If Major League Baseball is the National Pastime, then placing a wager, great or small, on a baseball game is equally woven into the national fabric. And with more and more states allowing sports gambling after the landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling, learning the ins and outs of baseball betting is more relevant than ever. Just as there are a myriad of ways to score a run, there are enough different ways to wager on baseball to fill out a lineup card. Here is a primer on baseball betting, showing the best ways to beat the house.
While at first glance a baseball betting line can look confusing, with different numbers and totals that seem all random to the untrained eye, baseball betting can be broken down into simple categories, allowing the bettor to focus on the style of betting that is most appealing and comfortable to them.
Ultimately, like in any sport, the object is to bet on the team you think will win. In most cases, the wager also requires the favorite to win by a certain total, the point spread. But as we’ll see, in baseball betting, there is more than one way to bet on the outcome of a game.
The most basic betting line in baseball is the moneyline wager. In this scenario, you are picking one team to win, regardless of the final score, as there is no point spread involved. If the Red Sox are hosting the Yankees and are listed as the favorite, you will see a betting sheet that lists the teams under the “moneyline” heading as such:
NEW YORK +200
In all betting, the favorite is always listed with the minus sign (-) and the underdog is listed with the plus sign (+). This is because the payout for the favorite is always going to be less than the amount wagered, while a successful bet on an underdog will be more than the amount wagered.
Consider: A winning wager of $100 on the underdog Yankees would be worth $200 dollars. But to win $100 on the favored Red Sox, you would need to bet $170.
As you will see, the bigger the perceived underdog, the greater their moneyline. Conversely, a heavily favored team will afford a much smaller payoff. Imagine Washington’s ace Max Scherzer facing a struggling Detroit Tigers club sending a poor starter to the mound. The moneyline would probably look something like “Washington -340, Detroit +280.”
As far as determining which team to bet in which instance – and as is the case with any wager in any sport – the more research you do on an individual game can increase the likelihood that you end up on the winning side. Know the pitching matchup. Even the worst teams usually have one starter who is considered an ace, and can shut down the offense on a top team at any time. How do certain offenses generally fare against lefties or righties? Understanding the likely game flow can go a long way toward identifying a likely winner, especially a heavy underdog that might actually have a decent shot to win, based on the underlying numbers.
On baseball betting sheets, there is a second set of odds that looks like a “moneyline,” but also includes what appears to be a point spread. Only this point spread is the same for every game. The favorite is listed as a 1½-point favorite. This type of bet is called the run line, and can offer certain underdogs a greater payoff than the regular moneyline odds.
The name of this game is that the favorite on the run line must not only win the game, but beat the 1½ point spread – in other words, win the game by two runs. This wrinkle makes dramatic changes to the moneyline. Consider those Scherzer-led Nationals against the Tigers from the moneyline section. When the bet was a simple win-lose proposition, the Nats were -340. But on the runline, where they are now required to win the game by at least two runs, their line falls to -190, increasing the payout for a winning bet. Conversely, with the Tigers now just needing to stay within one run, their +280 drops to a +160 on the runline.
This is a much trickier bet to win. You would be surprised how often a favored team wins by just one run. This bet is especially tricky when the home team is the favorite. If they are winning by one run after eight innings and send their opponent down 1-2-3 in the ninth, then they only got eight innings to score runs, as opposed to the visitor’s nine. Those extra three at-bats can be critical.
The final third of the “big three” baseball bets is the game total bet, which is baseball’s version of the over/under. Here, you are tasked with wagering on the number of runs scored by both teams. Each side of the game total bet will have its own moneyline.
For the majority of games, the game total is usually set in the neighborhood of 8 runs. The exception, of course, is Coors Field, where game totals can reach as high as 14 when a strong offensive opponent invades and the starting pitching is mediocre at sea level, let alone a mile high.
This is where your knowledge of the starting pitchers, the quality of bullpens and even the weather is critical to making informed wagers. Is the wind is blowing out at Wrigley, or in? It can make a big difference in prognosticating a run total.
