How Las Vegas Can Be Your Biggest Daily Fantasy Asset (Fantasy Baseball)
I’m about to share some secrets, so buckle up.
My specialty is in predictions: finding the breakouts or sleepers for fantasy baseball, looking for teams that are underrated, and, most notably, picking games against the spread. The latter is where I have gained most of my following, as my NFL picks against the] spread generally rank among the best in the industry.
I’m a math guy. I love numbers, and I spend my non-writing time programming scripts that can help with analysis. It would be a surprise, therefore, to learn that I don’t use algorithms or direct numbers for many of my picks.
There’s my first secret.
In fairness, I do use the numbers laid out by Las Vegas — and other oddsmakers — but only as a target. That’s my goal. My scorecard. It doesn’t matter if I think a certain game will be low-scoring. If the odds completely agree, then there is no edge.
We do the same thing when making daily fantasy lineups. We may all universally agree that a certain pitcher is the best option for a given slate, but it isn’t particularly helpful if the pitcher’s DFS salary is nauseatingly high.
Unfortunately, compared to beating a specific number — the spread, moneyline odds, and over/under — we have many factors to consider when making our DFS lineups. Will this pitcher be worth the high price? Which game will be the highest-scoring from this slate? What will others do, and how will they build their rosters?
In theory, we could be “right” in most of the areas mentioned in these questions and still be “wrong” by losing.
What do we do?
When I’m writing my football picks, I probably use the word “perception” more than a dozen times in each article. It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built. If the perception around a particular team is strong, but they’re weak in reality, that team will likely crumble. At least, compared to the odds they will.
The goal is to separate perception from reality and handle them independently, whether it’s in the form of NFL picks or a DFS lineup for MLB.
By looking at the hypothetical questions I posed in the earlier paragraphs, we can sort each appropriately. Determining if a pitcher — or any player — will be “worth” the salary investment is not a function of perception. It’s a numbers-driven projection. We can find these answers anywhere or create them ourselves, and this is where many rely on algorithms. Conversely, determining what others will do is completely based on perception. What we’re really asking is, “what will others think?”
I have some good news. We can actually know what others will think — within reason, of course — and therein lies the importance of perception. Before we continue, I want to conduct a small experiment with you, the reader. Play along with me.
First, erase all numbers you have from your mind. All statistics — especially the advanced ones — need to be put aside.
Now, try to think of three ballparks where offense generally explodes. Put those aside, and don’t forget them. Then, think of three teams that, if playing at home, you would want to start the opposing pitcher. Factor in the ballpark. Finally, if two of the best pitchers in a given year were facing one another in a pitcher-friendly offense, what would be the total amount of runs scored in that game?
Time for some results.
I’m positive that we’ll be misaligned somewhere, but I am absolutely certain that one of the answers to the first question will be the Colorado Rockies’ ballpark, while one of the answers to the second question will be the Miami Marlins. And, more likely than not, the third question is a number no greater than eight. Probably not even greater than six.
Carrying through the results, myself, the answers I estimate from you, dear reader, would be as follows:
Three offensive ballparks: Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Yankees.
Three teams against which to target pitchers: Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers.
The predicted score for the game between two of the best pitchers: six.
If I’m wrong, it’s not by much. Because no matter how much we know about the sport of baseball, most arrows will point in the same direction. Colorado is a hitter’s park, whether it’s from our own mind or the numbers. Miami is an easy target, despite if it’s driven by our expectations for the team or the metrics.
Now imagine that you control the odds or the DFS salaries. If a great pitcher is facing the Marlins in Miami, why wouldn’t you protect yourself? Set the odds extremely tilted against the Marlins and a high-scoring game, all while giving the pitcher a high salary. There’s no need to be exposed.
This is the simplest example of how odds are made. They are protective measures against lopsided action. They are not what should be expected for a given game.
Reread that last sentence, as it’s arguably the most important point of this piece. I’ll even restate it differently.
The odds for an outcome are not the likelihood of said outcome coming to fruition; they are what you believe is the most likely outcome.
