Like many other things, baseball in 2020 looked different.
It started with a prolonged labor dispute that put the season in doubt, and it finished with a team from California defeating a team from Florida in a World Series played entirely in Texas.
More importantly though, from a betting perspective, many casual fans learned about the importance of having a representative sample size. The shortened 60-game season had different effects on different ball clubs, as the Miami Marlins managed to finish 31-29 (securing their first playoff bid in 17 years) while the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals fell to 26-34 (good for last place in the same division) and failed to make the playoffs completely. Normalcy would eventually prevail by the playoffs and the Championship Series round, however, when four relative favorites (the Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves) were left standing and the favored Dodgers won it all.
Following such a strange season, it can be easy to knee-jerk react to the "changing tides." In some cases, we’ve even seen teams reward this short term success from players in ridiculously lucrative ways. Trevor Bauer won the Cy Young Award with an incredible 11-game run in 2020 for the Cincinnati Reds, and this offseason he was rewarded with a three-year, $102 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While I’m inclined to believe the Dodgers know what they’re doing given their track record, it’s worth noting that Bauer’s 2019, a much larger sample size, was forgettable at best (106 ERA+, 6% better than league average). The San Diego Padres made a similar small sample size-based bet on Fernando Tatis Jr., inking him to a 14-year, $340 million contract after less than one full MLB season of data to work with.
I don’t mention these examples to suggest that either team is making a bad decision here - if anything, I’d lean in the opposite direction - but generally though, the public perception of MLB players and teams in the futures market will reflect whatever the casual fan most recently saw. Taking this recency bias into account to identify overreactions, and to lean on the likelihood of regression, are arguably the two most important factors to consider heading into 2021 futures betting for the return of Major League Baseball.
MLB’s 2021 season will of course differ from 2020 in ways beyond just the total number of games, amongst those differences the return of the 10-team playoff field as opposed to 2020’s 16-team monster. We will also see the eradication of the famous “juiced baseballs” that have contributed to home runs skyrocketing in recent years, and of course the fans will soon be returning to the stands in varying capacities as the summer goes by. Each of these factors should affect futures betting to various extents as well, so it’s worth keeping an eye on how sportsbooks are adjusting their expectations as news breaks from spring training and beyond. Now, without further adieu, let's take a look at some of the MLB clubs I believe there is current value on in regards to betting their season win totals for the 2021 regular season:
SEASON WIN TOTALS I’M BETTING
New York Mets - UNDER 91.5 wins
There is certainly reason for optimism in Flushing, Queens, in 2021. For starters, the New York Mets acquired their stud shortstop of the present and future in Francisco Lindor, as well as an underrated starting pitcher in Carlos Carrasco. They also signed solid role players like James McCann and Albert Almora Jr, and they bolstered their pitching staff with a number of starters and relievers. The Mets are deep, and their lineup should be plenty serviceable night in and night out. While I do project the Mets will be better than their last-place finish in 2020, I believe projecting a 92-70 finish this season is a stretch.
Behind Jacob deGrom, where can the Mets reliably turn for success in a loaded NL East? Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker are each “high potential” guys who have shown flashes, but neither has ever managed the type of sustained success you’d expect from a 90+ win team’s #2 starter. The better bet to slot in as their second option is actually Carlos Carrasco, but he hasn’t made more than 12 starts since 2018 and turns 34 in a few weeks. With Noah Syndergaard out for at least a few months, the Mets will be relying on consistency from Stroman, Walker, and Carrasco. Even if they get it, I’m not sure they’re good enough to take the division from the Atlanta Braves anyway. And that's not even mentioning their 2021 schedule.
The Mets’ regular season schedule will be among the most difficult in all of Major League Baseball. Along with competing in the NL East - where the Braves, Washington Nationals, and Philadelphia Phillies are all expected to be tough outs - they also drew the AL East as their counterparts in Interleague play. The Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, and New York Yankees all figure to be stiff competition, so if they’re going to get close to 92 wins, then the Mets are going to have to obliterate the soft spots on the schedule.
Atlanta Braves - OVER 91.5 Wins
While 2020 ended in heartbreak for Atlanta, there’s no reason to believe that the Braves won’t be as good, if not better, in 2021. From a pitching perspective, both Max Fried and Ian Anderson blossomed into consistent top-end contributors in 2020’s regular season and also for the Braves' 2020 playoff run. At 22 and 27 years old, respectively, there’s reason to believe they’re both only going to be better this year.
