Success Rates of Preseason MLB Favorites Living Up to the Hype
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
This is the time of year when both the oddsmakers and baseball experts are pursuing a common hobby: trying to convince everyone of who's going to win the World Series.
Trust them at your own peril.
Above all, you must keep in mind that picking a winner for the World Series is a shot in the darkest dark that ever darked. Numbers can be crunched and specific scenarios can be predicted, but in the end it comes down to simple math: There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball and only one of them is going to win it all. Basically, you've got a 1-in-30 chance of being right.
There's also history to consider. Do the oddsmakers and the experts have a track record of success?
To the oddsmakers' end, the best I can do is a five-year sample size, as the only odds database I could find (SportsOddsHistory.com) only goes back as far as 2008. Odds from years past are either lost or have found the Internet's only secure hiding place, heretofore thought to be a myth.
A five-year sample size isn't ideal, but you'd be surprised how well it displays the futility of preseason World Series odds. A collection of expert picks from the last five years doesn't do much better.
SportsOddsHistory.com's database for 2008 features odds from April 2. Not exactly preseason odds, but close enough to the start of the season for them not to be swayed too greatly by the unfolding of MLB's 162-game season.
Here's a look at the Vegas oddsmakers' top five favorites to win the World Series that year and where they ultimately finished up.
|Red Sox||+475||96-57||Game 7, ALCS|
|Angels||+1,400||100-62||Game 4, ALDS|
Five swings, and five swing-and-misses.
The Red Sox were an easy pick to win it all in 2008 after having won their second World Series in four years in 2007. But 2008 proved to be a trying season for them, as they got only a combined total of 43 home runs from David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez and watched Josh Beckett's ERA rise from 3.27 to 4.03.
Though the Red Sox did make it to within one win of returning to the World Series, it took a comeback in the ALCS for them to do so. Their vanquisher was the Tampa Bay Rays, who started the season as a +15,000 long shot to win the World Series.
As for the experts, MLB.com gathered picks from around the baseball world on the eve of the 2008 season, with the notables being publications like the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. They didn't deviate too much from the Vegas odds, with the two main favorites being the Red Sox and Tigers.
But another team showed up in the predictions as a favorite to make it to the World Series: none other than the Chicago Cubs.
Not a bad pick given the fact the Cubs had won 85 games and made the playoffs in 2007. With the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez in their lineup and Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly leading their rotation, they looked good enough on paper to do it again.
The Vegas odds put the Cubs' chances of winning the World Series at +1,600, and the regular season went as planned. They went 97-64 and won the NL Central over the Milwaukee Brewers.
But then the Cubs got swept in the NLDS by the Los Angeles Dodgers because, well, they're the Cubs. Expecting them to win in the postseason is like expecting penguins to take flight.
In the end, it was the Philadelphia Phillies who won the World Series in '08. Their preseason odds of winning it all were +2,800, and only one publication referenced in the MLB.com link even had them going to the World Series.
So 2008 wasn't such a great year for the oddsmakers or the experts. One of them did better in 2009.
Alas, the database at SportsOddsHistory.com doesn't have World Series odds earlier than June 1 for 2009.
Fortunately, Examiner.com picked up World Series odds from Mandalay Bay in January of 2009 and kept them warm, presumably so I could come along and dig them out. How nice of them.
|Yankees||+220||103-59||Won WS in 6|
|Red Sox||+550||95-67||Game 3, ALDS|
|Angels||+800||97-65||Game 6, ALCS|
Well done, Las Vegas. Well done indeed.
It makes sense that the Yankees were such a heavy favorite to win the World Series heading into the 2009 season. After missing the postseason in 2008, they loaded up on talent by signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett to free-agent contracts and also trading for Nick Swisher.
It ended up being a romp for the Yankees in '09. Once they had possession of first place in the AL East in late July, they didn't give it up and ultimately won the division by eight games over the Red Sox. They easily dispatched the Minnesota Twins with a sweep in the ALDS and then took both the ALCS against the Angels and the World Series against the Phillies in six games.
