Lessons hidden in sports betting markets

With sports betting now legal in several US states, I might as well give away my number one piece of advice for amateurs looking to gamble: Don’t bet. It’s an easy recommendation. Numbers implied by betting markets are too good, too close to the truth that, when accounting for the vig, it’s nearly impossible to make a long term profit. But just because your local statistician tells you not to bet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out betting market odds.

Part I: Why I feel bad for Max Scherzer (on the game-level randomness in sports)

The best team in baseball during the 2013 season was the Detroit Tigers. Detroit’s rotation featured the eventual Cy Young award winner (Max Scherzer), alongside both the 2011 and 2016 Cy winners (Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, respectively). The Tigers line-up was spearheaded by Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, the latter of whom would win his second consecutive MVP. Indeed, betting market rankings had the Tigers atop the sport for basically the entire season.

Part II: Rethinking our playoff philosophy (on the role of chance in the postseason)

In the 2016-17 season, the Washington Capitals dominated the NHL like few teams in recent history, winning the Presidents’ Trophy with 118 points. The Caps entered a 2nd-round playoff series with Pittsburgh as decent-sized favorites (58 percent), and sure enough, Washington outplayed its rivals. In each of seven consecutive games, the Capitals outshot the Penguins, finishing with 70 total more shots on goal. Unfortunately for Washington, not enough shots turned into goals, and because hockey games are decided by goals, it was the Penguins that moved onto the Eastern Conference Finals.

Part III: Rocky Mountain High (the benefit of playing at home)

One way in which professional sports are relatively fair is that, in each season, teams are almost always given an identical number of home games. This seems like an obvious way to run a sports organization, until you remember that postseason berths in NCAA hoops and football often hinge on incredibly unbalanced schedules. Playing at home is a benefit, and while the reasons for the overall advantage are somewhat up for debate, there are obvious and unique advantages that make playing at home different each sport.

The within-game evolution of MLB’s strike zone

Baseball games are too slow, too long, so damned long, and, like my seven-year old daughter getting dressed in the morning, taking forever. Despite the headlines, there’s one aspect of the game that has actually worked to speed the game up: how umpires call balls and strikes. As one piece of evidence, Brian and I found that, in the bottom half of extra innings, calls tend to favor whichever team is closer to winning.

On the risks of categorizing a continuous variable (with an application to baseball data)

To err is to human In the third inning during a contest a few weeks back between the Nationals and Cubs, Washington’s Brian Goodwin hit a line drive to left field with two outs and a runner on third. Despite an initial pause, Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber ran in and attempted to field the ball around his knees. Ruled an error on Schwarber, the play gave the a Nationals run in an eventual 9-4 win.