If you are a fan of a team like the Red Sox in 2019, you know how painful it can be when the starter comes out of the game. There is nothing worse than a bad bullpen, and they can wreak absolute havoc on your well-researched bet by pouring gas on an otherwise settled affair.
For the bullpen-averse, there is a bet for you. Called the First Five bet, the wager plays exactly like a regular moneyline bet, with a favorite and an underdog. The difference, as the name of the wager suggests, is that the bet is only for the first five innings of the game, when a game becomes official. Whatever the score at the end of five innings, there’s your winner or loser. A tie game after five innings results in a push.
This type of wagering puts the most emphasis on knowing your starting pitchers. If Chris Sale is going up against a Triple-A spot starter, you can assume the Red Sox will be heavy favorites in that matchup. But maybe an “ace” starter has a history of giving up runs in the first inning before settling into his groove. That might increase the chances that the underdog team could grab an early lead and hold it through five innings. Basically, the bullpen is removed from the equation entirely. If a team is into its pen before the fifth inning, they aren’t winning anyway.
As with any sport, there are also prop bets to be found in baseball. Who will hit the first home run? How many homers will Player X hit? What is the over/under on Pitcher Y’s strikeouts? These bets add a little spice to the game, especially in the postseason or the All-Star Game. They are also popular in the Sunday night game, which is the only game playing in that time frame.
A personal story: Before Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, I was convinced that Steve Pearce was going to homer in the first inning off Clayton Kershaw. As a Red Sox fan, I just had an overwhelming feeling that Pearce, a right-handed batter, would carry over his momentum from the Game 4 comeback and deliver right away off the lefty Kershaw in Game 5. So, I put money down on Pearce to score the first run of Game 5, where he was, as I recall, a 15-to-1 prop.
Sure enough, Pearce homered in the first inning. I’m a genius! But he didn’t score the first run. Andrew Benintendi walked one batter before him. Benintendi scored the first run. That’s why they call it gambling!
For those who love the thrill of the high-wire act, where big odds can lead to big payoffs, but require considerably more risk, the parlay bet is made for you. In this type of wager, you are required to bet on 2, 3, 4, even 10 outcomes on one wager, and you must get them all correct. One miss, and you’re done. But the odds can be enormous, the more bets you put on your parlay. A typical three-bet parlay pays 6-to-1. Four bets goes 13-1, and so on.
In baseball, you can combine moneylines with game totals and run lines, some on the same game or binding together results of multiple games.
Also known as in-game betting, this type of wagering is exactly what the name suggests: wagers that take place on a game while the game is playing in real time. Here, you have the opportunity to bet on an outcome of a game that might already be in the sixth inning. The Brewers are up by four after six innings and the lights-out bullpen is getting ready to finish off the final nine outs. In live betting, you can wager on the Brewers to win, with the only real difference being that the moneylines are going to be much more difficult for the winning team to make a profit. Conversely, if you feel a big comeback on the horizon, you could get huge odds after six innings.
There are also props in live odds betting, such as how a reliever might perform (strikeouts, number of outs recorded).
LISTED PITCHER/ACTION/NO ACTION
Unlike all other professional sports, a baseball bet can be cancelled by a sportsbook or online betting service for a myriad of reasons, with your original wager returned to you. More often than not, a game that is rained out is regarded as “No Action,” meaning the wager has been cancelled.
Like in football, when the starting quarterback is ruled out on a Friday, a baseball wager can be listed as “no action” if the listed starting pitcher is scratched shortly before a game begins.
In fact, in online baseball wagering, there are options to bet with “listed pitchers” or “action.” If you make your bet with the “Listed pitches” option activated, you are basically saying that your bet is contingent on the announced starting pitchers actually pitching in the game. If Blake Snell feels a twinge in his shoulder while warming up in the bullpen before the game and is pulled from his start, that game’s wager will likely be listed as “no action.”
Alternatively, if you choose the “action” option on your bet, you are waiving the necessity that the announced starters actually pitch in the game. In this scenario, there is no threat of a “no action” situation, but if you were counting on Snell and his shoulder to help you win your bet, you could be left with a dead ticket.