teams vying for .500-or-better records, that leaves the Orioles in a really difficult spot as the clear No. 5 team in the division, and I would consider betting Baltimore Under 65.5 wins (the high end of their industry projection) or better, which is available at the Westgate in Las Vegas, where the total is listed at 66.5.

Zerillo’s AL East Futures

Played

  • None

Recommends

  • Baltimore Orioles, Under 66.5 wins at Westgate (would play to 65.5)

AL Central

The White Sox have continued to bolster a roster that fell one game shy of a division title last season. They traded for Lance Lynn and signed top closer Liam Hendriks, but I’m actually concerned about their combining an old-school manager like Tony La Russa with one of the most boisterous teams in recent memory.

The Twins remain within the range of defending their crown, and depending upon the book you can find up to a two-percent edge (peak +190, implied 34.5%) on their divisional odds — but not quite enough value to make a play.

Cleveland’s ability to constantly reload, especially on the pitching side, is as laudable of a job as any organization in the sport can boast. Since hiring Terry Francona in 2013, Cleveland has the most wins in the American League (six more than the Yankees) and has won 52% of its games in every season except for 2015 (81-81).

The Royals look poised to make a jump in 2021 after some sneaky offseason additions (Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Mike Minor, Wade Davis), help to fill out a roster that already has legitimate players and young, controllable starting pitchers like Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Royals played .500 baseball this season.

The Tigers should also begin their ascent under new manager A.J. Hinch. They added five free agents (Robbie Grossman, Wilson Ramos, Nomar Mazara, Renato Nunez, Jose Urena) and re-signed Jonathan Schoop to surround youngsters like Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal with some veteran leadership. But it’s difficult to find the severe upside in their overall 2021 outlook.

Relatively speaking, I’m on the high side of Chicago’s projection (industry average 84.9) and the low side for both Minnesota (industry average 89) and Detroit (industry average 68.7).

While I could certainly see this White Sox team winning 100 games and solidifying itself as the AL favorite, the downside also seems to outweigh the upside. I would consider playing their total wins Under 92 or better — a three-win gap compared to my projection. I would also play the Tigers Under at 67.5 or better.

The Wynn initially opened the White Sox at 92 wins, but went down to 91.5, and the Westgate posted Chicago at 89.5 wins — taking all of the perceived edges away. The Tigers range between 66 and 68.5 in the marketplace — and I think the latter is a touch too high.

Zerillo’s AL Central Futures

Played

  • Chicago White Sox, Under 91.5 Wins (1u) at PointsBet
  • Detroit Tigers, Under 68.5 wins (1 unit) at DraftKings
  • Detroit Tigers, Under 69.5 wins (1u) at BetMGM

AL West

In 2020, I was all over the Athletics to win the AL West, and we cashed 11.5u worth of profit at average odds of +383. Now I’m flipping back to the much-maligned Astros.

You can bet Houston’s division odds at +160 (implied 38.4%, more than 20% edge compared to my projection at 61.8%). As a point of comparison, FanGraphs has the Astros’ divisional odds at 69.5% (implied -228) while PECOTA puts them at 69%, so my projection is conservative, and I think this wager is an absolute hammer.

Furthermore, I show value on the Astros’ World Series odds, down to roughly +2073 (implied 4.6%) at a one-percent edge (projected 5.6%, or +1686). FanGraphs is even more bullish on the Astros than I am, projecting their World Series odds at +1349 (implied 6.9%).

After rallying from a 3-0 deficit against the Rays in the ALCS, Houston nearly became the first sub-.500 club in MLB history to make the World Series, but their Pythagorean record (31-29) and playoff success has the arrow pointing up for their squad in 2021.

Sure, they lost George Springer to the Blue Jays, but Houston didn’t receive a single plate appearance from Yordan Alvarez last season. The young slugger was MLB’s third-best hitter in 2019 by wOBA (.432), and the second coming of David Ortiz:

It’s easy to write off the 2020 regular season struggles of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, as them “no longer cheating,” so how do you reconcile their playoff correction (combined 35-for-95,, 11 HR, 19 BB, 19 K, 1.124 OPS)? Whatever value you think the Astros added by breaking the rules, I assure you that you are likely overrating its effect.

