Baseball is not the highest margin sport for the house. Not even close. At New Jersey sportsbooks in 2019, the house’s win percentage on baseball betting was only 3.9%, well below basketball (4.8%), football (5.3%), and all the other sports combined (5.1%). In Nevada through the first 11 months of last year, the books held 5.13% on baseball, which is higher than in New Jersey, but still trails Nevada’s numbers for basketball (5.42%), football (7%), and “other” (6.93%).
With the volume of baseball betting also in line with other sports, if public interest in wagering on MLB contests were to decline, it wouldn’t be nearly as deleterious for casinos and online sports betting operators as if the same happened with football or basketball.
But it certainly wouldn’t be a good thing. And in the aftermath of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, which has the potential to rock the public’s confidence in the validity of the competition more than anything since the Chicago “Black Sox” threw the World Series more than a century ago, a decline in baseball betting is very much possible.
“For those of us who bet on this stuff, I’m pissed because I know there was probably a lot of games where I bet against the Astros where I didn’t know what was going on,” VSiN host Gill Alexander said on his show A Numbers Game last week. “I didn’t know that they were cheating, and I’m betting on this with my money. That bothers me a great deal — selfishly.
“If I don’t know what I’m betting on, and I’m therefore not going to bet on it because I have a lack of confidence? You don’t want me, who likes to bet on baseball, to stop giving a damn at all.”
Banging, buzzing, and betting
fastball: no bang
offspeed: bang pic.twitter.com/w3coyl27q3
— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 13, 2019
Former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, now on the Oakland A’s, revealed the team’s trash-can-banging scheme, and on Jan. 13, a report from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred detailed the cheating and effectively removed the “if they did it” phrasing from the public discourse. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for a full season, the Red Sox fired their implicated manager Alex Cora, and soon the Mets did the same with their manager Carlos Beltran.
By the time the internet sleuths were deep-diving their way to possible evidence of players wearing buzzers under their clothes, anger from the public and from other players was boiling over. And much of that anger was rightfully directed at a league that not so long ago had the audacity to demand that sportsbooks pay leagues to preserve the “integrity of the game.”
Reaction from sportsbooks, in terms of their posted markets, has been inconsistent. Some have lowered the Astros’ 2020 win total, previously set around 97, to about 95. Some haven’t budged; PointsBet currently has Houston’s total at 97.5, with a -110 vig in either direction. Some, like FanDuel Sportsbook, have removed the bet from the board.
And that’s probably a wise move. If by chance a slew of Astros players end up suspended, their total could easily drop into the 80s. And that’s to say nothing of how much individual players might underperform in 2020 relative to recent seasons without the help of the sign-stealing operation.
The bettor’s perspective
Undoubtedly, MLB will lose some fans over this latest disastrously failed purity test. And you would think they would be even more likely to lose bettors, who have more skin in the game.
Then again, they’re gamblers, and taking on risk is part of what makes the gamble fun.
“The scandal is obviously outrageous, but I will probably still be betting on baseball,” amateur sports betting enthusiast Todd Wishnev, who served as the “everyman” on the Showtime docu-series Action, told Sports Handle. “Whether a team is cheating or not, the numbers are still the numbers. So while it’s incredibly unfair, it should still be quantifiable whether there is cheating or not.”
A noted East Coast professional bettor and industry analyst who goes by the pseudonym “Captain Jack Andrews” also focused on the numbers when asked about a possible dip in baseball betting interest.
“Here’s the thing that is alluring to bettors: Baseball is a very quantitative game,” Andrews said. “Rather than having continuous action like other sports, it has states of play that are very regimented. This makes it seem ideal for anyone who bases their handicapping on statistics and quantitative analysis.
“Situations like the sign-stealing or the manufacturing process of the ball changing have a huge effect on bettors because they introduce a skew that is unexpected. As a quantitative bettor, I’m going to have to not only look for the known knowns that are factored into the line, and the unknown knowns that can have an influence, but also the unknown unknowns that could have an effect that nobody expects.”
So will Andrews shy away from betting baseball, given the extra variables that possible cheating adds to the equation?
“I’ll probably still bet,” he said. “After all, from June to August, it’s the only game in town — sorry, WNBA.”
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but Wishnev actually sees reason to bet with more confidence in the on-field product in 2020 than usual.
“This coming season,” he said, “will probably be a season with less cheating than in the past due to the scandal [coming to light].”
And for those who’ve been burned betting against Houston the last few years? Well, 2020 is the perfect season to chase those losses.
Especially when the Astros are on the road.