Baseball is called America’s pastime. And, for most of the 20th century, that was absolutely true as it was easily the most popular sport in the country. Babe Ruth remains perhaps the most iconic athlete in U.S. history. When talking about the greats in other sports, they are often referred to as the “Babe Ruth of football” or “Babe Ruth of basketball,” etc. Ruth’s former team, the New York Yankees, remains the marquee franchise in American sports and has won more championships than any other franchise by far in the four major pro sports leagues.
Shoot, the first major gambling reference most Americans probably remember was the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The 1919 Chicago White Sox were considered one of the greatest teams of all-time, led by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. That team was heavily favored to win the ’19 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, but a handful of players allegedly took money from a gambling syndicate led by Arnold Rothstein to throw the Fall Classic, and the Reds won it.
The eight players involved, including Jackson, were acquitted in a 1921 public trial but the first commissioner in baseball history, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, permanently banned all eight men from professional baseball. Jackson would be a lock Hall of Famer but still isn’t in because of the ban.
In modern history, the MLB hit king, Pete Rose, is also not in the Hall of Fame. In 1989, Rose voluntarily accepted a permanent place on baseball's ineligible list because it was proven he bet on baseball while manager of his Reds. Rose swears he never bet against his own team, but that’s hardly the point. Every year, Rose pleads for induction into the Hall of Fame, but it’s not going to happen in his lifetime.
Nowadays, baseball is no longer America’s pastime because the demographic skews so old. And popularity is waning each year. It’s a very regional sport now – extremely popular in individual markets (Boston, St. Louis) but not so much nationally. Younger generations find the game boring with a constant lack of action. MLB has talked about adding a pitch clock to speed things up; purists love that baseball is the only sport without a clock. However, a pitch clock has been shelved for now.
Baseball ranks third in popularity and in betting action these days in the USA behind football (both college and pro) and basketball (both college and pro). The one thing MLB has going for it, however, is that it owns the summer. The NFL season ends in February, and the NHL and NBA playoffs finish in June. That means MLB has the betting landscape largely to itself – compared to smaller sports like horse racing, MMA, tennis, golf, soccer, NASCAR, etc. – until football season begins in late August/early September.
Types Of Bets
Because many baseball games are decided by one run, there is no point spread to bet. There are three main options for wagering on a game: moneyline, runline and over/under total.
The moneyline is the No. 1 wager and that’s simply a bet on which team wins the game. Doesn’t matter the score and doesn’t matter if the team wins in a game called after six innings due to rain or in a 22-inning marathon. Let’s use the Chicago Cubs visiting the Los Angeles Dodgers as an example. All things being equal, a home team is going to be favored on a moneyline because playing at home is a huge advantage – that team bats last. No visiting team can win in a “walk off.”
All moneylines are based on a $100 wager, regardless of sport. In this example, the Dodgers could be -135 favorites with the Cubs at +115. That means, it takes $135 to return $100 on a Dodgers win, while $100 bet on a Cubs victory returns +110. Very rarely will a team be favored into the -400s on a moneyline. Incredibly rarely. Even -300s are somewhat rare.
The runline essentially is the spread and is always set at 1.5. In the above example, the Dodgers would be the favorite on the runline and thus -1.5 with the Cubs at +1.5. A moneyline price is attached to both options. Los Angeles at -1.5 would be around +150 with the Cubs at +1.5 at -180. The favorite on a runline is rarely also the moneyline favorite because so many games end by a one-run margin. It can happen, but the runline favorite will never be a massive moneyline favorite. If the Dodgers beat the Cubs 7-6, a runline bet on L.A. is a loser but a winner on Chicago. It’s that simple.
Finally, the over/under total. That’s total runs scored in the game, with both the over and under also given a moneyline price. Those prices are often the same (-110) or very close to so. In this example, the total could have been 8.5 runs, with the over at -120 and the under at even money. Totals are most influenced by each team’s starting pitcher. The weather (especially wind direction) and the home team’s ballpark also can influence the totals. Totals in MLB games generally are between 5.5-13 runs. The latter number usually only for games played in the thin air of Denver’s Coors Field.
Five-inning lines are another popular bet. This is simply which team is leading after five innings. The favorite to win the game will always be favored to be leading after five innings. It’s like betting on the first-half line in football.
No sport loves numbers more than baseball – so the betting options both in regards to futures and in-game are too many to mention. The primary team futures odds are to win the World Series, the pennant or a division. Over/under season wins. For individuals, popular markets are odds to win the MVP and Cy Young Awards in both the American and National Leagues. Which player leads the major leagues in homers? There are also over/under season totals (wins, homers, etc.) for a huge majority of players entering a season.
Baseball might be the best sport in the USA for live betting – simply because there is so much time in between pitches and the ball in play. It gives the bettor time to actually think, unlike in the NBA and NHL where the action is almost constant. Live betting could be the best thing to happen to baseball in decades. You can wager on just about everything live, whether a pitch is a ball or strike, will the batter get a hit, what type of hit, ground ball or fly ball, etc.
There is no one player in any of the four major American sports leagues that affects a moneyline than a starting pitcher in baseball. They are everything, even though starters are going shorter and shorter into games these days and some teams are using “openers.” Those are relievers who pitch the first inning, who then turn it over to the starting pitcher. Some managers believe it’s a statistical advantage for the starting pitcher to avoid the top half of the lineup one extra time if possible.
So, the No. 1 criteria for determining a bet on a baseball game should be each team’s starting pitcher, his current form and history against the opponent. The New York Yankees might have a much better overall team than the Boston Red Sox in a game, but if Boston’s best pitcher is going against the Yankees’ worst one, the Red Sox are going to be favored.
Certainly, the weather should be checked before betting on a total. No day-before totals are set at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, for example, because it’s a completely different park when the wind is blowing in as opposed to out. A very cold day is likely to lead to very few runs. No other sport in the USA is affected more by weather from a betting perspective.
One key term to remember for betting on MLB is a “getaway” game. This is when a team is concluding a long road trip. Let’s say the Yankees are on a 10-game road trip. Game No. 9 is played at 8 p.m. ET in Boston but the finale is at 1 PM ET the next day – and then the Yankees have to fly across the country for their next series. That matinee finale is a “getaway” game and when managers are most likely to rest a key starter or two because of the grueling travel and the fact the game takes place barely 12 hours after the previous night’s game. Very smart to bet against those road teams on a “getaway” game.
Since 2005, the largest moneyline favorite in Major League Baseball is believed to have been on June 4, 2016, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were -485 favorites over the Atlanta Braves. Why so high? Sure, the Dodgers were very good that year and the Braves not, but mostly because Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw was on the mound and he was almost unhittable that year. Thus, it would have cost bettors $485 to win $100 on L.A. The Dodgers did win, 4-0.