Houston has a hole in center field without Springer, but Jackie Bradley Jr. would fill that need readily, and I’m far more enthralled by the Astros’ young pitching, as opposed to their continued offensive prowess.

Free-agent additions Pedro Báez, Steve Cishek, and Ryne Stanek should help alleviate some bullpen concerns from last season, but the Astros have some of the best young starting pitchers in the game, highlighted by Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy, Cristian Javier, and top-25 prospect Forrest Whitley; in addition to several other, less-heralded but incredibly effective arms.

Any one of those pitchers could make an All-Star turn and it shouldn’t surprise. Valdez found his command and became a bonafide Ace down the stretch (2.94 xFIP) last season, while Urquidy’s talent is hidden behind a small 2020 sample (6 BB, 3 K in first 9 2/3 IP vs. 2 BB, 14 K in the final three starts) after fighting off a case of COVID-19.

 

Five more words that make me geek out about the potential of this Astros team, and then I’ll stop: Justin Verlander closing in the playoffs.

Oakland is now lagging in terms of breakout upside (essentially, now limited to getting anything from A.J. Puk, and/or a level jump from Jesús Luzardo), and most projection systems continue to place the Angels ahead of them.

This has been a consistent theme in the projection market for years, and I remain on the high side for Oakland, and the low end for the Angels, who I think are the most overrated team in baseball at present.

I would bet the Angels win total under 83.5 wins, or better, at a three-win edge relative to my projection. Wynn initially posted their total at 85 wins, while Westgate and DraftKings were slightly more conservative.

Several starting pitching additions (José Quintana, Alex Cobb) indicate that Shohei Ohtani may not return to the mound this season, and he was a complete disaster at the plate last year (82 wRC+).

Moreover, the Angels were the second-worst defensive team in the AL, despite the presence of solid gloves like Anthony Rendon and David Fletcher, and they lost Andrelton Simmons — the best defensive player in the game over the past decade (191 Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS) — to free agency.

Justin Upton (-4 DRS in 2020) and Mike Trout (-9) were one of 2020’s worst defensive outfield combinations, and veteran additions like Jose Iglesias (-2) and Dexter Fowler (-2) are on the wrong side of 30, and may not fill their defensive roles as adequately as the Angels might hope.

The Angels need a true center fielder (Bradley Jr. is also a fit here), and to move the about-to-turn-30 Trout to a corner, where his power profile can age much more gracefully.

I don’t see either the Mariners or Rangers finding their way into the wild card mix this season, but at least Settle is on the right side of a rebuild, while Texas is just starting to tear things down again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers finished with the worst record in baseball, despite some relatively optimistic forecasts (80 wins from Davenport, 73.5 from PECOTA).

For Seattle, Yusei Kikuchi (3.78 FIP, 4.34 SIERA, 5.17 ERA) is on the cusp of a breakout, and top prospect Jared Kelenic could be an immediate star. But roughly 85 wins, and a narrow postseason miss, still seems like the most optimistic possible outcome for this season. That being said, they’re already on my futures radar for 2022.

Zerillo’s AL West Futures

Played

  • Houston Astros win the AL West (+170, 2.5u) at DraftKings
  • Houston Astros win the World Series (+2500, 1u) at DraftKings
  • Los Angeles Angels, Under 83.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • Oakland Athletics Under 87.5 wins (1u) at BetMGM
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NL East

Top to bottom, the NL East is probably the most loaded division in MLB, with four teams projected to finish at .500 or better, and a fifth team (the Marlins) who I think is the most underrated club heading into this season.

The Marlins overachieved by five wins in 2020, according to their Pythagorean record, but were ravaged by COVID-19 cases early in the year, fielded a Triple-A roster for part of the season, and still managed to sneak into the divisional playoff round after sweeping the Cubs.

