Jonah Keri's over/under bet picks for 2017: Buy low on the A's, sell high on the Royals
The sportsbooks have started making their MLB season win totals, so Jonah Keri reveals his top picks
2016 was The Year of the Chicago Cubs . The North Siders broke the longest title-less streak in baseball history, ending 108 years of misery and sending the city of Chicago into a state of euphoria that still hasn’t stopped.
Still, the Cubs’ impact in one sphere hasn’t been fully appreciated. Yes, everyone from kindergartners to old Ernie Banks fans got to experience pure joy. But don’t sleep on the impact the Cubbies had on the gambling world.
If you’re the sentimental Chicagoan who bets on the Cubs to win every year, your wager finally paid off. If you’re the bet-the-favorite gambler who just picks the strongest team every spring, congrats, you won. And if you make bets based on the most fun events to root for every year, you won that too, because you either bet on the Cubs ... or Bartolo Colon.
Welcome to my sixth annual MLB Over/Unders column. Every year, I go through the lines projected by one or more sportsbooks to see which teams look overvalued or undervalued for the season ahead. It’s a good way to start the process of evaluating the field a few weeks before Opening Day. And yes, it can be a nifty way to pick up a few extra gummi bears too.
Last year’s column proved profitable: I went 2-2 on my bets (with a disproportionate amount wagered on my best bet, the Cubs going over a criminally low line of 90.5 wins), with a 4-3 overall mark after accounting for three other wagers I highlighted but didn’t go for myself.
We’ll use the same setup this year: four wagers (including a best bet, so you know where to funnel the most gummi bears), plus an additional three bets I like, if you like to spread your gummis around.
(All lines taken from the Atlantis Casino in Reno, as of February 12.)
Oakland Athletics: Over 66.5
We have a problem. And by “we”, I mean we human beings.
Every day, we fixate on extreme events, to the point that we fail to account for far more likely and relevant outcomes. When the Ebola virus hit America a few years ago, we panicked. The threat of an aggressive and mysterious illness left many of us stricken with fear. Meanwhile, we brazenly leave ourselves (and especially our children) vulnerable to easily preventable and far more likely-to-hit diseases because ... well, who the hell knows why.
Bookmakers are usually smarter than this. They understand that extreme events can occasionally happen, but also recognize that regression toward the mean is far more likely.
This year? There’s a hint of betting Ebola in the air. For the first time since my wagering pals Adam, David, and I started tracking preseason MLB win total projections, a sportsbook has pegged five different teams’ numbers at 90 wins or higher. At the other extreme, the Atlantis also pegs two different teams’ lines at 95 or more losses. Given how unlikely it is for that many extreme events to happen, and for all of those extreme events to happen for those specific teams, opportunities for profit abound.
The A’s, projected for the second-worst record in baseball, thus become my best bet. Oakland won 69 games last season, so to lose this Over bet, the Oakland Athletics will need to start by losing three more games than they did in 2016.
That doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, though. By Base Runs, a stat that measures how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on a number of component stats -- and thus how many games that team should have won -- the A’s were a 72-win club last year. The projection systems all have Oakland being better than even that number in 2017: Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects 75 wins and Fangraphs forecasts 77 wins.
The common-sense test backs up the numbers. The A’s made a handful of stealthy little pickups this offense, notably getting righty-mashing right fielder Matt Joyce for a fraction of the price of their former righty-mashing right fielder Josh Reddick . The rotation could improve, with staff ace Sonny Gray coming off a terrible season that was totally out of character, plus youngsters Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton offering ample upside. And the bullpen could be one of baseball’s best, with a healthy Sean Doolittle (he missed two-plus months to injury last summer) and newly acquired Santiago Casilla augmenting a deep group in which closer Ryan Madson is the fourth- or fifth-best option available.
The A’s are a mediocre team, being graded as if they’re a terrible team. If this line holds once the odds come out in Vegas and online sportsbooks, make Oakland’s Over your biggest bet.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model strongly agrees with Jonah, projecting 75.1 wins.)
