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Buy or sell: Will these first-half MLB lessons hold true all season long?

·7 min read
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The first half is done, and MLB’s 2021 season will restart with a Yankees-Red Sox series on Thursday.

Baseball reminds us time and again that small samples are not to be believed, so the lessons we seemingly learned in the first half could still be flipped on their head by the fall.

With that in mind, we took a look at five trends that have registered in BetMGM’s odds, and whether you should sell them as first-half memories soon to be forgotten, or buy them as truths to take to the bank.

Jacob deGrom will sweep Cy Young and MVP with a historic ERA

Buy … mostly. What Jacob deGrom is doing for the New York Mets seemed impossible before he started doing it, so you won’t find me naysaying his ability to eclipse Bob Gibson’s all-time best 1.12 ERA mark. Still, his past three starts illustrate the absurd degree of difficulty in breaking this record.

Heading into his June 26 start against the Phillies, he was carrying a mind-boggling 0.50 ERA with 72 innings under his belt. Piece of cake!

Beginning with that start against Philadelphia, though, he’s gone 6 innings, 7 innings and 7 innings giving up two, three and two runs. That would count as an excellent stretch of pitching for virtually anyone else on Earth, but for deGrom it meant his ERA “ballooned” to 1.08.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 10: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)  Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets has a laugh before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field on July 10, 2021 in New York City. The Pirates defeated the Mets 6-2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom is on pace to threaten Bob Gibson's ERA record. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

So that’s to say, breaking Gibson’s record is going to be dicey, but deGrom may not need to actually break it. A reasonable chase that keeps the baseball world intrigued through the summer could be enough to join the elite list of pitchers to win MVP awards, most recently accomplished by Clayton Kershaw in 2014. Right now, deGrom is the NL MVP favorite at BetMGM with -110 odds. (He's a mortal lock for the Cy Young at -1000.)

The chief competition for MVP is Padres wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr., who has +120 odds at BetMGM. He’s already tallied 28 homers and 20 steals despite dealing with a balky shoulder. To stay ahead of Tatis Jr.’s video-game, create-a-player come-to-life routine, deGrom probably needs to seize on the allure of history. His 99 mph fastball, almost 2 mph faster than any other starter’s, and a slider that ties the world’s best in knots, say he is up to the task. Even if the actual ERA falls short of the record, he still may be adding bold ink to his Baseball-Reference page if he tops Pedro Martinez’s all-time mark for adjusted ERA.

That record stands at 291, and deGrom is sitting at 363 — or 263 percent better than the poor average pitcher who has to pitch in the same league as him.

This is what a peak Barry Bonds season would look like for a pitcher. That is likely to be rewarded. 

The preseason favorite Braves are toast …

Buy. This is not through the fault of the players still playing — many of whom are performing as well as we expected or better. The Braves, who had +1000 World Series odds at the beginning of the season, have just been absolutely decimated by injury.

The biggest blow came last week when all-around superstar and MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. went down with a torn ACL, and its impact seemed immediately apparent to all involved. But even before Acuna’s devastating injury, Atlanta was running on fumes. Starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud is injured, left fielder Marcell Ozuna is both injured and facing domestic violence charges, young pitcher Mike Soroka will miss the whole season after re-injuring his Achilles tendon, and now 2020 postseason hero Ian Anderson is getting his shoulder examined. 

At this point, they are rolling out a cavalcade of middling journeyman around Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman and their World Series odds have collapsed to +3500 as hopes of catching the Mets fade.

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge during a baseball game against the Houston Astros Friday, July 9, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Can Aaron Judge lead the Yankees back into the postseason picture? (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

… and so are the Yankees

Sell. Things are not going well for the Yankees — their World Series odds have gone from +550 to +2000 since Opening Day — but it’s not as dire as the Braves’ situation, and I’m not ready to count them totally out.

The AL wild-card race is still within orbit for the Yankees, but they will need to get moving. There are essentially four teams for two spots, with the Oakland A’s and the runner-up in the AL East (likely the Tampa Bay Rays) being chased by the Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. By FanGraphs’ playoff odds, the Yankees have the next best chance at October, still all the way up at 40.8 percent. (The Mariners have a deceptively feisty record but peripheral stats that indicate they likely won’t remain in contention.)

“Bronx Bombers” has once again been a somewhat appropriate moniker recently, as the Yankees have MLB’s seventh-best offense since June 1 by FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric after slumbering through the first two months with below-average bats.

Their recent crisis has sprung from Aroldis Chapman blowing saves, but that is not overly likely to continue, and that well-stocked bullpen probably has answers if Chapman’s hold on the ninth were to become untenable.

New York’s positioning had greatly eroded, but 4.5 games is not enough to torpedo a mostly intact favorite just yet.

The Astros are now the team to beat in the AL

Buy. Houston has edged ahead of the White Sox as favorites to win the AL pennant at BetMGM, with +225 odds compared to Chicago’s +325. This is essentially a matter of the best lineup vs. the best rotation. The Astros offense is an unstoppable force, and so far the White Sox rotation has been an immovable object.

The trick is trying to gauge future injury luck. Houston has dealt with plenty, and the White Sox have suffered major offensive losses, but kept a sterling pitching staff remarkably healthy. That may wind up being a wash, so the consistency of Houston’s bats is the more reliable bet for now.

The Giants (+1600) are the best long-shot World Series pick

Sell. So, despite carrying baseball’s top record, oddsmakers still don’t believe the Giants can win it all. And yes, San Francisco’s surprising brigade of resurgent ring-toting dads and out-of-nowhere late bloomers is probably the longest shot with a real chance at taking the title. They are certainly the most compelling underdog story of the season.

But if you want to put stock in a team with World Series odds longer than +1000 at BetMGM, may I suggest the Milwaukee Brewers (+1300). The Tampa Bay Rays (+1400) and Boston Red Sox (+1000) are both worthy candidates as well, but the Brewers have a crucial advantage: less competition in the division, and therefore a far greater chance of avoiding the wild-card game. 

Milwaukee trots out a roster built for October success in the same mode as the mid-2010s Cleveland teams spearheaded by Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller and piloted by Terry Francona. Three of the 11 best ERAs (among pitchers with at least 80 innings) reside in the Brewers rotation in Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. By Baseball Prospectus’ more advanced performance DRA metric, Woodruff and Burnes have been the two best pitchers in baseball not named deGrom.

Meanwhile, closer Josh Hader remains dominant and Devin Williams has a 2.28 ERA since May 1 after experiencing turbulence at takeoff as reigning NL Rookie of the Year. Now up to an 80.6 percent chance of sailing into the division series, by FanGraphs’ estimation, the Brewers have a winning October formula ready to go for when they get there.

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