We're just three weeks into the 2021 MLB season, and it can already be easy to overreact to early returns. The New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves - each surefire playoff teams who haven’t looked the part remotely just yet - have fans who are already hitting the panic button. In cities like San Francisco and Seattle, meanwhile, fans are already beginning to wonder whether this is the season their Giants and Mariners can actually return to contention. It’s impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t at this stage of the baseball calendar year, however, as these teams have played just 10-12% of their games so far.
While we can’t predict the future (yet), we can make educated guesses, even though we're still this early in the year. A great place to start is Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, which pulls together their entire gambit of advanced statistics. PECOTA currently projects the Yankees to win 96 games and gives them a 93% chance of making the playoffs, even despite their putrid start. When a group of stars all enter cold streaks at once, for example, it only makes sense that regression to the mean is likely coming soon.
During a long baseball season, these are moments we can often take advantage of in both the futures market and the daily betting market. Case in point - the Yankees were +550 preseason to win the World Series - and they’re now +700. To win the American League, they’ve also moved from +240 to +300. The fact that these moves have been relatively subtle is the oddsmakers confirming what we already know: the baseball season is incredibly long, and it’s likely every team will have a poor few weeks along the way.
Having said that, there are still quite a few ways to take advantage of betting baseball in the short-term as well. I've specifically identified two situational spots for the upcoming MLB weekend slate. Let's dive in!
Friday, 4/23: San Diego Padres (+125) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (-143), 10:10pm ET
Last weekend the Dodgers and Padres stole the show with a three-game series that players on both sides likened to a playoff atmosphere in San Diego. The two teams will play a total of 19 times in 2021, and they represent two of PECOTA’s top three teams in baseball by simulated wins. All three of last weekend’s pitching matchups will be replicated this weekend too, making for a particularly fascinating four-game set at Dodger Stadium. This series will be compelling throughout, but Friday night’s duel between Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw in particular - a repeat of just six days prior - ought to provide decent betting value.
On Friday night, the Dodgers are modest home favorites (-143, DraftKings Sportsbook), up from -120 last weekend due to the venue change to Dodger Stadium and the fact that Kershaw out-dueled Darvish in their previous matchup. The Dodgers won that game 2-0 thanks to a late Justin Turner home run and a vintage pitching performance by Kersh. Darvish was equally, if not more excellent - he pitched an inning deeper into the game than Kershaw with the same number of pitches, allowing only one hit through seven masterful innings. I’d also argue Darvish is the more likely of the two pitchers to produce another excellent performance - the projected Dodgers starting lineup is 2-for-20 against him and is missing two left handed bats in Cody Bellinger and Gavin Lux. Left-handed hitters have hit just .227 against Darvish since 2019, while righties have only managed a .187 average. While Kershaw’s career numbers against the projected Padres lineup are good as well (24-for-102, a .235 batting average against), he hasn’t pitched as deep into games as Darvish and now goes up against a much healthier Padres team with several players who have burned him with home runs in the past (Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, and Eric Hosmer).
Padres hitters have a lot more recent familiarity with Kershaw than the Dodgers do with Darvish as well - last season, for example, San Diego managed to push across three runs in both of Kershaw’s starts against them. Friday night is also an immediate revenge spot for San Diego, and I expect their righties will rightfully come out with a better plan of attack against Kershaw. This game ought to be low scoring (O/U is currently set at just 7), and I’m seeing value on the Padres moneyline at the current number of +125.
Sunday, 4/25: Cincinnati Reds @ St. Louis Cardinals (Projected line of -140)
Sunday’s matchup between the Reds and the Cardinals in St. Louis is another rematch this weekend, this time featuring Opening Day’s pitching matchup between Luis Castillo and Jack Flaherty. Each considered the aces of their respective staffs, these two have been headed in different directions in 2021.
Flaherty’s 2020 was considered by many to be an abject disappointment - primed to become one of baseball’s truly elite pitchers, he pitched to a 4.91 ERA and failed to advance past the sixth inning just once after Opening Day on July 24. In reality, the stats most under his control remained steady - his DRA remained 32% above average at 68, matching his output exactly from 2018. The real culprit in Flaherty’s 2020 struggles was a suddenly spiking BABIP-against of .284, 27 points higher than his career average of .257, but his ground ball percentage did actually improve from 2019 to 2020, further suggesting that his poor 2020 shortened campaign was more a result of bad luck than bad pitching. It’s no surprise that so far in 2021, his performance has normalized back to what we’d learned to expect from him in '18-'19.
Luis Castillo, on the other hand, is in the midst of a nightmarish start to 2021 caused by both bad batted ball luck and poor pitching performances. It’s certainly fair to say that the .365 BABIP hitters have enjoyed against him is unlikely to continue, but his fastball’s decline in velocity from 97.5 mph on average to 95.7 is cause for legitimate concern. Cardinals hitters feasted on Castillo on Opening Day in Cincinnati to the tune of 10 runs, and his career numbers vs. St. Louis have been underwhelming as a whole (4-5, 4.70 ERA).
Although the Reds were a -128 favorite in this matchup on Opening Day, I’m certain that the line will look a bit different on Sunday given what we’ve seen from each pitcher so far in 2021. I’m not convinced that the oddsmakers will adjust it enough though. I like St. Louis to win on the moneyline in this one, and I'd play it up to -140. I'd also take a look at the run line of -1.5 if the moneyline moves too far out of range.