Charlie Morton also joins Atlanta's staff as the wily veteran, having produced as many dominant playoff outings as anyone in professional baseball over the last four years. Morton steps into a low pressure role in Atlanta, likely asked to be their fourth rotation option behind Fried, Anderson, and the return of 23-year old stud Mike Soroka. Drew Smyly, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright figure to fight for starts as well.
Atlanta’s lineup was already one of the most potent in all of baseball in 2020, and it has somehow managed to improve by two projected WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to Fangraphs. Bringing back Marcell Ozuna was a big move for Atlanta, and it allows young players like Cristian Pache to continue to develop without the pressure of being an everyday big leaguer. These guys are going to hit.
Like the Mets above, the Braves will be contending with the tough NL East this season, and also dealing with the AL East in Interleague play - but unlike New York, Atlanta is the three-time incumbent division champion here and has virtually full roster continuity. Because of that, I see value on the over here.
Chicago White Sox - UNDER 90 Wins
The Chicago White Sox hype train has been gaining steam for a few years now, and understandably so - they’ve done an excellent job of stacking young talent, many of whom are already contributing at the major league level. Like the Mets, I also believe that the White Sox will be a solid outfit in 2021.
This bet, however, is all about regression for me. The White Sox saw a number of players burst onto the scene with memorable performances in 2020. And while this is all exciting, I struggle to believe they’ll all repeat themselves to the extent needed for Chicago to win 90 games this season. Lance Lynn is coming off a stellar season and a half in Texas, Lucas Giolito had a career year in 2020, and Dallas Keuchel posted the best ERA+ of his career as well. It’s difficult to expect repeat performances from all of them, and they’d better be good in 2021, with middling options at best rounding out the rotation behind them.
While Chicago's lineup is powerful, sure, it’s not particularly dynamic, and with notable exceptions Tim Anderson and Nick Madrigal, it’s a team made up entirely of high-strikeout, home run-reliant righties. In a new year, with a newly juiceless ball and more film for opponents to work with on Chicago’s young bats (Robert, Madrigal, Moncada, Jimenez, etc), there’s reason to believe that Chicago's AL Central opponents have done their homework and will be prepared to cause the White Sox some trouble this season.
Houston Astros - OVER 87.5 Wins
If you don’t want to root for the Houston Astros in 2021, I get it. They’re hard to root for. The truth of it, though, is that this number is too low and an overreaction to an injury-riddled 29-31 showing in 2020 that still almost resulted in a World Series appearance. Let’s get the obvious out of the way here as well - the AL West is an absolutely putrid division. Getting to play 55-60 combined games against the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers is a massive advantage for both the Oakland Athletics and the Astros entering 2021, and I believe that Houston is best positioned to take advantage this season.
This Astros pitching staff probably won’t wow anyone this year - especially not with Justin Verlander remaining on the 60-day injured list - but I believe the rotation will be better than most expect. Zack Greinke is aging, but he also hasn’t given any indication that he will be anything less than the consistent contributor he has been for a long time now. Cristian Javier has quietly emerged as a really solid option too, and both Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers are returning healthy in 2021 to round out a solid - if not flashy - rotation capable of winning a ton of games with an elite offense in this terrible AL West division.
Speaking of the offense, the Houston Astros bring back their entire infield from their 2017 World Series “championship” team, and they’re hungry. Carlos Correa tore up the postseason in 2020, and he enters a contract year with big numbers on his mind. Alex Bregman has also shown that he’s one of the best third basemen in the league for several years now, despite pedestrian numbers in a shortened 2020 season.
Jose Altuve should be ultra motivated as well, an MVP-caliber talent coming off a famously poor season with something to prove. The loss of George Springer certainly hurts Houston this season, sure, but Michael Brantley’s return and a healthy Yordan Alvarez also create a really high offensive floor for the Houston outfield. Assuming what we saw from former top prospect Kyle Tucker is even remotely repeatable in 2021, this Astros offense should be among the top three in the American League.
Others I’d consider:
San Diego Padres - UNDER 94.5 Wins: Generally speaking, fading the offseason champs who have a smaller chance of winning their division than most, is a good idea. So goes 2021 for the San Diego Padres?
Toronto Blue Jays - UNDER 86.5 Wins: The Toronto Blue Jays should be fun in 2021 and certainly a better group than we’ve seen the last few years. But there’s a similar story to be told here about an “offseason champs” type team with little hope of finishing higher than third in their division behind the Yankees/Rays.