God’s Tid-Bets, Vol. 18

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God’s Tid-Bets, Vol. 18

Joe Duffy (JoeDuffy.net)

This is the latest in a series of a Godgepodge of sports betting strategy and other sports handicapping and gaming issues.

Professor Wolfers’ Response

Our previous article “Bad Conclusions about Fixing Need to Get Fixed” took to task University of Pennsylvania professor Justin Wolfers’ contention about college basketball games having a shocking number of games involving point shaving.  Here on the Duffy Factor, we let the guests have the last word, so here is the good professor’s:

Thanks for sending me your article.  I must admit that I’m a bit puzzled by some of your criticisms – some are obviously fair, and some seem to me to be off the mark.  I’m not sure if you have read the underlying research paper, but if you do go and read it carefully, I think you will get a stronger sense of precisely what the argument is, and hence which of your criticisms are more and less valid. 

Specifically, the evidence about whether long favorites cover, is less relevant than the asymmetry – just covering versus just failing to cover.  And your interesting discussion about strong favorites being overbet is also explicitly discussed in the paper. The argument is essentially that if it is simply an artifact of the Duke’s of the world being overbet (thereby making 14 point favorites 16 point favorites), then one should expect 16 point favorites to win less often than one might expect for a team this heavily favorite. Figure 4 in the paper suggests that this isn’t true.

Professor Wolfers original paper: Point Shaving

Easier to be the Hunter than the Hunted

Our Wise Guy winner on Florida over George Mason in the 2006 Final 4 is far from the only example, but certainly as high profile as any, of a theory we’ve ridden for years. Teams that have the glass slipper for a variety of reasons will fall prey to the law of diminishing return and in fact reach a point of negative return.

When a team (or in baseball a pitcher as well) is playing above their head, chances are they will return to their level, but their value will be much higher on the betting line. Furthermore, they face the burden of high expectations.

Ironic, we just spoke of the University of Pennsylvania, because in 1979 they opened our eyes to this.  Once a team goes from dark horse to contender, we red flag them as possible go-against teams, pending other factors.

In college sports, a team that enters the Top 25 either for the first time ever or the first time in decades is the epitome of such team. The mid major college team that pulls off a few upsets in pre conference play (remember Gary Trent) is another commonplace occurrence.  Perhaps the archetype is the several-times-a-year-example of a MLB pitcher who comes out of nowhere to look like the second coming of Cy Young in his first four or five starts.

Handicappers should never forget the adage, “It’s easier to get to the top than to stay on top”.  

It’s Right for Some Stats to be Left Behind

In 2005, Cleveland was 42-20 on the road to right-handed starters but 8-12 to lefthanders. So they obviously were better against right handers. 

Or then again, no. At home they were .500 to righties and five games above to southpaws. The Cubs were much better on the road to lefties in 2005, but at home, significantly more successful to right handers. Washington was the exact same way.

In fact the number of teams that statistically were much better on the road to one type of pitcher and just the opposite at home greatly outnumbers those teams that showed a clear tendency both at home and on the road.

My point is that one of the most overrated stats in baseball handicapping is lefty/righty stats. First of all, most teams will face left handed starters roughly 38-52 times a year.  So with such an unbalanced number anyway, stats can get distorted and many other factors including random chance enter the equation when explaining right/left fluctuation.

By no means are we suggesting such stats should be ignored.  Lord knows there are many managers in the Hall-of-Fame that are so-called “situational” managers.  But then again that’s what they do—adjust to the situation and counteract any imbalance that existed in the starting line-up.

If for example one handicaps that the Cubs are much better against left-handed pitching and the team they are facing is starting a left-hander, what happens if the top three relief pitchers on the team they are facing happen to be right handed pitchers? Those stats go out the window in a tie game late once the other team goes to the bullpen and can make mid-course corrections.  In fact, the stats can then go polar opposite.

Randy Johnson has been facing top-heavy right handed line-ups his entire career. Here’s a secret: he mows them down too.  Need I say more?  Unless a team or pitcher both home and away has demonstrated beyond doubt to be significantly better to righties or lefties, let the handicapper beware.

Even if a true angle is uncovered, it’s the job of the “situation manager” to adjust.  We use such numbers, but do so with caution. It’s the “right” thing to do.


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