So the oddsmakers had it right on the money with the Yankees. But amazingly, the experts didn't really go for them.
Only a couple of ESPN experts and only one of SI.com's experts had the Yankees pegged to win the World Series in 2009. Other Vegas favorites like the Mets, Red Sox and Cubs were favored over the Yankees by the experts.
But there were also quite a few picks for the Rays to return to the World Series in 2009, and this time to win it. The Vegas odds didn't deem this to be wholly unwise, as the Rays had decent +1,000 odds to win the World Series in 2009.
It didn't happen. The Rays won 84 games and finished third in the AL East in 2009. Their offense was fine, but the club's ERA rose from 3.82 to 4.33 thanks largely to a regression from James Shields and major regressions from Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine, who both dealt with health issues.
So the 2009 season is a case where the top Vegas favorite to win the World Series was the safest bet all along. Maybe the experts didn't flock to the Yankees precisely because they were the safest pick. After all, when it comes to predictions, it's the bold ones that stand out.
Consider 2009 to be a point for Vegas.
The following Vegas odds for the 2010 season are from February 15 of that year, right around the outset of spring training.
|Yankees||+325||95-67||Game 6, ALCS|
|Phillies||+650||97-65||Game 6, NLCS|
Once again, there were the Yankees. They had just won the World Series in 2009, they added Curtis Granderson and brought back Javier Vazquez in the offseason.
But things didn't go as swimmingly for the Yankees in 2010 as in 2009; they won 95 games and their pitching performed well enough, but their offense went from scoring 5.65 runs per game to 5.30 runs per game. Their home run total dropped from 244 to a pedestrian (tongue firmly in cheek) 201. Derek Jeter hit .270, the lowest full-season batting average of his career.
The Yankees were able to win the first game of their tilt against the Texas Rangers in the ALCS, but their doom was all but sealed when the Rangers won the next three and outscored the Yankees 25-5 in the process.
The Rangers had started the season as a +2,500 long shot to win the World Series. Appropriately, they were defeated by another +2,500 favorite: the San Francisco Giants.
But there were three ESPN experts who picked a dark horse to win the whole shebang: the Colorado Rockies, who had +2,000 odds to win the World Series in the preseason.
It seems absurd now, but at the time the gravitation toward the Rockies was sensible enough; they had gone to the World Series in 2007 and back to the playoffs once again in 2009 on the strength of a 92-win season.
The Rockies had a decent season in 2010, winning 83 games and finishing in third place in the NL West. They did score slightly fewer runs per game than they had in 2009, but the trade-off was a slightly improved ERA. They were in it until the bitter end, which was extremely bitter; the Rockies lost 13 of 14 to finish the season.
In all, the Vegas odds came close with the Yankees, but only a couple experts who made bold picks got it right.
The odds for the 2011 season are from March 31 of that year, right at the starting point of the regular season.
|Phillies||+350||102-60||Game 5, NLDS|
|Yankees||+650||97-65||Game 5, ALDS|
|Rays||+2,000||91-71||Game 4, ALDS|
|Rangers||+2,000||96-66||Game 7, WS|
You'll remember why the Phillies and Red Sox were the two favorites heading into 2011. The Phillies had added Cliff Lee to a starting rotation that already featured Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, and the Red Sox had added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to a lineup that was already loaded.
The Phillies lived up to the hype during the regular season. In addition to their 102 wins, they racked up a beastly 3.02 ERA. Hamels, Lee and Halladay all finished in the top five of the voting for the National League Cy Young.
It all ended in heartbreak. The Phillies were defeated in the NLDS by the Cardinals, who had +2,500 odds of winning the World Series at the start of the season. And St. Louis went on to win the Fall Classic in stunning fashion (Game 6 FTW!).
