MLB betting FAQ: What to make of a shortened season

Why the Reds, Rangers are good futures bets (1:27)

Preston Johnson explains why he likes the odds on the Reds to win the National League, and Doug Kezirian likes the Rangers' chances to win the American League West. (1:27)

Better late than never, right? At long last, the major league baseball season is about to get underway. But there are still plenty of questions.

What can we expect from such an unprecedented season in terms of betting? Staff writers David Purdum and Jesse Rogers and ESPN betting analysts Preston Johnson and Doug Kezirian are here to answer the biggest betting questions heading into play.

What are bookmakers most concerned about regarding the new MLB season?

Purdum: Oddsmakers say staying on top of changes to starting lineups, which are expected to be more frequent during the pandemic, and adjusting to how managers use pitching staffs during the abbreviated season will be focal points.

Monitoring beat writers on Twitter for starting lineups has become part of the daily routine for bookmakers and could become increasingly hectic this season with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

"When you take one guy out of a baseball lineup, there's only so much effect that can have on a baseball line, in my opinion," Randy Blum, baseball oddsmaker at the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said. But if the entire left side of the infield is suddenly ruled out, Blum acknowledged they won't have much time to react before bettors pounce.

Chris Bennett, baseball oddsmaker for sportsbook Circa Sports, wonders whether teams will use a five-man pitching rotation, allowing starters go deep into games, or more unorthodox strategies.

"Maybe one of their regular starters begins the game and then after a few innings have one of their other starters follow him to potentially eat up seven or eight innings total," Bennett said. "That will be fundamentally different than how we've been booking baseball forever. It's going to be very important that we're keeping up with the news."

When handicapping games, do you think the short season and July start benefits hitters (for overs) or pitchers (for unders)? Or does it not make a difference at all?

Johnson: I don't think anybody has a definitive answer since this situation is so unique, but my instincts tell me pitching will be stronger throughout the league. With the value and importance of every game in a shortened season being worth so much more, I expect teams to aggressively use their best bullpen arms more regularly, and we may see some teams even shortening their rotations (and subsequently moving a quality starter to the bullpen as well).

I ultimately wouldn't get too carried away with any single angle or approach. Scoring is generally higher in Major League Baseball during the summer, for example. So even if pitching is slightly better across the board, we may not even see it manifest itself until later in the season anyway.

In a 60-game season, how are you changing your approach to futures bets? How much more of a factor is team depth?

Johnson: My approach to placing futures bets isn't noticeably different outside of the fact that I am waiting until right before Opening Day before I bet any of them. With players opting out and others that could still test positive before the season begins, I want to make sure I have all of the information possible at my disposal. In the case of a normal season, missing two weeks may not seem like a very big deal in the grand scheme of team expectations. When they're only set to play 60 games, however, with every game vastly more significant than normal, a positive test to a key everyday player or starting pitcher poised to miss at least 20% of the season would send shock waves through my projections for those teams.

As far as depth is concerned, it's another question that I don't think we have the correct answer to yet. I've heard arguments that depth is more important in this specific situation because positive testing could run rampant through organizations at any time. If things are kept under control though, the best players will be resting much less frequently -- if at all. It feels like a cop-out response, but this will likely be determined by the severity of COVID-19 cases in Major League Baseball. Since that is a virtual unknown, I'm not taking a stance either way.

How are you handicapping home-field advantage in the shortened season?

Kezirian: It's a fascinating topic because baseball is the one sport that has an inherent advantage, especially this season with the new extra-inning rule of a player starting each half-inning on second base. First, the inherent advantage of batting last is often overlooked when comparing baseball's home-field advantage to other sports, largely because noisy fans play such a significant role in football and basketball. I also subscribe to the thought that a large part of home-field advantage is allowing players to maintain routine and avoid travel, regardless of fans.

In terms of this specific season, I think a lot depends on the turnaround on COVID-19 tests and how much more difficult the virus makes travel. Plus, some teams might not even get to play in their home ballparks due to state restrictions and how they are coping with the virus.

But, ultimately, it should probably represent the same type of advantage as any other season... until we reach extra innings. Now, with the new rule, it will feel like the NFL overtime. If the road team does not score, then the home team knows it only needs one run and likely will begin with a sacrifice. From 2016 to 2019, games reached overtime as low as 7.45% and as high as 8.89% of the time. So for games that are priced closely and bets without a run line of -1.5, I think you have to shade to the home team about 3 to 4 cents, but i also imagine oddsmakers will do that. That's just an overall estimate and obviously depends on each game.

With the shortened schedule, teams are only playing divisional games and interleague games within the same respective division. Are there any team win totals that benefit or are hurt by this?

Kezirian: For me, this starts with the Minnesota Twins. They get to play eight games each against the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. That's 40% of their games against three teams without a win total over 25. Given Minnesota set the all-time home run record with 307 dingers last year, I expect more mashing from a lineup that also added Josh Donaldson. The Twins now have six players that slugged at least 30 homers last year. Minnesota also upgraded its pitching staff, welcoming three new starting pitchers. I have always thought highly of Kenta Maeda, while Homer Bailey and Rich Hill will round out the rotation with depth. The Twins have taken the AL Central torch from the Cleveland Indians.

Do you think managers will manage their staff differently, and does that lead to any betting advantages?

Rogers: Managers will most certainly alter their normal routines based on three factors: larger rosters, a shortened summer camp and, of course, the shorter season. In late July games, expect more pitching changes then you'll find later in the season. And even though the best starters might come out of games earlier in July/August in order to build up their arms, lower scoring games could be the norm.

Thirty-man rosters will allow managers to match up with hitters, and if a reliever isn't having a good day, the most he'll face is three hitters (based on the new rules). Roster sizes will be reduced as the season progresses -- and hitters will find their timing more and more -- leading to potentially higher scoring games later in the season. One big difference than normal seasons is the likely lack of fatigue for pitchers come September. So an arc of low-scoring games leading to higher ones and then back down again is possible.

Are there any teams you would drastically change the outlook of based on the new format? And if so, how much does it differ from where Books have those teams?

Rogers: A young, talented team that gets off to a fast start but won't "hit a wall" due to the shortened length of the season is something to follow. The Chicago White Sox could apply in this way. The inability to play great baseball for six months is a real thing for young teams, but over the course of a 60 games, it obviously doesn't apply. Taking the over for the White Sox win total might be appropriate.

One other thing to watch are teams that traditionally get off to slow starts. Does it carry over? The Oakland A's are a great example of a very good team that almost never looks good in April. Taking the under with the A's might be the smart move.