MLB Underdogs Undervalued In Division Rivalries

Historically it has been slightly more profitable for MLB bettors to take underdogs than favorites, but that advantage has started to fade in recent years. Last season underdogs went 1,048-1,413 with -91.78 units lost and a -3.7% return on investment (ROI), which made it the worst season for MLB underdogs in our database. More bad news: the 2016 MLB season is on pace to be even worse.

Since 2005, MLB underdogs have gone 12,114-16,206 (42.8%) with -432.60 units lost and a -1.5% return on investment. Although that compares favorably to favorites (who have produced a -1.8% ROI), it’s a losing strategy that’s only getting worse. With many contrarian strategies struggling, I wanted to unearth additional advantages to help bettors during the 162-game grind.

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In an ever-evolving sports betting marketplace, bettors always need to look for new ways to exploit sportsbook inefficiencies. That means constantly researching new trends and updating the optimal threshold for betting systems. It also means testing new theories and looking for trends that continue to deliver steady year-to-year returns over a significant sample size.

As I found while creating one of our more lucrative NFL betting systems, contrarian underdogs offer tremendous value in conference games. I theorized that the familiarity between teams levels the playing field, which overwhelmingly benefits the underdog. If both teams are well-prepared for their matchup, the game should be more competitive and that should disproportionately favor the team getting points.

However, it was unclear whether this same approach could be adapted for MLB betting. For starters, football games are predominantly bet on the spread while baseball games are typically bet on the moneyline. Additionally, NFL teams play 25% of their regular season games against non-conference opponents (4 of 16) while MLB teams only play 12.34% of their games (20 of 162) against interleague opponents.

My initial research was promising as underdogs have produced a -1.3% ROI in conference games and a -3.2% ROI in non-conference games. However, I wanted to take this analysis one step further by examining underdogs against divisional opponents.

Every season teams play 76 games against division rivals, 66 games against non-division league teams, and 20 games against interleague opponents. This scheduling was implemented with the goal of developing heated divisional rivalries, but it also creates tremendous familiarity between those teams. Knowing that underdogs have consistently held added value in conference games, I believed this edge would be magnified against divisional opponents. Surely enough, I was correct.

Performance of MLB underdogs in regular season games since 2005:

Criteria Record WIn Rate Units Won ROI
Division 5471-7078 43.6% +75.84 +0.6%
Non-Division 6474-8936 42.0% -534.39 -3.5%

As you can see, MLB underdogs have been profitable in division games with +75.84 units won and a 0.6% ROI. That means a $100/game bettor would have earned $7,584 by taking every underdog when they were playing a divisional opponent. You can also see that the win rate for underdogs is 1.9% higher against divisional foes as opposed to non-divisional opponents.

Those results show a clear-cut edge for underdogs in divisional games, however, the year-to-year results haven’t had the type of consistency that I look for when building data-driven betting systems. Although it’s been a profitable strategy overall, there have actually been negative returns in each of the past four seasons. That’s a major red flag.

Sometimes bettors need to layer multiple trends on top of each other in order to create profitable betting systems. One of the most basic trends that I’ve discovered is that underdogs have performed well in games with high totals. My analysis found that as totals increased, underdogs performed increasingly well. High-scoring games are more unpredictable, and this variation has disproportionately benefitted the team receiving plus money.

By examining underdogs in divisional games with high totals, I can focus on two historically profitable betting trends and that should theoretically lead to more profitable returns. As you can see from the table below, that’s exactly what has happened.

Performance of MLB underdogs in divisional games since 2005:

Total Record Win Rate Units Won ROI
All 5471-7078 43.6% +75.84 0.6%
6.5+ 5430-7012 43.6% +88.40 0.7%
7.5+ 4735-6103 43.7% +103.05 1.0%
8.5+ 3187-3984 44.4% +178.66 2.5%
9.5+ 1201-1461 45.1% +126.47 4.8%
10.5+ 300-344 46.6% +49.98 7.8%
11.5+ 45-47 48.9% +9.60 10.4%

This initial analysis shows that both the winning percentage and return on investment (ROI) improve as the closing total increases. It’s also interesting to note that although the highest returns come when we look at closing totals of at least 10.5, the sweet spot for taking underdogs in divisional games is when the closing total is at least 8.5. Since 2005, teams fitting those criteria have gone 3187-3984 (44.4%) with +178.66 units won.

MLB Record

We always preach the importance of going against the grain, taking unpopular viewpoints and buying on bad news. That same sentiment can be applied to these divisional underdogs. The return on investment in these games skyrockets when we look at teams with losing records, teams receiving less than 35% of moneyline bets or, most importantly, road teams.

For years baseball was the only sport in which home-field advantage held any sort of legitimate value. Although most bettors seem to believe that crowd noise is the main factor benefiting home teams, baseball is the only sport where those teams have concrete advantages. Not only do home teams get to bat last, but they’re also accustomed to the unique dimensions of their ballpark.

Between 2005 and 2010, MLB home teams went 7,990-6,576 (54.9%) with +2.66 units won while visitors boasted a -2.8% return on investment. It’s incredibly rare to find that type of prolonged success for such a basic trend, but the tides have clearly changed and oddsmakers have caught onto this edge. From 2011 to the present home teams have gone produced a -2.8% ROI while visitors have been slightly better with a -1.2% ROI.

In fact, divisional underdogs with high totals (8.5+) have been significantly more profitable in road games than home games.

Criteria Record Win Rate Units Won ROI
Road Team 2146-2717 44.1% +194.85 4.0%
Home Team 1041-1265 45.1% -14.19 -0.6%

Teams fitting these criteria have been consistently profitable, but they have been particularly lucrative over the past three seasons. Despite the overall struggles of underdogs, these divisional ‘dogs have gone 273-288 (48.7%) with +56.35 units won and a 10% ROI since the start of the 2014 season.

There has clearly been an edge taking underdogs in divisional games, and focusing on road teams with high totals only improves upon those results. I should also point out that the reverse is also true, with favorites performing well in low-scoring non-division games. Bettors shouldn’t necessarily take every divisional underdog, but it’s an important factor to consider before placing a wager.

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David Solar

David Solar has been the Content Manager at Sports Insights for over four years. He specializes in sports betting analytics and has created several popular data-driven betting systems. He can be reached directly at david@sportsinsights.com or on twitter at @TheDavidSolar.

4 Comments Permalink
4 comments on “MLB Underdogs Undervalued In Division Rivalries
  1. I also have found that taking divisional underdogs that played a divisional game their last time out refines the results some and tends to provide a smoother trendline over time.

  2. This article started out quite depressing. Everything I thought I knew about underdogs from Sportsinsights. Ive read countless articles about different trends in betting the dogs, but you stated that the underdog ROI was bad last year and even worse this year. So what shall a guy do lol?

    • We’re finally starting to see underdogs bounce back, but ‘dogs in divisional games have been solid all season long.

      2016 underdogs in divisional games: -1.1% ROI
      2016 underdogs in non-divisional games: -2.8% ROI

      That’s not profitable on its own, but it shows that the edge has continued this season. When the total is at least 7.5, the ROI jumps from -1.1% to 1.1%.

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