Kansas City Royals: Under 80.5
A .500 team last season, the Kansas City Royals ’ underlying numbers suggest they were considerably worse than that -- a 73-win club by Base Runs. The tragedy of Yordano Ventura’s offseason death in a car accident will be something that will stick with these players for a long time. Since it’s our job to move on and try to do analysis, we can simply say that the losses of Ventura and free agent Edinson Volquez, overlaid with free-agent pickups Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, likely work out to about a wash.
Scrap the complicated formulas and you see how some of the Royals’ trademark strengths from their magical runs in 2014 and 2015 are starting to fade. A once dominant outfield defense won’t be as strong with Jarrod Dyson gone and the once Gold Glove-worthy Alex Gordon entering his mid-30s. Even more jarring is the erosion of a once impenetrable bullpen. Only Kelvin Herrera remains from the three-headed monster that once made the final three innings of games impossible for opponents. Meanwhile, a deceptively old rotation lacks premium talent and upside behind Danny Duffy .
Perhaps the biggest factor working against a .500 or better season is timing. The core four of Eric Hosmer , Mike Moustakas , Alcides Escobar , and Lorenzo Cain are all free agents at year’s end, and general manager Dayton Moore has already shown an eagerness to trade expiring assets rather than losing them for draft picks, as the offseason trade of Wade Davis for Jorge Soler showed. If the Royals aren’t within striking distance of a playoff berth come July, don’t be surprised if a sell-off commences, and the team’s record goes south.
I’m not buying PECOTA’s rock-bottom call of 71 wins. But given everything working against the Royals, I don’t see KC sniffing 80 either.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model is projecting 80.4 wins)
Cincinnati Reds: Under 73.5
The Cincinnati Reds are entering Year 4 of a rebuilding process, one that’s seen them average 96 losses over the past two seasons. Rebuilding teams can and do eventually improve, of course. Think of the Cubs and Houston Astros of recent vintage, and you have two glaring examples of teams that bottomed out, then exploded on the league thanks to a torrent of dynamic young talent. The question then is if the Reds might unleash their own collection of high-upside talent this year, to scuttle any potential Under bet.
The bullpen does possess a pair of well-armed right-handers in Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen , who could team with newly acquired righty Drew Storen to improve the bullpen this season. Brandon Finnegan , Robert Stephenson , Cody Reed , and Amir Garrett do offer some potential in the rotation. And Jose Peraza will likely steal a ton of bases now that Brandon Phillips been shipped to Cincinnati.
Still, none of the above project as stars; all the young starters except maybe Finnegan are considered better bets for major-league success in the future than in the present; and Peraza’s combination of lousy plate discipline and non-existent power make you wonder if all those steals will look like Billy Hamilton-style empty calories. The rotation losses of Dan Straily (trade) and Homer Bailey (reinjured and out indefinitely due to bone chips in his elbow) further weaken the roster, as will a likely in-season trade of pending free agent Zack Cozart .
I liked the Reds as an Under bet last year when their number was 70.5, but only as a recommendation, not as a wager of my own. They ended up going under with 68 wins, with a true performance level of 63 wins per Base Runs. This year, I’ll take the three-win cushion offered by the book and actually throw some gummis down.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model strongly agrees with Jonah, projecting 62.8 wins.)
Los Angeles Dodgers: Over 91.5
Logan Forsythe offers a solid upgrade at second base, and the rotation should improve this year, with a healthy Clayton Kershaw still the best pitcher on Earth, Rich Hill around from Day 1, and talented lefty Julio Urias poised to improve in Year 2 of his young career.
The bleeps and bloops have the Dodgers winning 96 this year, in line with the Cubs for the best record in baseball. I tend to agree. The Los Angeles Dodgers ’ formula of youth, data, and depth has them well positioned to win a fifth straight NL West title, and to beat this relatively conservative number.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model agrees with Jonah, projecting 94.2 wins.)
In addition to the four bets I actually made, here are three more I’d at least consider, given the state of present betting lines.
