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MLB Futures | Division Bets on the Rays, Rangers, Cubs and More

MLB Futures | Division Bets on the Rays, Rangers, Cubs and More article feature image

Getty Images. Pictured: Randy Arozarena

Today is May 5th. Most teams in baseball have played right around 30 games, which puts us a little less than one-fifth of the way through the season.

I dug through the past two-plus decades (every season this century, minus the Covid 2020 season) to see how relevant the standings on May 5 were to the rest of the season. Here are the quick takeaways from those 22 seasons:

  • 61 of the 132 (46.2%) of the division leaders on May 5 were the full season division winners.
  • Not a single May 5 had the exact same division winners as the end of the season. In fact, not a single May 5 had even five of the same division winners, but four shared winners was relatively common.
  • Here was the breakdown: 
    • 1 shared winner — 2 of 22
    • 2 shared winners — 6 of 22
    • 3 shared winners — 9 of 22
    • 4 shared winners — 5 of 22
  • The biggest comeback from May 5 to end of season this century was the 2006 MinnesotaTwins who were nine games back on May 5 but came back to win the AL Central, but they were not an anomaly, the 2005 Yankees were eight games back, and there were numerous teams seven games back as of May 5.

Let’s keep those in mind while we go division-by-division through baseball on May 5, 2023, and look for actionable bets. For each division, I have included a couple charts with other key factors to weigh in our betting process. 

The current standings are central of course, but I have included a few other columns. Pythagorean wins are based on a team’s run differential and are typically more predictive than standard wins and losses, especially early in a season. BaseRuns wins are in a similar mold, but are centered around how teams have done with runners on base both in terms of scoring and preventing those runners from scoring. Those terms are both linked for full definitions.

I included FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds because, while they are not a tool to use blindly, they are another great tool for in-season futures bets.

Finally, I have included each team’s strength of schedule remaining. This will be weighed least, though, because there is just so much of the season remaining.

Before we jump into the AL East specifically, just a quick note on how important it is to line shop. If you add the implied odds for the AL East up, it comes to just 101.9 percent. That means that shopping the available books in New York leaves a bettor with just a 1.9 percent hold (about the equivalent to betting into a -104/-104 spread).

This is incredibly important in a market that can carry massive holds, like the futures market tends to do. For example, a bettor betting into only Caesars AL East market would face a 12.5 percent hold (equivalent to: -129/-129). Line shopping is arguably the biggest advantage a bettor can have in the futures market, and it takes no skill or models or anything.

OK, on to the AL East: This Rays start is very legitimate. They have earned every bit of their 26-6 start, and their closest competitor in the actual standings has been a bit lucky to be even 4.5 games back. I also can’t help but notice that despite all the chatter about the Rays’ soft schedule, they actually have the second-easiest remaining schedule. 

The Yankees and Blue Jays are both way overpriced, per the FanGraphs odds, and in this case I am in lock step with that. I see a lot of value on betting the Rays at just -135. There are a couple of divisions we will be looking at to flip their leader, but the AL East is one where the favorite is actually underpriced in the market. 

AL East Best Bet: Tampa Bay Rays to win division (-135 BetMGM)

Another division leader whose lead is even bigger by the Pythag and BaseRuns metrics. This is also a division where I am totally fine writing off the bottom two and potentially even three teams.

It surprises me a bit to see the Twins as high as 74.5 percent to win the division, but the Guardians‘ offense has really fallen off a cliff this season, going from right around average last season (99 wRC+) to second-worst in baseball (80 wRC+). However, they have also been the third-least lucky team this season by BABIP, and for a team that relies on contact more than arguably any other team in baseball, that’s a big deal. 

I do think the Twins should be favored to hold on to this division, but I think the FanGraphs odds are a touch off, and as such, I don’t see any value on the board in the AL Central.

AL Central Best Bet: Nothing of value

Here’s our first example of a preseason favorite remaining atop the division odds despite currently sitting in third.

The AL West is also interesting because each and every team can look to either Pythag or BaseRuns to suggest they’ve been a bit unlucky so far. The Astros‘ run differential has them as an 18-13 team with the easiest schedule remaining.

The AL West is indeed one of our divisions most likely to flip their leader, however, because the market also knows that, I’ll be looking elsewhere to actually bet.

The Rangers have the second-best run differential in all of baseball right now, and although they have played several more home games than road games so far and currently have Jacob deGrom sidelined, I still think this is the best look.

They should be getting my preseason pick for MVP, Corey Seager, back within the next few weeks, and at +550, there is a healthy gap between their implied odds to win the division and where FanGraphs sees their chances. 

AL West Best Bet: Texas Rangers to win division (+550 BetRivers)

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We can keep this one pretty short and sweet. The bet here would be the Braves. Even at -300, there’s value on them, but advising folks to put a significant enough amount of money tied up on a -300 for four months is not really my vibe, so let’s mostly just move along.

I’ll only pause to say that I feel like the Marlins at +5000 would be the only play to catch some eyes. I’m not there at all. They’ve been a total luckbox this season at 10-0 in one-run games. There’s no real reason to believe they’ve solved closely-contested ball games, and the FanGraphs odds sniffed that out, unsurprisingly.

NL East Best Bet: Technically Braves to win division (-300 BetMGM), but nothing super actionable

From the most boring division to bet to arguably the most interesting. The NL Central is the only division in baseball with four teams in double digits when it comes to FanGraphs playoff odds. This is due to the topsy-turvy nature of the start to the season, with the Pirates — who were projected either fourth or last before the season — atop the actual standings, while the preseason favorite Cardinals are bringing up the rear.

This is where history can be helpful to us. Of the 132 division races this century, not a single team accomplished what the Cardinals are trying to do the rest of the season. The largest in-division comeback on a May 5 date was 9.0 games back by the 2006 Twins. The Cardinals sit 10.0 games entering play Friday.

Now, this is a division that has proven imminently winnable over the years, and St. Louis has indeed been off to an unlucky start by both Pythag and BaseRuns. But I don’t see the Cardinals’ odds of winning the division matching even the 14.6% that FanGraphs has, let alone the 19.6% implied odds that the best book can offer. My best bet this entire article is to not bet the Cardinals at that price.

So if the Cardinals are such a good non-bet, there must be a good bet here? 

Yes and no. The issue is that this division, even with line shopping, has one of the highest theoretical holds. At 105.7% total implied odds, that’s about the same as betting into a spread with -113 on each side — that definitely is not a market that demands a bet.

That being said, I do have a lean here, and it’s ironic given my preseason under bet on this team, but I like the Cubs +650 to win the NL Central. The FanGraphs odds have this about even to the implied odds, but the Cubs are definitely who I would look to slide some of those extra Cardinals percentage points to.

They’ve been solid this season despite some tough luck, and they have some easy spots to target for improvement. They just called up Matt Mervis, who should be a HUGE improvement over Eric Hosmer, and if this team is hanging around come July, it’s a team with theoretically deep pockets to make the moves they need to stick around.

It would be a smaller play for me, but I still like the Cubs to win the NL Central at these odds.

NL Central Best Bet: Cubs to win division (+650 DraftKings)

The Diamondbacks may surprise some folks to be as long odds as they are, but FanGraphs says the number checks out, and given the talent on the Padres and Dodgers, it makes sense. I think that FanGraphs odds likely sells them a little short, but not enough for me to bet them.

In fact, this is another division where the odds seem to be pretty well fit with how I see the division potentially playing out.

NL West Best Bet: Nothing of value

MLB Divisional Best Bets on Friday, May 5

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