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Baseball Prop Bets – Can They Be Profitable?

Baseball Prop Bets - Aaron Judge

With summer now upon us, the Major League Baseball (MLB) season is in full swing, and that means bettors have dozens of games on the daily schedule.

Division races are heating up, contenders are emerging from the crowd, and even cellar-dwellers have prospects coming up to the big show to see what they can do. Between the exploits of two-way rookie Shohei Ohtani – blowing away batters as an ace starter and bashing dingers as a DH for the Los Angeles Angels – to New York Yankees sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge leading the latest incarnation of the Bronx Bombers, baseball is back in full effect.

But the beauty of America’s Pastime is in the game’s subtle intricacies, something avid bettors know quite well. You don’t have to stick with the game score when betting on baseball, as most sportsbooks offer dozens of proposition wagers – also known as prop bets – for each game on the day’s docket.

I’m talking everything from bets based on the game’s first five innings – when starting pitchers tend to decide the outcome – to wagers on which team will cross the plate first, or reach a certain number of runs. You can bet on whether or not a big basher will go yard, or which batter will accumulate the most offensive statistics.

Pretty much anything and everything that happens on the field during an MLB game is up for grabs when you’re prop betting. And these fun wagers aren’t limited to the online sportsbook sphere either. You’ll find a long lineup of baseball prop bets waiting at any major sportsbook in Nevada – or Delaware and New Jersey as of this June.

Quantity is always nice, but what about quality?

The goal for any thinking bettor isn’t simply to get action down, but to derive consistent profits from your hobby. And while a good prop bet can certainly be entertaining, if not downright exciting, they are typically longshots that favor the house.

Given the ongoing hubbub about sports betting legalization on the federal level, and with the All-Star Game fast approaching, it’s time to study your baseball prop bets. Below you’ll find a list of the most popular baseball prop bets, along with descriptions on how each one works.

From there, I’ll discuss each wager’s relative merits from the perspective of profitability. The goal here is to determine which baseball prop bets are worth your time, and which should be sent down to the minors.

In the end, I hope to leave readers better prepared to bet on baseball props throughout 2018 and beyond.

Game Props

The first list of wagers are what we call game props, or prop bets that concern the game itself rather than individual player performance.

To excel at these props, bettors should have a keen sense of how two teams will match up against one another. Their relative place in the standings, recent injury news or roster turnover, and run differential – the holy grail of comparative statistics – can all be used to gain an edge on game props.

Parlays

A parlay bet isn’t technically considered to be a prop bet, but I’ve chosen to include it here because it’s different than your standard single-game wager on the final score.

When you place a parlay bet, you’ll be linking two or more results on a single ticket – and that ticket can only cash when all results win and/or tie.

Example:

Let’s say the Washington Nationals are hosting the lowly Cincinnati Reds, with all-world ace Max Scherzer toeing the rubber for the Nats. In this case, you want to back the big favorite, but massive moneyline odds of (-240) on Washington make the wager less desirable. To compensate, you could find a second wager to add in, turning your one-team ticket into a two-team parlay.

In this example, you could find another team to insert into the parlay, or add the Over / Under game total (more on this to come) from the Nationals / Reds game.

In either case, linking two bets on a single parlay ticket significantly increases your payout odds. Whereas a $100 wager on Scherzer at (-240) would pay out just $41.67 in profit, adding a second wager on the Under of 6.5 runs at (+105) odds inflates the potential payout to $190.42.

You can learn more about parlay odds using this handy calculator tool, but sufficed to say, linking just a few bets on one ticket can produce enormous payouts.

Here’s the rub though: you’ve got to win (or at least push) on all segments of a parlay in order to collect. Perhaps Scherzer twirls a gem and secures you an easy win, but a few late runs surrendered by the bullpen creates a 5-2 final score.

In this scenario, the Nationals’ victory isn’t enough, as the final score totaled 7 runs – just pipping your Under 6.5 wager.

Parlays are a notoriously high-risk, high-reward affair, but are they truly profitable?

Not according to Joe Osborne, an analyst for the sports betting website OddsShark. Per Osborne’s data, parlaying big MLB favorites together instead of simply betting them separately is a losing play over the long run:

“Should you bet big MLB favorites individually or look to parlay them?
If you did a $100 parlay on the two biggest favorites every single day last season, you’d be down -$123.07.
If you did individual $100 bets on those teams, you’d be up +$181.94.
Stick to 2-unit moneyline bets.”

With that said, Osborne did celebrate a few feats of parlay heroics from his Twitter followers, one of which turned $50 into $12,000 by nailing an ambitious seven-team MLB parlay.

Given the import of Osborne’s analysis – and the inherent difficulty of hitting any wager let alone several at the same time – parlays aren’t the most profitable prop bet by any means.

Profitability Grade = C+

Run Line

For a standard single-game bet, you’ll be backing one team or another to win the game outright.