Their projected 2021 roster is a significant upgrade from the team that they were fielding this time last year. Jesús Aguilar fully rebounded, and solidified himself as their cleanup hitter, they acquired an All-Star outfielder in Starling Marte from the Diamondbacks, and saw debuts from talented youngsters like Sixto Sánchez, Lewin Diaz, Magneuris Sierra, Jazz Chisholm, and Trevor Rogers. Additional prospects are on the way, too.

Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, and Elieser Hernandez all made improvements. The Marlins actually have good starting pitching! And a half-decent offense! And they were above average defensively in 2020! And they completely overhauled their bullpen this winter!

OK, well, the bullpen is still a problem, but I would be surprised if the Marlins finished with fewer than 70 wins this season, even in such a difficult division, and I would bet Miami’s win total up to 69.5 wins or better, more than a three-win edge compared to my projection.

Unfortunately, after Wynn posted the Marlins at 67.5, the Westgate came in at 74.5, which takes all of the value (and then some) out of my projection. I’d be happy to target a middle, given the seven-win split between the two totals.

But the market has seemingly evened out. DraftKings opened at 70.5, and the consensus opinion is higher than 70 wins.

Despite missing out on a few key targets, including George Springer and Trevor Bauer, the Mets sit atop the NL East standings according to the entire projection market, and my 1.8-win gap relative to the Braves is actually the smallest discrepancy out there.

I show the Mets winning the NL East less often than either FanGraphs (53.6%) or PECOTA (73.3%) projects, but still far more often than listed odds suggest, as low as +175 (implied 36.6%) at BetMGM.

As a result, I would bet the Mets to win the NL East down to +127 (implied 44%), a five-percent edge relative to my projection, and I would make a more significant wager at odds of +156 (implied 39%) or better at a 10% edge.

Furthermore, I would play the Mets to win more than 90.5 games.

To be fully transparent: I am a Mets fan, but I cannot remember the last time I took a preseason future of any kind on my favorite team. For the unaware, the Mets now have the wealthiest owners in baseball, and it isn’t particularly close.

The gap in net worth in billions, between Steve Cohen ($14.6B) and the second-richest owners, the Rogers Group ($8.75B), is larger than the total net worth of 27 of MLB’s 30 owners (Braves, $6.6B; Nationals, $4.5B). And I can’t get the cross-spot comparison out of my head, from when Sheikh Mansour purchased Manchester City F.C. in 2008.

You can’t buy a championship overnight, but you can certainly give yourself a better chance of capturing one through continued expenditure and investment.

It took Manchester City three years under new ownership to erase a 40+ year championship drought. They have captured three more EPL titles since then, and are on their way to a fifth in a decade while their Manchester rivals (United) have only lifted one trophy.

It’s possible that Cohen’s insertion permanently changed the New York City baseball dynamic between the Mets and the Yankees, in the same way, that Manchester City’s new ownership changed the dynamics with United. The Mets went from having one the most handcuffed ownership groups in sports to one of the richest and most freewheeling. The history will always live in the Bronx, but the future might be brighter in Queens.

Zerillo’s NL East Futures

Played

  • New York Mets to win the NL East (+170, 2.5u) at BetMGM
  • New York Mets, Over 90.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings

Recommends

  • Miami Marlins, Over 69.5 wins

NL Central

While the NL East is the toughest division in baseball (projected average of 84.9 wins) the Central is the weakest (projected average of 77.7 wins), which holds true across other publicly available projections.

I took a small World Series future on the Cardinals, shortly after the Nolan Arenado trade, explaining my logic as follows:

“The path for the Cards to reach the World Series probably goes through at least two of ATL / LAD / NYM / SD. But if we assume they make the playoffs at a 60% clip and give them a 40% chance in each playoff series, that’s still 3.84%, implied odds of +2504.”

