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MLB Bettor’s Notebook: Eyeing Up Bets for the Playoff and Division Races

MLB Bettor’s Notebook: Eyeing Up Bets for the Playoff and Division Races article feature image
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Abbie Parr/Getty Images. Pictured: Byron Buxton

Each week during the MLB season, Action Network’s Anthony Dabbundo will compile a weekly notebook of observations, analytical findings and actionable information to help bettors find an edge in betting the daily grind of a 162-game season.

There are just two months until the marathon of the MLB regular season reaches its end with 12 of the 30 teams qualifying for the playoffs. There are about 55 games per team remaining between now and Oct. 5, when the regular season concludes.

There are a lot of races that will come down to the final week, from the Twins‘ slim one-game AL Central lead to the Cardinals‘ recently acquired two-game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central. The Mets have grown their NL East lead to 5.5 games now, but a tricky schedule of tough opponents awaits for them through the end of the month.

Let’s breakdown the division races and where I see value in betting the playoff and World Series markets.

NL East

Mets lead by 5.5 games over the Braves and 9.5 games over the Phillies

The Mets stretched their division lead to 5.5 games over the Braves after winning four of five games in their weekend series in Queens. Jacob deGrom is back in the rotation and looks as dominant as ever, Max Scherzer looks like his old self too, and Edwin Díaz is pitching like the league’s most dominant reliever.

I’m still not buying into the back half of this rotation — specifically Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco — but the Mets have pushed their odds to win the division to 92.1% at FanGraphs. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA numbers have the Mets at 91.3%, and Baseball Reference has them at 86.9%.

The path for the Braves to catch them looks increasingly more difficult, even though the Mets will play seven more games in Atlanta this season. Even if Atlanta wins five of those seven — an aggressive estimate — the Braves have the tougher remaining schedule.

The Mets have an extremely favorable September schedule and the seventh-easiest remaining SOS by current win percentages. The Braves do get 16 games with the lowly Marlins and Nationals compared to the Mets’ six, but their overall schedule is right around league average.

You can find the Braves at +650, but I am sitting out this market because the hill seems too steep to climb now that the Mets are back at full strength. Those +650 odds imply a 13% chance of winning the division, which none of the main models show as +EV, either.

NL Central

Cardinals lead the Brewers by two games

The Cardinals are setting up for yet another big August and September run, much to the dismay of Brewers division bettors like myself. I’m not much of a narratives person, but it is interesting that the recent Brewers tailspin has coincided with David Stearns’ decision to trade Josh Hader to the Padres at the trade deadline.

Since then, the Brewers were swept in Pittsburgh — multiple bullpen meltdowns included — and lost two of three in Cincinnati. While the Brewers lost to two of the worst teams in the National League, the Cardinals swept both the Cubs and Yankees at home. A three-game division lead for the Brewers is now a two-game lead for the Cardinals.

Because MLB nixed the tiebreaker and Game 163 scenarios this year, tiebreakers become important for this division. The two teams have split the season series 6-6 thus far, which means that Milwaukee will more likely than not hold the tiebreaker in the event that the two teams finish with the same record. Milwaukee probably needs to win at least four of the seven games remaining to close the two-game gap to produce the tie.

Neither team holds the tiebreaker with the Phillies for the wild card spot, so it is becoming increasingly likely that the NL Central will only get one playoff team.

The Brewers’ rotation is getting healthy with Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff looking increasingly sharp in return from injury. Aaron Ashby is a major positive regression candidate too, and Eric Lauer might be the best fifth starter in MLB.

FanGraphs projects these two offenses as quite similar for the remainder of the season, and I agree with that, projecting the Brewers for 4.52 runs per game and the Cardinals for 4.51 runs per game.

The Cardinals have allowed the sixth-fewest runs per game this season, but regression is coming for the pitching staff at some point. St. Louis is 27th in Strikeout Rate and 23rd in K/BB among pitching staffs but is sixth in Strand Rate.

This is a prime opportunity to buy low on the Brewers after the Cardinals had their best week of the season, and the Brewers had their worst week. FanGraphs has Milwaukee at 40% to win the central, and I’m willing to bet on the Brewers’ +160 price to do so at FanDuel

AL Central

Twins lead the Guardians by one game and the White Sox by two games

The AL Central has been razor-tight for just about the entire season, and I’ve remained steady on who the best team is since the beginning of the season: the Minnesota Twins.

The Twins had the best trade deadline, adding Tyler Mahle, Michael Fulmer and Jorge Lopez to help fix their rotation and bullpen depth issues. With Fulmer, Lopez, Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax, the Twins now have four different relievers who can have excellent Stuff+ ratings. Duran and Jax both come in around 126 Stuff+, with Lopez at 115 and Fulmer at 105 in Eno Sarris’ model from The Athletic.

Mahle is a great buy low candidate leaving Cincinnati’s hitter friendly environment. The Twins have the deepest lineup of the three teams too. The White Sox and Guardians did nothing to improve their holes, and the lack of power in Cleveland and lack of starting pitching in Chicago remains an issue.

White Sox starters Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech are both at the top of the fade list right now. Both have seen their Stuff+ numbers fall off a cliff recently to be average or worse. Lance Lynn’s fastball velocity has not yet fully returned, and Johnny Cueto looks like regression could come at any point.

I think Dylan Cease is the best pitcher in the American League, and his elite Strikeout Rate and ERA suggest that too, but the depth behind him is lacking.

One fun element of this three-way race is that the teams will play each other a ton in the final two months to decide the division.

All three teams have very comparable strength of schedule numbers. The Twins have nine games left with the White Sox and eight with the Guardians. The White Sox will also play the Guardians six more times. That’s about 30% of the remaining games.

The Twins are at 41.5% at FanGraphs to win the division, with the White Sox second at 33.4% and the Guardians third at 25.1%. I am personally closer to PECOTA’s numbers, which have the Guardians ahead of the White Sox. The Guardians are at 29.3% there, slightly ahead of the White Sox at 28.7% and behind the Twins at 41.9%.

The Twins currently have the tiebreaker against the White Sox at 6-4 but trail 6-5 to the Guardians. The Guardians lead 8-5 in the tiebreaker with the White Sox as well, making it even harder for Chicago to make up the ground in the division.

Minnesota is still an underdog at DraftKings to win the division, and I would bet them at +155 there. 

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