New York Mets: Under 89.5
One thing you learn when doing this exercise every year is that there’s plenty of room for nuance, and no room for hot takes. An Over bet on the A’s doesn’t mean you should start booking the World Series parade. An Under bet on the Royals doesn’t mean a plague of locusts is coming to Kansas City to destroy baseball forever. What matters most is the number that the book gives you, and if there’s a few games worth of daylight available to make a profit. So yes, after shorting one of the 2015 World Series participants, I’m now shorting the other too.
The New York Mets have a chance to be a good team this year, maybe even a playoff team. They won 87 games last season. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom are both reportedly healthy and expected to be ready to go come Opening Day, a big departure from their injury-plagued 2016 campaigns. Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker are back. There’s plenty of talent here. And yet, the mean projection for the Mets that my gummi enthusiasts pals and I have compiled -- using projections from PECOTA, Fangraphs, crowdsourcing and analyst Clay Davenport -- peg the Mets as an 85-win club in 2017. That would make them fringe contenders ... and also several games short of the Atlantis line of 89.5.
Again, let’s go beyond the computers and dig into what the Mets have. They have a rotation that on paper looks spectacular, but every starter except Noah Syndergaard comes with significant health concerns; a responsible prognosticator has to bake in that injury risk, rather than assuming that you’ll get 1,000 innings of awesome performance. David Wright has played just 75 combined games in the past two seasons, and Jose Reyes is no sure thing as a Plan B. Curtis Granderson’s about to turn 36. Jay Bruce is an atrocious defender. Travis d’Arnaud and Lucas Duda are serious injury risks. Jeurys Familia’s likely to get a harsh suspension following his October arrest on domestic violence charges. That’s a hell of a lot of question marks for a team that needs to win 90 games to beat Reno’s number.
That doesn’t mean the Mets can’t be a fun, winning team that, say, wins 87 and makes the playoffs again. It’s just that this number assumes a whole bunch of optimistic outcomes for a roster rife with question marks. As a straight odds play, I’ll bet the Under.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model disagrees with Jonah, projecting 90.2 wins.)
Baltimore Orioles: Under 84.5
The projection systems seem to hate the Baltimore Orioles every year. Every even year, the Orioles make those quants look stupid. They do it by winning a boatload of close games, thanks to a perennially loaded bullpen, and a skipper who does a great job of managing that bullpen ... in the regular season, anyway. The Mysterious Case Of The Disappearing Zach Britton aside, the O’s haven’t proven they can beat the odds every year, as their more pedestrian showings in 2013 and 2015 demonstrate.
I don’t believe in even- or odd-year voodoo. But I do believe in honest assessments of team talent bases. The projection systems collectively see the Orioles as a 79-win team, one short on starting pitching ( Chris Tillman missing the start of the season due to a shoulder injury casts even more doubt on the rotation). A once excellent defense now ranks near the bottom of the league, thanks to personnel changes and core players aging past their prime.
This still isn’t one of my top four wagers, because a strong bullpen can steal a bunch of games, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy could break out, and at some point we have to acknowledge that the Orioles are a talented, well-run team, and that their success can’t simply be chalked up to luck. Still, like the Mets, the Orioles could easily contend for much of the season, only to end up a couple games short of this betting line.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model projects 84.1 wins.)
Houston Astros: Over 87.5
Like the Cubs, the Astros started their turnaround by stockpiling skilled young players, then letting those exciting young players blossom at the big-league level. Now, GM Jeff Luhnow is pushing for the next step, having spent the winter acquiring premium talent like Brian McCann , Carlos Beltran , and Josh Reddick, without sweating the financial and talent cost needed to snag ‘em. The rotation projects as middle of the pack (unless Dallas Keuchel returns to his 2015 Cy Young form), but the lineup could be the best in all of baseball, the bullpen has plenty of attractive options, and Luhnow figures to keep pushing if the Astros are in the race at the deadline. Which they probably will be.
(Editor’s Note: The SportsLine Projection Model disagrees with Jonah, projecting 84.8 wins.)