The next major secret I’ll reveal is based on this premise: we can’t trust the odds at face value. Period. Yet I see it happen all the time.
The most common misuse of odds appears in the form of “implied runs” — in baseball, where we see “implied points” in other sports. This is complete blasphemy, but it’s plastered everywhere. The numbers are derived using the odds in conjunction with the over-under, and the purpose is to “imply” a certain score for each team.
Let’s use a basic example. Two teams with an over-under of nine runs and perfectly even odds would be calculated as each team projecting to score 4.5 points. But, this primitive math is based wholly around one false belief: that the odds are an indication of what is going to happen.
They aren’t! We just established that the odds are not the likelihood of an event — I’ll keep repeating that fact until it’s buried deep within your subconscious. If the odds are fake, so are the implied totals.
Therein lies the best use of odds in order to find an edge. Because of my insistence as to what the true purpose of odds are — to extract value based on people’s expectations — we can absolutely target those who follow the aforementioned math blindly.
If we see a high implied total, it might mean the game is high-scoring. Maybe. But, it more accurately means that people — against which you will directly compete — believe the game will be high-scoring. That’s enough knowledge for us. Because, as I rhetorically asked earlier, “what do we expect others to do?” In this case, we know the answer.
We know that lineups will be built on false pretenses, and we can attack accordingly. If we also feel that the particular game is going to be high-scoring, we can flush out the chalk and go with it. But, if we disagree, we have an extreme advantage.
How do we do this? Let’s look at some examples to see what the numbers tell us about perception.
Pirates at Marlins — 6/14/19 — Opening O/U: 8, Closing O/U: 8.5
Why not start with an example using the Miami Marlins playing at home? They fit the perfect low-scoring perception, and they would be an easy team against which to use a starting pitcher. But first, let’s look at some numbers.
According to FantasyPros’ Park Factors, Miami’s numbers confirm our original thinking. The Marlins’ home park ranks second-worst for home runs and third-worst for runs. The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the game at 31-38 and on a seven-game losing streak — but they had scored at least five runs in four consecutive games. Miami was in the middle of another putrid season, this time, sitting at 24-43 at the time of the game.
Upon looking at the odds, Miami was actually the slight favorite. And the odds moved in their direction, too. But part of this is due to Pittsburgh’s losing streak, while the other came from the Marlins’ 9-0 victory in their last game. If we’re strictly using implied runs, the even split of 8.5 runs — which was only eight runs — would lead us to 4.25 runs per team.
And if we’re trusting both the odds and the over-under, we’re balancing our lineup between the two offenses. In fact, we might even follow the favorite and use the Marlins’ pitcher.
What really happened? The Pirates won 11-0. Every starter either collected two hits or had at least one hit and one run scored.
In fairness, this game would have been tricky to predict accurately, but there were two important elements to note. The first is that Miami was incorrectly favored, which likely moved people away from Pittsburgh’s bats. The second was that the over/under started small in a ballpark that normally depresses offense. The fact that it increased should have been a signal that at least nine runs would be on the board.
Result: OVER (11)
Marlins at Cardinals — 6/17/19 — Opening O/U: 8.5, Closing O/U: 8
I’ll continue to pick on the Miami Marlins, but in a different venue and with an opposing angle than the one I just used. In the first example, we had the over/under increase in a ballpark conducive to low-scoring outings. In this example, even without a clear perception of the St. Louis Cardinals’ home park, we have to note that the over/under decreased. And to a relatively low number.
For reference — and by using only perception as a guide because of its importance to the overall theme — an over/under midway through a regular season is generally neutral at nine. We’ll frequently see 11 or higher in Colorado, and occasionally seven if two great pitchers are on the mound. This means that, by comparison, Elieser Hernandez and Miles Mikolas combined for a matchup worthy of only one more run than a “pitcher’s duel.” It feels wrong.
“Feels” wrong. But it wasn’t.
The over/under moving down was simply bait against the perception of these two pitchers. With the odds heavily tilted toward St. Louis — so much so that it wasn’t worth picking against the Cardinals — the overall DFS expectation for this game should have centered around Mikolas.
