While it may seem odd to look ahead to betting the 2023 Major League Baseball season when A) we haven’t even reached the 2022 MLB playoffs and B) it’s freaking football season, know this: Plenty of sportsbooks and sharps are already thinking about the first few weeks of the 2023 season.
Why? Because the game is going to — theoretically — look and feel wildly different, and as a result, the betting action is almost certainly going to produce some lines that end up being entirely too soft.
First up, however, the rules changes that would appear, at least on paper, to have a potential effect on the betting markets:
Bigger bases: The bags are going from 15 inches square to 18 inches. Doesn’t feel like a lot, but it does shorten the distance between bases by 4.5 inches. Probably won’t have that much of an effect, but a runner trying to beat out a grounder, steal a bag, or score from a given base all of a sudden has a slightly shorter distance to travel.
The banning of the shift: Basically, there have to be two infielders on either side of second base, and none of them can drift into the outfield before the pitch. This clearly will benefit players who have seen their BABIPs fall as a result of the shift.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the pitch clock: This will obviously speed up the pace of play. Additionally, pitchers are only allowed two pick-off attempts per runner. Remember stolen bases? They might be coming back.
So, what does this all mean for the betting markets?
In what should be music to bettors’ ears, there’s not exactly a consensus out there.
Guts and guesses
“Gut feeling at first,” said Sam Garriock, the trading manager at PointsBet, “as someone who’s constantly looking to trust the data, it’s going to have to be an educated guess first off. The biggest thing for me when thinking about this is that it’s going to be so player-specific. The shift itself is not used in all situations and doesn’t have a massive effect in the population of MLB players it’s deployed against, but some players really struggle with it.”
As a result, Garriock believes there will be an increase in BABIP next year, but he’s not confident it will be earthshaking.
“Not sure it will be so drastic with run-scoring rates,” he said. “We’ll probably see a BABIP increase to maybe .300, from where it is now around .292.”
Johnny Avello, the sportsbook manager at DraftKings, thinks the lack of shift will increase scoring slightly, but he also thinks the bigger bags will have an equal, if not bigger effect.
“Bigger bases mean more runs,” he said. “A 4.5-inch bigger bag, and between first and second and second and third, that’s less distance for a runner to be safe. I think it will create more runs overall, and that’s an adjustment we’ll have to make.”
Matt Lindeman, a senior trader at WynnBET, has no idea what’s going to happen.
“Honestly, I don’t really know what the adjustments are going to be. It’s tough to say,” he said. “I think we’ll all try to guess at it, but it’s hard to know.”
Lindeman points out another key element to baseball betting: the constant tinkering MLB seems to do with the balls themselves.
“Usually the way baseball works there’s an aggressive adjustment in the first few weeks once you get an idea what the ball is, what the league is trying to accomplish with home runs,” Lindeman said. “Every year there’s an adjustment. I’m sure totals will go up a little as a result of the rules changes, but I think everyone will sit on their hands a bit in the beginning.”
Bettor be ready
“I’m definitely going to be looking at the overs. Is it going to be a half-run a game? Trying to figure that out myself,” said Brad Feinberg, a Pennsylvania-based bettor and NBC Sports analyst. “I do think it’s going to be pretty substantial. I think we’re going to see scoring go up a half-run a game. Maybe I’m being overly ambitious, but just the shift alone is a very significant change.”
Feinberg thinks the sportsbooks will be doing themselves a disservice by not immediately raising totals.
“The league is obviously trying to create a situation where more runs are going to be scored,” he said. “There’s no way the league won’t be higher scoring. They want higher-scoring games with more action. If the books aren’t going to adjust, I’ll be ecstatic.”
Feinberg will also be watching those stolen base props early in the year, as — again — he believes the league is clearly trying to goose the lost art of the steal. To wit: In 1987, the team average was 138 stolen bags a year. Last year? That number was 73.
“I’m not sure it will be huge, as analytics has taken over the game, but will there be a 20 percent increase in stolen bases? I think so.”
Garriock at PointsBet thinks the “speed merchants” will be back in force. “We would expect to see a relatively large increase in stolen bases for next season compared to this season, and I think the effect of the pitch clock will be bigger than the shift. Pitch clock is kind of radical, and will obviously disportionately effect those who try to steal.”
Avello also thinks there will be a significant increase in stolen bases, and he expects the number on the “over 0.5 stolen bases” player prop will be juiced for some players.
But he’s not entirely convinced he’ll be juicing the run totals — at least not yet.
“Maybe we’ll add a half of a run,” he said. “We’ll see.”
All in all, early season baseball next year is setting up to be a wild betting ride.
Garriock sums it up thusly: “We won’t be able to trust previous trends as holding to be true.”
Photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic