Bettor’s Guide To The MLB Division Series Round

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When US Bets broke down the wild card round that kicked off the MLB playoffs, we concentrated on isolating two aspects of play that have proven to be winning postseason formulas in this era. Defining that era is as simple as saying pitchers throw harder and hitters swing harder than ever.

We backed the teams with a propensity to hit for power without striking out all that much and with a propensity to strike out lots of opposing hitters without allowing many of them to hit home runs. The problem with a three-game series such as this year’s wild card formulation is the tiny sample sizes can make larger patterns irrelevant.

For example, a St. Louis Cardinals offense that had finished 27th in the majors in strikeouts and ninth in the majors in home runs struck out 15 times in two games vs. the Philadelphia Phillies and hit just one home run.

The reason the formula didn’t work in this case? Mostly the small sample size, but we also suspect it had something to do with recency. For example, MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt had been ice cold entering the series, including a subpar .716 OPS and 26 strikeouts in 108 plate appearances after Sept. 1.

Still, we managed to go 2-2 in picking the four series. Had we bet $100 on each series at the prices at which they were offered at DraftKings last Thursday morning, we would have lost $100 each on the Blue Jays and Mets and won $115 on the Phillies and $80 on the Guardians. We would have had a net loss of $5, far better than the typical nationwide hold rate.

As the division series round begins, let’s see if we can’t refine the strategy to some extent. We’ll still look for powerful lineups that don’t strike out much and for swing-and-miss pitching staffs that don’t give up long balls, but we’ll pay closer attention to recent form, including performances in the first round. (All sports wagering odds provided by DraftKings.)

Philadelphia Phillies (+155) vs. Atlanta Braves (-185)

Of the wild card teams, the Phillies actually adhered most closely to the formula we devised. We called it the ‘Stros Index, because the Houston Astros have been so good at it over the years. When we combined the rankings of both the pitching staffs and hitters on each team according to strikeout rate and home runs allowed, the Phillies had a score of 33, the lowest — meaning best — of the wild card teams.

Unfortunately for the Phils, the Braves are appreciably better at it than they are.

Braves pitchers struck out batters at a 25.8% rate, third best in the majors. They gave up, on average, 0.92 home runs per nine innings, fourth best in the majors. Their hitters struck out 24.8% of the time, third best in MLB. They hit 243 home runs, third most in MLB.

That, folks, is a ‘Stros Index of just 13, making this a very, very dangerous team in this spot.

The Phillies’ greatest hope here is in the hot-team-at-the-right-time category and relies on their excellent performance in the wild card round continuing. While the Phillies limped down the stretch of the regular season, nearly blowing their wild card spot, some key performers got red hot.

Aaron Nola, for example, who is scheduled to pitch Game 3, had a 2.36 ERA and struck out 45 batters in 34⅓ innings in the final month. Zack Wheeler was similarly sharp after he returned from a month-long injury, holding his last three opponents to one run over 15 innings while striking out 15 batters.

You’re also getting Game 1 starter Ranger Suarez, who just held the Braves scoreless over six innings on Sept. 22 and has a 3.21 lifetime ERA vs. Atlanta.

The Braves’ odds in this spot translate to a 65% chance of winning, which seems too high for a five-game series, where their overall roster superiority might not have a chance to take root. The Phillies don’t need the better roster, they just need a few key guys to perform very well when called upon, as they just did against the Cardinals.

Seattle Mariners (+185) vs. Houston Astros (-220)

How did the 2022 ‘Stros do in the ‘Stros Index, named after their 2017 team that had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors and the second best home run rate? Answer: really, really well.

The Astros pitching staff this season allowed the second fewest homers while having the No. 1 strikeout rate in the game. Their hitters struck out less frequently than all but the Guardians and hit more home runs than all but three teams, giving them a total ‘Stros Index of 9. That makes them, once again, a threat to do all sorts of damage deep into this postseason.

That particular formula makes this look like a major mismatch considering the Mariners’ ‘Stros Index was 63, worst among the wild card teams not named the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Mariners, like the Phillies, are showing some signs of heating up, having just put 14 runs on a good Toronto Blue Jays staff in two games. But two games represent a miniscule sample size and the Mariners really weren’t looking all that playoff-ready before that series. In the final month, for example, their hitters struck out at a 22.8% clip, ranking 17th in the majors.

Against the high-spin, high-velocity Houston staff, it’s much easier to imagine a young Mariners lineup looking lost than thriving. If there’s one series on which you should be willing to lay massive odds to get a winner, this appears to be it. The fact that Seattle won only seven of the 19 head-to-head matchups this year only adds to that feeling.

Cleveland Guardians (+175) vs. New York Yankees (-210)

We thought the Rays’ record was a bit of a mirage this year based on a weaker-than-usual AL East and a Rays pitching staff that was good enough to carry a pop-gun offense all season. The Guardians exposed Tampa by holding them to one total run in a two-game sweep.

Now, the Guardians are in deep against one of the most powerful teams in baseball and you wonder if their ability to put the ball in play — remember, they had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors — will matter much if they can’t match the Yankees long ball for long ball.

And recent form actually favors the Yankees in this one. The Yanks steadied themselves after a wobbly two months with a blistering final month, going 17-6 over their final 23 games in September to cruise into a first-round bye. New York hit 49 home runs after Sept. 1. The Guardians hit 26.

Yankees pitching also was on point in the final month, allowing on average just 0.88 home runs per nine innings and striking out opposing batters at a 25.1% rate.

Cleveland’s best hope here is that the Yankees stumble into the kind of daze that plagued them through half of July and all of August, but much of that was injury-related. The fact that Giancarlo Stanton found his stroke again by going 4-for-9 with three home runs in his final three games might make the Yankees simply too much to handle in this spot.

At these odds, it might be worth jumping on Cleveland and simply hoping all the contact they make will lead to some cheap hits and that the Yankees will get in their own way as they did during that miserable month-and-a-half after the All-Star break.

San Diego Padres (+175) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (-210)

In two of their three wild card games, Padres pitching completely unplugged a Mets offense that probably should have added a little more power at the trade deadline. San Diego got remarkable fielding from center fielder Trent Grisham, who also hit two home runs and had a 1.250 OPS in the series.

Their greatest asset in this series, however, could be relief pitcher Josh Hader, who steadied himself after a brutal first month in San Diego by posting a 0.87 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .143 slugging percentage, then pitched a scoreless ninth Sunday night to eliminate the Mets. For him to have a big enough impact on this series to sway it, however, the Padres are probably going to have to use him as more than a one-inning reliever, something he has opposed in the past.

Rest assured, they are running into a team that not only has dominated them in the regular season, going 26-12 in the teams’ last two seasons of head-to-head matchups, but is always built for October. The 2022 Dodgers have a ‘Stros Index of 26. If there’s one area where they might be susceptible, it’s that they have a bit of a propensity to strike out, with their 22% strikeout rate ranking 11th in the majors.

While this one might be closer than some people think if Juan Soto gets hot and Hader puts in good work, it’s hard to overcome so much evidence pointing toward the Dodgers as the stronger team.

Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY 

Author: Ryan Gonzales