At the time, the status for several free agents, including Marcell Ozuna, was still up in the air, and I hoped the Cardinals might be able to land one final piece to put them over the top.

Instead, the Brewers made the next move, signing former redbird Kolten Wong to a two-year deal. Since 2018, Wong has 40 Defensive Runs Saved at second base, 14 more than the next-closest player (Ozzie Albies) over the same span.

Ultimately, I have the Cardinals World Series chances at 3.6%, implied odds of +2677, and I think +3000 is still a fair price, but I’m not interested in going below that number.

Obviously, adding a player like Arenado (15 DRS in 2020, 18 in 2019) is a boost to any roster, but it’s difficult for the Cardinals to improve their defense after finishing first in DRS in 2020 (+32) and fourth in 2019 (+91), before shedding Wong. The net gain should provide similar defensive value, with the added offense in Arenado’s bat.

To me, the Brewers are a much more interesting team than the Cardinals from a futures perspective. FanGraphs has them winning the Central 34% of the time, while PECOTA is at 54.1%, and you can bet Milwaukee’s divisional odds at +380 (implied 20.8%) at DraftKings, more than a 10% edge compared to my projection. I like their odds down to +290 (implied 26.6%) at a five-percent edge.

This is a high ceiling/low floor Brewers squad. The left side of their infield could be an abomination, and Lorenzo Cain (83 wRC+ in 2019) was already in decline before opting out of last season.

You’re also betting on a rebound from Christian Yelich (113 wRC+ in 2020; 175 in 2019; 167 in 2018) and a breakout from Keston Hiura (32 HR, .843 OPS in his first 143 games, but an 87 wRC+ in 2020), but I’m in love with Milwaukee’s pitching.

Josh Hader and Devin Williams form one of the best back-end relief tandems in recent memory, Freddy Peralta (2.81 SIERA) is already a dominant middle reliever and Brandon Woodruff (3.29 FIP, 3.3 SIERA) might be the most underrated starting pitcher in the league. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Craig Counsell has done an excellent job of managing this staff, even though I would prefer him to use Hader more frequently in non-save situations.

I don’t necessarily love the Brewers as a World Series future, even if there was slightly more actionable value on their number, but I think the gap between the Brewers and the Cardinals isn’t nearly as dramatic as oddsmakers suggest.

Given the relative weakness of this division, my projection suggests value on the Pirates Over 58.5 wins or better, and I’m the low man in the projection market.

Though they have clearly been shedding talent (Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon) and have no intention of competing in 2021, solid bullpen arms will keep them in tight games, and there’s upside in their lineup, particularly in third baseman KeBryan Hayes, who looks like an instant superstar on both sides of the ball:

Zerillo’s NL Central Futures

Played

  • Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central (+385, 1u) at Draftkings
  • Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central (+380, 1u) at FanDuel
  • St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series (+3000, 0.5u); Early play, the number is no longer available
  • Pittsburgh Pirates, Over 57.5 wins (1u) at Bet365

NL West

The NL West owns the two most talented teams in MLB, on paper, but only one of the Dodgers or Padres can win the division — relegating the second-place team to a one-game wild card scenario.

That’s a very tough break for what could be the second-best squad among 30 teams, but I would expect either club to be a fairly significant favorite in that wild card game, with 2020 Cy Young candidates like Trevor Bauer or Yu Darvish potentially taking the ball.

I don’t see value on either team to win their division, but I do see value on both teams to exceed their listed win totals, and to affirm that “two best teams” projection. You can bet the Dodgers Over to 101.5 wins or better, and the Padres Over up to 95 or better.

The Dodgers’ projections (104.9) are the highest numbers that I or PECOTA (104.4) have ever come up with, so I think it’s legitimate, despite being a historical outlier. But the initial total at the Wynn (100.5) dropped before Justin Turner re-signed with the team, and the value is completely gone at the Westgate number.

