The Plight of the Arizona Diamondbacks: MLB’s Least-Profitable Team

The Plight of the Arizona Diamondbacks: MLB’s Least-Profitable Team article feature image
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Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Pictured: Ketel Marte

The Arizona Diamondbacks aren’t the worst team in baseball.

That title belongs to the Baltimore Orioles, whose second-half plight has dropped them below the Snakes and into poll position for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 first-year player draft.

The Diamondbacks, though, hold a different dubious title: The least-profitable team in the majors — and it’s not particularly close. Entering Tuesday, if you bet $100 on the Diamondbacks in every game this season, you’d be down a cool $3,295 since Opening Day. Those Orioles? The same bet would only have you down $2,492.

The difference, of course, is in expectations. Arizona entered the season with modest expectations. Nobody expected the Diamondbacks to challenge for the top spot in the loaded National League West, but a wild-card bid wasn’t out of the question, and their win total range (73.5 to 76.5 depending on the book) was right in line with another NL West team we saw make a leap — the San Francisco Giants (74.5 to 75.5 range).

The Orioles, on the other hand, were expected to be among the worst teams in baseball, with a win total range of 63.5 to 65.

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What’s been particularly amazing about Arizona’s plight is that its true talent level has never really reflected that of a team on a 100-plus loss pace. When Sean Zerillo re-ran his projections at this year’s All-Star break, he still saw the true talent level of the Diamondbacks as that of a 72.5-win team, ahead of seven teams, including the wild card-contending Mariners.

It’s possible the Diamondbacks are simply the unluckiest team in baseball. Make no mistake, this is not a good team. But the underlying numbers do indeed show a team significantly better than its record.

Take the pitching staff, for example. Arizona’s team ERA is second-worst in the majors at 5.21 (just ahead of those pesky Orioles), but Deserved Runs Average, Baseball Prospectus’s all-encompassing pitching formula, pegs them at 4.90, 23rd in baseball and ahead of playoff contenders such as the Mariners and Cardinals. Two of their most-used pitchers this season — Caleb Smith and Zac Gallen — sport a DRA significantly lower than their ERA.

Again, none of these players have been particularly good, but worst-team-in-baseball level? Not quite.

Bringing this back around to the gambling world, what are we to do with this information? When a team performs significantly worse than its true talent level, as is the case here, the most obvious place to look late in the season is for situations where they’re heftier underdogs than they probably should be. But that doesn’t seem to work here.

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In August, for example, the Diamondbacks went 10-17 in games in which they were the listed underdog, according to our Action Labs tool. The value of their price meant the ROI was pretty much net neutral, but despite their improved play (they’re 18-31 as underdogs in July-September after going 4-44 in May and June), they still haven’t been a profitable team. Their ROI was -4.3% in July and -0.1% in August (they’re 1-3 in September as of this writing).

Instead, the place to find rare value on the Diamondbacks is on the rare occasion when they’re favored. Mind you, this hasn’t happened all that often this season, and the sample size is small, but the Diamondbacks are 11-8 with a 6.3% ROI as a favorite this season, including 5-2 since the start of July.

The benefit here is that the Diamondbacks aren’t good enough to ever require significant juice as a favorite. In those seven most recent examples, the most significant favorite they’ve been is -130 on July 5 against the Rockies (they won). If Arizona is favorited, it’s most frequently in the -105 to -120 range.

Baseball sharps are constantly on the lookout for undervalued teams, and while it’s difficult to find value on the Diamondbacks, the best strategy would be in the rare occasion where they play a team with a true talent level below their own, such as this week against the Texas Rangers, or a few weeks from now against the division-rival Rockies.

Nail those opportunities when they present themselves for the duration of the 2021 season, otherwise continue fading them into oblivion when the price is right.

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