One of the most profitable secrets in sports wagering during the past five seasons has been hiding in plain sight. Right here in Baltimore.
From the 2012 through the 2016 baseball seasons, the major league team that has returned the most money as a wagering proposition through the regular season has been the Orioles.
By a mile.
Here are the numbers:
Assuming a hypothetical $100 bet against the money line (we'll explain that in a minute), the Orioles have returned $8,456 in winnings throughout the most recent five full seasons, according to statistics gleaned from Covers.com, a sports wagering information website. The next-closest profitable team during those five seasons is the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a return of $3,438.
To put the Orioles' performance in context, 15 clubs -- half the teams in the majors -- posted cumulative wagering losses of more than $2,000 during those five seasons.
Unlike football, in which betting typically involves a point-spread, baseball wagering is against a money line.
For example, let's say the Orioles are playing the Detroit Tigers, and on this given day Baltimore has a better pitcher starting. Hypothetically, the odds may be listed as Baltimore (-140), Detroit (+130). The team with the minus odds is the favorite.
In the above example, if you wager on the favored Orioles, you are risking $140 to win $100. If you wager on the underdog Tigers, you are risking $100 to win $130. You'll notice that there's a spread of $10 between the $140 and $130; that amounts to the so-called vigorish, which is the bookmaker's commission (it's good to be the house).
Taking the vigorish into account, it's difficult for any single team to account for a positive return in the long run. And indeed, through the five seasons we're discussing, only 10 of 30 MLB teams finished in the black as a betting proposition.
Returning to the surprising results posted by the Orioles, the five-year return of $8,456 assumes a wager (in the $100-range described above) on every game -- probably something no one has done. Yet, the remarkable results do raise the questions: What has been going on with the Orioles and is there anything to be learned?
I asked one of the best-known sports and race book operators in Las Vegas, Jay Kornegay, who runs the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
"Of course, such a thing would only benefit someone who has [been betting the Orioles every game], and it could change from this point for the next four or five seasons," Kornegay said. "But in the case of the Orioles, this has probably been the result of an over-performing underdog that's playing in a well-respected division."
Kornegay meant that the Orioles' odds are probably influenced by playing in the American League East against popular and well-regarded opponents, such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and even the Toronto Blue Jays.
I have my own theory, and it involves starting pitching.
The money line odds for baseball are calculated primarily on starting pitching.
So whenever a top pitcher, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, is scheduled to pitch, the Dodgers are significant favorites, in the range of -180 to -220, sometimes even higher.
In those five seasons in which the Orioles were a good bet, their starting pitching was -- to be tactful -- sub-par. There have been no Clayton Kershaws in the Orioles' rotation.
If you're an Orioles fan, the statistics back up what your eyes have been telling you about the starters. From 2012-2016 -- despite the fact the Orioles were a consistent contender -- the starting pitching ranked deep in MLB's bottom third in most meaningful categories (26h in ERA, 28th in innings pitched, tied for 23rd in WHIP).
However, the Orioles were still a cumulative 78 games above .500 during those seasons.
Why? In all other significant phases of the game -- relief pitching, hitting and fielding -- the Orioles were among the top teams in the majors (the relief pitching was third in ERA, the offense was seventh in runs scored, the defense was first in fielding percentage). Let's even give some credit to manager Buck Showalter.
Now remember, the odds for each game are based primarily on starting pitching. As a result, it appears the Orioles were undervalued, because starting pitching is so heavily weighted compared to other components of the team.
Consider the Dodgers as a contrast. They were a whopping 100 games over .500 from 2012-2016 and had great starting pitching, but they were a meager plus-$61 against the money line. Clearly, wagering results aren't just about win totals. The odds play a big part.
To be fair to the oddsmakers, basing the money line on starting pitching works pretty darn well for them over the long haul, and they are setting these lines every day of the baseball season for every game, so tweaking the system to adjust for a single outlier, such as the Orioles, just isn't feasible. And as I mentioned previously, the bookmakers who use the odds consistently profit because of the vigorish, so there's no reason to fix something that's not broken from their perspective.
So is this news one can use?
Well, so far, the 2017 Orioles have been trending as they have the previous five seasons, with the starting pitching lagging other major team categories. Unfortunately, the relief pitching and offense haven't been quite as stellar as in previous seasons, which partly explains the team's horrible run in May, when the Orioles were 3-13 during one stretch.
Through June 12, the Orioles were one game above .500. The starting pitching was tied for 27th in ERA, 28th in innings pitched and 30th in WHIP, while the relief pitching was 17th in ERA, the offense was tied for 21st in runs scored and the defense was tied for 10th in fielding percentage.
As a betting proposition, the Orioles were still profitable though 55 games against the money line at plus-$237, which was ninth overall in the major leagues. Considering the Dodgers were 12 games above .500 through June 4 and had earned $65 less for their backers than the Orioles, maybe Baltimore remains undervalued.
However, as veteran Las Vegas bookmaker Kornegay pointed out -- it could all change at any time.
Issue 234: June 2017