The Red Sox suffered an even greater heartbreak in 2011. They were baseball's best team for the majority of the season, but they were done in by a 20-loss month in September in which they were overtaken in the AL East standings by the Yankees and the Rays.
When that happened, many expert picks were shot out of the sky. Seven of CBSSports.com's eight experts had picked the Red Sox to win it all and the majority of ESPN's experts had picked them as well. Most of the others who didn't go for the Red Sox went for the Phillies.
After the Red Sox and Phillies, the trendiest pick to win it all in 2011 among the two publications was the Braves, who got one nod from CBSSports.com and two from ESPN.
This didn't pan out. Like the Red Sox, the Braves looked well on their way to the postseason heading into September, but they mustered just a 9-18 record that included a five-game losing streak to finish out the season.
Long story short: As far as the oddsmakers and experts were concerned, 2011 sucked.
The odds for last season are from February 10, right around the eve of spring training.
|Yankees||+600||95-67||Game 4, ALCS|
|Tigers||+800||88-74||Game 4, WS|
|Rangers||+800||93-69||Lost Wild Card|
There were the Phillies holding as steady favorites. They had won more games than any other team in baseball in 2011, and they still had that vaunted pitching staff.
But man did things go wrong. The Phillies were under .500 in April, and the writing was on the wall that it just wasn't their year when Halladay's immortal right shoulder developed a case of mortality. By the time the Phillies recovered in August and September, they had too much ground to make up.
The Angels were among the heavy favorites by virtue of their offseason spending spree. Arte Moreno dished out over $300 million to sign Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, giving the Angels a very strong team on paper. And this was before everyone knew that Mike Trout was basically a god.
The Angels played well for most of the season, but they were done in by a rough start to the season and a rough showing in August, at one point losing 13-of-18.
There was no consensual favorite to win the World Series last year among the experts, which may have been due to what happened the last time there was a consensual favorite to win it all. But between CBSSports.com and ESPN, the majority of the experts did choose to play it safe by flocking to the heavy Vegas favorites.
The trendy non-favorite pick was, once again, the Rays, who had +2,000 odds of winning it all. One of CBSSports.com's eight went for them, and seven of ESPN's experts chose them.
And for the record, I went for the Rays to win it all too. I recall that their pitching gave me the warm-and-fuzzies.
The Rays didn't have a bad season, winning 90 games and boasting the best team ERA in baseball. Their bigger issue was scoring runs, which was a tall task for them with Evan Longoria gone for much of the season with a bad wheel.
In the end, it was another team with +2,000 odds that won the World Series: the Giants. Nobody from CBSSports.com or ESPN had tabbed them to win it. Alas, I only had them tabbed to make it to the World Series. If only "close" counted in something other than horseshoes and hand grenades.
So really, nobody won in 2010. Except the Giants, of course, and whoever bet on them. Shame on them for not sharing their expertise with the rest of us.
Maybe I should say something grandiloquent here. Instead, I'll just skip right to the numbers.
The five tables above reference 28 teams. Of those, only one actually won the World Series: the 2009 Yankees, the heavy favorite that year. Elsewhere, only two made it to the World Series: the 2011 Rangers and the 2012 Tigers.
Of the rest, 15 didn't even make the postseason. That's more than half.
Among the 2008 experts referenced above, nobody got the World Series winner right.
In 2009, only one of SI.com's seven experts was right about the Yankees. Of ESPN's 21 experts, three got it right with the Yankees.
In 2010, one of USA Today's experts tabbed the Giants. One ESPN expert got it right, but this time the Worldwide Leader had 36 of them submit picks.
In 2011, none of CBSSports.com's eight experts picked the Cardinals, while all 45 of ESPN's experts whiffed on them.
Last year, nobody from CBSSports.com pegged the Giants to win it all. ESPN upped its prediction pool to 50 experts, and they all missed on the Giants as well.
What does it all mean?
Nothing we didn't already know—and that's that you can't predict baseball. Here's hoping that never changes.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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