The Houston Astros were celebrating their World Series win little over a month ago and while it still hasn’t settled in for some, MLB bettors will already be thinking about next season. What can bettors learn from Houston’s dramatic World Series win and take into the 2018 MLB season? Read on to find out.
In order to get an edge when betting on Major League Baseball, it’s important to take stock of what’s happened, what’s happening and what will happen as a result. The MLB seems to have a penchant for mimicking its champions so we’ve analysed what contributed to Houston’s success and what it means for next year.
A unique approach to baseball
The tale of the Houston Astros’ rise from the bottom of the MLB pile to World Series winner has been told and retold since they defeated the LA Dodgers back in early November; the inevitable effect of winning baseball’s championship.
The Astros were founded in 1962, they had never won so much as a World Series game when owner Jim Crane purchased the team in 2011 and embarked on the process of stripping the team down only to build it back up again.
Teams will have taken note of what the Astros did and how they went about it - this means we could soon see a decline in the common pitching-first strategy used in MLB.
The approach quickly became obvious. Houston wanted to take advantage of MLB’s new draft system that awarded poor finishes with increased spending pools that could be used to sign amateur talent. The ‘Stros lost, and lost, and lost and continued losing until they reached historic levels of futility (all the while the team pooled talent).
Through its poor finishes, Houston acquired the nucleus that would form the greatest team in the franchise’s history. Shortstop Carlos Correa, third baseman Alex Bregman and centerfielder George Springer were acquired with early draft picks, while closer Ken Giles was acquired via a trade for another first rounder. Throw in a little luck with unlikely superstar Jose Altuve and the nucleus was in place.
Houston established an insurmountable lead before the calendar turned to June this season. By the all-star game, the team was on cruise control, healing up its stars’ wear and tear in July and August before finding its swagger again.
At the end of August, the club fixed its biggest deficiency by adding ace Justin Verlander in a literal last-second trade; then, in the playoffs, the Astros dispatched MLB’s three biggest payrolls; first the Red Sox, then the Yankees and finally the Dodgers in the World Series.
While each MLB team must operate to excel in something of a vacuum, even the Ivy League executives who now occupy those offices aren’t immune to some recency bias.
We’ve seen in recent years how World Champions are quickly emulated; how the market shifts to accord with what worked for the previous champions. On such example of this is The KC Royals win back in 2015 - they used a bullpen-focused strategy and now, high-strikeout relievers are enjoying attention and valuations they’d never have dreamed possible.
Success is worth the wait
It took three years of truly miserable results, but Houston’s strategy of tanking did eventually pay off - it enabled them to acquire an elite talent core on the cheap which they could later build on. Thing is, Houston figured out early that this was a viable strategy, joining only the Chicago Cubs in the pursuit of intentional ingloriousness. Now, however, things are a little fuzzier.
If multiple teams adopt a strategy that prioritises long-term success over anything else, the field of legitimate potential champions is diminished.
There are two main reasons for the fuzziness. First, the world has watched both the Cubs and the Astros achieve their success, and slowly, which means it’s not exactly a late-2017 revelation. Secondly, more than a couple of teams have already launched themselves down similar paths, using a strategy that really only works when the field utilising it is limited to one or two teams.
In 2017, in the National League alone, the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres developed a similar strategy to the one that launched the Houston Astros to World Series success - The Padres carried a roster full of rookies and Rule 5 prospects and still finished with just the 7th worst record in MLB.
On the surface, the Padres management will likely tell you it was pleased by the team’s development. However, if they were indeed following the “tanking” strategy adopted by the Astros, they would have hoped for a much worse finish.
What impact do mixed strategies have in MLB?
If multiple teams adopt a strategy that prioritises long-term success over anything else, the field of legitimate potential champions is diminished - this is highlighted by the fact that only 12 teams reached .500 in 2017.
This means it is important for bettors to adjust any appraisals of a team’s chances at ultimate victory, increasing odds in a way that runs contrary to potential value.
Bettors must also be aware of the fact that with so many National League teams happy to flounder right now, the better teams in that circuit have seen their records artificially inflated. Are the Dodgers a legitimate contender? Absolutely, but be careful to not treat them as a bigger favourite than they are when their playoff run won’t include any soft-schedule goodness.
The importance of the August trade deadline
When the July deadline - in which teams can acquire players unhindered -came and went without any major acquisitions by the Astros, the fans, media and even players complained.
Bettors must also be aware of the fact that with so many National League teams happy to flounder right now, the better teams in that circuit have seen their records artificially inflated.
This was because the perception was that there was little value in terms of the talent on offer in the August trade deadline - when teams can put in a claim on available players so long as they’re willing to pay the full price of that player’s remaining contract.
When Houston acquired former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander on August 31, everything changed. Now, you can expect that teams will be on the lookout in August for expensive parts with almost-as-expensive value - this could provide bettors with another window to find betting value during the MLB season.
Offseason markets will almost certainly focus on the rosters as they stand in February and March, but being able to forecast which teams are leaving themselves the most space within their respective spending limits to make a late Verlander-like purchase could help bettors get an edge.
Is it time to prioritise offence over defence?
The old saying goes “pitching wins in the playoffs”, but Houston debunked that. This was a team that featured offence first and last in a year where the home run reached greater prominence than ever before.
Teams will have taken note of what the Astros did and how they went about it - this means we could soon see a decline in the common pitching-first strategy used in MLB. Ahead of the 2018 season, it’s worth considering whether heavy-hitters (the likes of the Astros, Yankees, Cubs, Nationals and Twins) offer better-than-appraised market prices.
Why starting depth matters
While most teams leaned towards building explosive bullpens, Houston added Verlander to their roster and in doing so, shored up a weakness.
Houston’s bullpen, excellent early in the year, struggled in the latter months and proved unreliable in the playoffs - prompting Manager AJ Hinch to call on starters Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, Joe Musgrove and Colin McHugh for the majority of the team’s high-leverage innings.
Attentive teams will note how important starting depth was for the Astros. With reliever prices climbing, it is likely that teams will now try to take advantage as the game adjusts to the idea that utilising its extra starters in unusual ways can renew a bullpen.
Trust in those who break the mould
It’s hard not to talk about the success of the Houston Astros without mentioning MVP Jose Altuve. Altuve is at the heart of one last thing to consider when analysing what impact the Astros’ World Series win could have on MLB betting.
Baseball is a game of habit. It’s easy for teams to dismiss 5’5” potential wunderkinds in the face of conventional knowledge that bigger is better. Not in the case of the Houston Astros though - they thought outside the box of that convention and the benefits are now obvious.
Teams should be softening their approach to what exactly works in looking for MLB success and bettors should be wary of those clubs that refuse to try new things. No one’s going to find market inefficiency on a 6’5” stud who throws lightning and hits thunder. Give those teams that show a willingness to break with convention a few extra credits when determining your bets.