The Dodgers played at a 116 win pace last year, while ranking second in wOBA, sixth in xFIP, and second in DRS — and added the NL Cy Young winner to their rotation. They’ll also bring David Price into the fold after he opted out of the 2020 season; giving the Dodgers a combination of Julio Urías, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin from their No. 5 rotation spot. Come playoff time, it’s sickening to prepare for all of those arms out of the bullpen.

The Padres have positioned themselves to contend this season, making several big moves for Darvish, Blake Snell, and Korean import Ha-Seong Kim. They still have Manny Machado, and Fernando Tatis Jr. looks like he’s going to win multiple MVP trophies throughout his career. But only one projection system (Davenport) places them on par with the Dodgers for 2021 — the rest have the two teams at least 4.5 wins apart.

Moreover, both clubs rank in the top 10 for minor league systems and have additional prospects on the cusp of breaking through to the major leagues. Given the current and future talent within these two organizations, it isn’t easy to imagine one of the Diamondbacks, Giants, or Rockies winning this division anytime soon.

I think either the Rangers or Rockies will finish with the worst record in baseball, despite a pair of relatively optimistic projections from Davenport (80 wins for Texas, 72 for Colorado), but I could see one of the Diamondbacks or Giants (both of whom slightly underachieved in 2020) vying for a .500 record and an outside chance at securing the maximum of three playoff spots for the NL West.

Of those two teams, I’d lean to the Giants. This is year three of the Farhan Zaidi era in San Francisco, and his front office has done an incredible job of finding hidden value with under-the-radar acquisitions like Kevin Gausman and Mike Yastrzemski.

Recent signings like Tommy La Stella, Anthony DeSclafani, and Alex Wood fit a similar mold, and this is a sneaky competitive team, on paper — particularly if Buster Posey provides any value. With top prospects Heliot Ramos and Joey Bart also slated for MLB duty this season, I’m looking forward to watching (and betting) them as scrappy underdogs.

Furthermore, the Giants reconfigured the dimensions of Oracle Park in 2020. Their home games were significantly more exciting last season, and far different from the Brian Sabean brand of baseball you might remember from their championship runs.

Given the expected correlation of the results, I wouldn’t play all three of the Overs in this division, but I would pair the Dodgers Over with one of the other two teams.

Zerillo’s NL West Futures

Played

  • Los Angeles Dodgers, Over 101.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • San Francisco Giants, Over 73.5 wins (1u) at William Hill

Recommends

  • San Diego Padres, Over 93.5 wins (available at William Hill)

2021 World Series Projections

Below, you will find my fair odds projection, compared to the listed odds at FanDuel, on each team to win the 2021 World Series.

As of writing, three teams offer at least slight betting value. The Houston Astros are my preferred World Series futures play, at current odds.

Zerillo’s Current MLB Futures Card

MLB Win Totals

  • Chicago White Sox, Under 91.5 Wins (1u) at PointsBet
  • Detroit Tigers, Under 68.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • Detroit Tigers, Under 69.5 wins (1u) at BetMGM
  • Los Angeles Angels, Under 83.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • Los Angeles Dodgers, Over 101.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • New York Mets, Over 90.5 wins (1u) at DraftKings
  • Oakland Athletics Under 87.5 wins (1u) at BetMGM
  • Pittsburgh Pirates, Over 57.5 wins (1u) at Bet365
  • San Francisco Giants, Over 73.5 wins (1u) at William Hill

Divisional Futures

  • AL West: Houston Astros (+160, 2.5u) at DraftKings
  • NL East: New York Mets (+170, 2.5u) at BetMGM
  • NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers (+385, 1u) at DraftKings
  • NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers (+380, 1u) at FanDuel

World Series Futures

  • Houston Astros (+2500, 1u)
  • St. Louis Cardinals (+3000, 0.5u)

Bet’s I’m Watching/Recommending

  • Baltimore Orioles, Under 66.5 wins at Westgate (would play to 65.5)
  • San Diego Padres, Over 93.5 wins at Williams Hill

Follow me in The Action Network App for all of my 2021 MLB future wagers. 

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