MLB odds: Fading favorites smart play during spring training

LAS VEGAS — Nothing about Gerrit Cole will come cheap, beginning with the $324 million contract the right-hander commanded to be the Yankees’ ace.

In just more than a month, Cole is expected to make his first regular-season start for the Yankees, who could be the highest-priced Opening Day favorites in baseball history. Even when Cole makes a start in spring training, the price is high.

And, yes, betting lines are attached to spring training games and the sportsbooks see business on a daily basis, whether MLB commissioner Rob Manfred likes it or not. A year ago, Manfred objected to it and lost the argument.

“The action is relatively minor,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill director of trading. “It’s small, but it’s better than nothing. On a Monday morning when there’s nothing going on, it’s good. On Saturday, when there’s college basketball, you don’t even know baseball is there.”

Cole will be one of the primary curiosities of the spring as he leads the rotation for the World Series favorites. The Astros, Cole’s former team, have become Public Enemy No. 1 after a sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport and rattled the commissioner.

“There might well be some benefit to trying to go against the [the Astros] in spring games,” said Dave Cokin, a veteran baseball handicapper and ESPN Radio host in Las Vegas, “as their focus has to be in question, at least in these meaningless games.”

No games are meaningless when money is on the line, of course, but preseason baseball is a handicapping challenge a majority of public bettors choose to ignore. The standings are irrelevant, some games feature split squads, starters often make cameo appearances and the main goal for most teams is talent evaluation.

The amount of sharp money in the market is minimal because books offer lower wagering limits on spring games — $1,000 per side is the guideline at William Hill and most other books.

Gerrit Cole (r) and the Yankees
Gerrit Cole (r) and the YankeesCharles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Still, there are betting angles worth exploring, with the Astros’ distractions being one. VSiN analyst Josh Appelbaum noted wiseguys typically prefer to play underdogs.

Since 2005, spring training underdogs have posted a winning percentage of 46.2, as compared to 42.5 percent in the regular season, according to Bet Labs Sports. When wins and losses don’t matter, the playing field is leveled and it decreases the edge for the favorite.

“The key is betting these ’dogs on the spread, also known as the run line. This means betting the dogs at +1.5 runs, meaning they can either win the game or lose by one and you still win your bet,” Appelbaum said. “Spring training run-line underdogs are 61.8 percent since 2005. If they are also on the road, they improve to 64.4 percent. There is barely any home-field advantage in the preseason. Plus, games can end in a tie in the preseason, which would cash a +1.5-run bet.”

Cokin said he bets only a handful of spring games and might play none in the first week.

“I’m mostly looking for lineup edges where one team is at least starting most regulars, and the same with likely pitchers,” Cokin said.

William Hill listed the Yankees as -200 favorites over the Pirates on Monday, where Cole made his Yankees debut throwing 20 pitches and 12 for strikes in a 3-3 tie at Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees were the biggest favorites of the day, when most games were lined around -120. The Dodgers were -180 against the White Sox.

“It’s getting tougher to play these games, though. Used to be, most of the games would … be priced pretty much the same. But with the lineup information now widely available, numbers are getting adjusted very quickly and it’s not uncommon to now see much bigger prices on games where there’s a talent edge in who’s going to be playing.”

“Even in preseason, the Dodgers and Yankees are big favorites. It’s a sign of things to come,” Bogdanovich said.

With the expectation that Cole will open the season as the Yankees’ starter on March 26, the Westgate SuperBook has posted a lookahead line of New York -450 at Baltimore.

“I’m 99 percent sure there never has been an Opening Day favorite that big,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said.

A year ago, Manfred directed a request to Nevada and other states to ban betting on spring training games. A key portion of the MLB statement on its stance — “These games are not conducive to betting and carry heightened integrity risks, and states should not permit bookmakers to offer bets on them” — exposed a failure to understand the protections built into legalized sports-betting markets.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board denied MLB’s request, and Bogdanovich said William Hill continues to book spring training games in the other eight states in which it operates.

Manfred has been quiet on the issue this spring. He’s got his hands full after mishandling the Astros mess.

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