A 10-0 blowout or a 1-0 nail-biter, as long as you bet on the winning team, your ticket is as good as gold.

But some bettors like to inflate their payout odds by going for a riskier play – the run line. Think of the run line as a spread of sorts, like you’d find in football or basketball games. With a run line bet – which is always expressed as either -1.5 or +1.5 runs – you’ll need your team to win by at least two to collect.

In a game like the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Miami Marlins, a standard bet on the contending D-Backs shows Arizona as (-135) favorites. But if you want to go for the gusto with a run line bet, you’d need Arizona to win by two or more runs to enjoy odds of (+140).

On the flip side, the underdog Marlins are (+115) on the standard bet, but when given the +1.5 run line, they drop to (-170) favorites.

All things considered, a run line bet is simply a prop designed to level the playing field between two disproportionately talented teams.

But in a game like baseball, where margins are usually razor thin and a fair share of scores wind up separated by just a single run, these bets can be tricky.

Just ask Osborne from OddsShark, who arrived at the following conclusion based on the previously mentioned data:

“If you applied the same criteria to doing $50 runline bets, you’d be in the hole -$590!”

That’s right, even if you cut the bets in half from $100 to $50, trying to target MLB favorites with a run line wager produces a nearly $600 loss, rather than the almost $200 in profits gained by single-game betting.

Profitability Grade = C-

Adjusted Run Line

If you thought run lines were risky, just wait until you fire your first adjusted run line bet.

This special prop simply takes the run line concept and, well… runs with it.

Using the same example, you can flip the standard run lines by giving the favorite D-Backs the benefit of +1.5, but this drops the odds to (-250). You might also give the Marlins a -1.5 hole to climb out of, but if they do, your odds swell to (+190).

Clearly then, adjusted run line bets are for the risk-takers out there who enjoy taking the contrarian side.

You’ll even find several sets of adjusted run lines for many games, such as -4.5 runs on Arizona at (+450) odds. Obviously, these are longshot larks that shouldn’t be taken seriously, but can be fun for a few bucks when you’re feeling lucky.

Profitability Grade = D

Over / Under (Total Game Score)

The bread and butter for baseball fans that prefer statistical analysis over fandom, Over / Under betting is all about the final score.

Also known as total bets, the goal for an Over / Under prop bettor is to predict how many runs the two teams will combine for.

For the most part, Over / Under totals for MLB action range from 6.5 runs on the low side, to 9 or 10 runs on the high side. When ace pitchers or lackluster offenses take the field, expect to see a low total on the betting board. Conversely, if a journeyman starter with poor stats is facing a powerhouse, the total should go high.

As a bettor, your job isn’t to determine which team will win the contest, but simply how both teams will perform on the scoreboard.

Because an Over / Under bet is a binary equation – meaning there are only two possible outcomes – the odds tend to be fairly level on either side. I’m talking about even money odds, or (-105), (-110), and the like.

You might see a (-130) or (+130) number attached, depending on the starting pitchers, weather conditions, and lineup news – but total odds don’t go much higher or lower than that.

Seasoned baseball bettors who have absorbed thousands of innings over their lifetimes are especially attuned to Over / Under totals. Indeed, the “wiseguys” in Las Vegas – a colloquial term that doesn’t mean mobster any longer, just a successful pro sports bettor – love to pound game totals when the perfect conditions arise.

Think about a day game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, with Clayton Kershaw facing off against fellow ace Madison Bumgarner. The sun is shining, two horses are taking the mount, and both offenses are scuffling.

For all intents and purposes, the total for a game like this should be somewhere in the 3-5 run range. But sportsbooks are hesitant to go that low (or high for that matter), so you’ll almost always see totals in the 6-10 run range.

Given the potential for a pitcher’s duel, piling multiple units on the Under of 6 runs on a Kershaw / Bumgarner matchup just makes sense.

On the other hand, even the most well-timed total bet can go awry when bullpens are involved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the starters do their job, creating a tense 2-1 contest that seems sure to send my Under ticket to the cashier’s cage – only for the closer to blow up.

If you can stomach an especially swingy ride, however, Over / Under total bets are among the most beatable props in the house.

Profitability Grade = B+

First Five Innings

One of the more interesting game props out there does nothing more than cut the game in half.

Remember those bullpen blowups I alluded to above? Well, you won’t be dealing with relievers nearly as often when you take the first five innings prop.

These bets are settled immediately after the final out has been made in the bottom of the 5th inning. In other words, the game is simply shortened to five innings, and whichever team holds the lead heading into the top of the 6th is declared the winner.

Typically, you’ll see odds on the first five innings closely match their counterparts for the full game. Thus, a Cleveland Indians team favored at (-120) to beat the Minnesota Twins in nine innings would be favored by (-140) to hold the five-inning lead.

One hiccup to watch for with this prop bet is the push, as many scores wind up tied through five innings.