He would have rewarded those who saw through the numbers by delivering six scoreless innings with four strikeouts and a win.
Result: UNDER (5)
Reds at Brewers — 7/23/19 — Opening O/U: 9, Closing O/U: 9.5
Nothing fancy about this matchup on paper. The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are bound for offensive success in either ballpark, and Vegas agreed by increasing the over/under. But Tanner Roark and Zach Davies are not exactly pushovers. Especially if we’re comparing to the prior pitching matchup of Hernandez and Mikolas. That’s an important exercise. The pitching matchup, as a whole, is far more favorable with Roark and Davies than Hernandez and Mikolas. Yet the over/under is higher.
Because we’re about to see some offense.
Roark, from the underdog Reds, actually did quite well, tallying five strikeouts through five innings while only allowing two runs. Davies, on the other hand, was a disaster, and each of Milwaukee’s first three pitchers were. Cincinnati put up two touchdowns on the road.
The good news here is that the Brewers eventually did some damage, so using hitters from either side would have been fine. And we could see that from the increased over/under in a perceived less favorable matchup.
The Reds won 14-6.
Result: OVER (20)
Diamondbacks at Marlins — 7/26/19 — Opening/Closing O/U: 7.5
We’re going back to Miami one more time! Don’t worry, lone Marlins fan, this is a good one.
Maybe. Really, it’s a trick question.
The answer is that, yes, we will see a pitcher’s duel in Miami for this particular game. But, in a pitcher’s park with a low over/under, isn’t the obvious side of the game to target that of the Arizona Diamondbacks? By basically every metric, Greinke is the better pitcher, which means that a low-scoring game should favor him.
“Obvious.” “Should.” These are words that are built more on perception than reality. This time, we can see it in the odds.
In the same vein as gauging the over/under versus a neutral nine, we also noted that the Cardinals had extreme odds in another example. -220, to be exact. Yet, against the same team, Greinke and the Diamondbacks were -190. It’s enough of a difference to pause before blindly trusting the odds. Really, it should be a sign that the game will be pitching-heavy, but more evenly split than dominated. That slides Alcantara into play.
The Marlins ended up winning 3-2 with a walk-off sacrifice fly in the ninth inning after Alcantara struck out four batters over six innings and was undoubtedly the less popular option.
Result: UNDER (5)
Reds at Nationals — 8/14/19 — Opening/Closing O/U: 9
Finally, we’ll close our analysis with one more pairing of perceived great pitchers, but with numbers that simply don’t make sense. The Cincinnati Reds are starting Trevor Bauer, while the Washington Nationals have Stephen Strasburg on the mound. From our prior examples, this should lead to an over/under of roughly 7. Maybe 7.5.
Instead, the over/under is 9, which doesn’t jive with typical expectations.
Ironically enough, this is an example of the implied runs being closer to accurate than perception, itself — it wasn’t fair to use examples without highlighting all possibilities. But even with the implied runs and the over/under both telling the same story, people weren’t as apt to bite. We can see this in the “Betting Trend” portion of the screenshot, as 81% of people were still targeting the Under.
This is the example of perception fighting so strongly that it ignores all numbers. This is where we could capitalize.
The likely play is to use hitters from both teams while avoiding either starting pitcher.
The real outcome is that Strasburg and Bauer actually produced a 1-1 game into the bottom of the fifth inning. Then, the floodgates opened. Washington scored 10 runs in the bottom half of the inning, but the Reds responded with three more immediately after. The Nationals then tacked on another six. The final score was a ridiculous 17-7 in favor of Washington.
Result: OVER (24)
As we can see, it isn’t always the same pattern that leads to an edge, but it also isn’t wise to rely on the numbers as they appear for a given game. An over/under of nine runs does not mean that we should expect nine runs to be scored. It means that people expect nine runs to be scored.
People are often wrong. Las Vegas knows this, and it capitalizes on a daily basis. We can do the same if we use the odds as a window into our opponents’ collective minds.
We’ll still need to make our own decisions, draw our own conclusions, and create our own predictions, but now, we can strategically set these against the field and attack accordingly.