You can dodge that fate, however, by taking the run line on a first five-inning game. Instead of the full 1.5 run advantage, first five-inning run lines are only 0.5 runs – just enough to ensure that there will be no pushes.

Profitability Grade = B-

Team to Score First

Unless you have an ace on the mound, a particularly woeful offense, or vice-versa, this prop bet is a pure crapshoot.

Baseball games are marathons, not sprints, but betting on which team will score first flips that dynamic entirely. You’re now in a tense race to 1-0, and any random play – from the classic “bloop and a blast” scenario to balking with a man on third base – can provide the margin of victory or defeat.

For the most part, bettors looking to pounce on a team to score first prop are trying to capitalize on very specific variables. A team with an especially productive leadoff hitter, or a ton of power from their 2-3-4 guys, are the best options for this wager. You can also try to target pitchers who seem to be slow starters, scuffling for a few pitches until they find their rhythm.

In any event though, consider this one to be akin to a coin flip, as you’ll likely win and lose your fair share.

Grade = B-

First Team to X Runs

This is another “race” prop, meaning bettors are trying to identify the team that will cross a certain finish line first.

In this case, the bookmaker will choose a specific threshold for runs scored (5 or 7 are the most common options). If you think one team has the inside track to scoring in bunches, the first team to X runs wager can be quite interesting.

When you identify a consistently productive offensive lineup – or a pitching staff that can’t seem to stop the bleeding – you’ll usually have a good lean on which team will pile up runs in a hurry.

Profitability Grade = B+

Margin of Victory

This interesting prop bet asks you to predict just how badly one team will beat another.

It’s one thing to correctly call the victor, but nailing their margin of victory is another beast altogether.

Most sportsbooks break this prop down into tiers, so you’ll see either team showing the following margins – 1-2; 3-4; 5 or more.
Obviously, taking the favorite to win by a wide margin isn’t that much of a challenge, which is where those tiers come into play. Say you envision the division leading Houston Astros to whoop the doormat Oakland A’s, so you fire on the 3-4 run margin of victory at (+420) odds.

The ‘Stros stake themselves to an 8-4 lead entering their half of the ninth, but a chance solo shot stretches their lead to 9-4.
When the game goes final at that score, your 3-4 run margin of victory ticket has turned into dust.

Owing to the difficulty of nailing score margins within two-run clusters, this prop is more volatile than most – but the payouts can be quite sweet when they hit.

Profitability Grade = C-

Player Props

As opposed to game props, a player prop is based on individual statistics alone – score be damned.

Bettors who follow particular players closely, or find themselves fully in tune with their team’s 25-man roster, gravitate toward player props.

Will Player X Hit a Home Run?

The old standard for player props asks a deceptively simple question – will a certain player go deep?

Of course, even the most prodigious sluggers in the game like J.D. Martinez – who hit four homers in a single game for the D-Backs last season – only go yard in less than one-third of their games. Knowing this, it can be a crapshoot to try and guess exactly when a big bat will mash his next tater.

You’ll typically see a team’s top power hitter tabbed for the home run prop, with odds of (+350) on “Yes” and (-400) on “No.”

Profitability Grade = D

Will Player X Record a Base Hit?

The exact same prop bet, only with base hits substituted for long balls.

This prop usually concerns leadoff men and contact hitters who boast a high average.

But like the homers, base hits are notoriously fickle, so these wagers tend to swing and miss just as often as they connect.

Profitability Grade = D

Will Player X Steal a Base?

If you’re a fan of the running game, betting on speedsters to steal bags can be a great way to add some fun to an otherwise boring game.

Teams don’t steal as often as they used to, but players like Dee Gordon and Jarrod Dyson still have their motors running.

Instead of examining the runners, however, try digging into advanced stats on the pitcher and catcher trying to keep them on first base.

Profitability Grade = C

Combined Hits, Runs, and RBIs for Player X

This prop is a full-game affair, asking whether or not a certain player will combine for more than three offensive stats – hits, runs scored and runs batted in (RBIs).

You’ll see odds of (+350) on “Yes” and (-350) on “No,” illustrating the difficulty of predicting this prop accurately.

One cool thing about the bet though is a player can win it for you with one swing of the bat by hitting any home run. Even a solo shot creates a base hit, a run scored, and an RBI, so try to target hitters with power on their side.

Profitability Grade = C

Most Hits, Runs, and RBIs between Player X and Player Y

Finally, one of the more entertaining props out there pits a pair of sluggers from either side against each other.

Take the best hitter from either team, and whoever accumulates the most hits, runs, and RBIs takes the cake.

Splits versus the opposing pitcher are crucial here, so try to bet against particular batters when they’re facing a starter who owns them.

Profitability Grade = B+

Conclusion

Baseball prop bets can be fun when you’re looking for a change of pace, but can they be profitable? As you can see, some of them are more likely to be profitable than others, but if you’re willing to do the statistical work you can find some that can offer long-term profits.

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