Exhibition baseball may be meaningless, but you can bet on it

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole throws to first base a spring training practice drill.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Nothing about Gerrit Cole will come cheap, beginning with the $324-million contract the right-hander commanded to be the Yankees ace.

Cole is expected to make his first regular-season start for the Yankees, who could be the highest-priced opening-ay favorites in baseball history, next month in Baltimore. Even when Cole makes a start in spring training, the price is high.

And, yes, betting lines are attached to spring training games and the sportsbooks see business on a daily basis, whether MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred likes it or not. A year ago, Manfred objected to it and lost the argument.


“The action is relatively minor,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sportsbook director. “It’s small, but it’s better than nothing. On a Monday morning when there’s nothing going on, it’s good. On Saturday, when there’s college basketball, you don’t even know baseball is there.”

Cole will be one of the primary curiosities of the spring as he leads the rotation for the World Series favorites. The Houston Astros, Cole’s former team, have become public enemy No. 1 after a sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport and rattled the commissioner.

Andrew Friedman’s conservative hand with the Dodgers frustrates some fans, but managers under him — Dave Roberts and Joe Maddon — trust his judgment.

Feb. 24, 2020

“I pretty much follow every team about the same, but I guess like most people, I really want to see what’s up with the Astros this spring,” said Dave Cokin, a veteran baseball handicapper. “There might well be some benefit in trying to go against them in spring games as their focus has to be in question, at least in these meaningless games.”

Exhibition baseball is a handicapping challenge that a majority of public bettors choose to ignore. The standings are irrelevant, some games feature split squads, starters often make cameo appearances and the main goal for most teams is talent evaluation.

The amount of smart money in the market is minimal because books offer lower wagering limits on spring games — $1,000 per side is the guideline at William Hill and most other books.

Still, there are betting angles worth exploring, with the Astros’ distractions being one. VSiN analyst Josh Appelbaum noted wiseguys typically prefer to play underdogs.


Since 2005, spring training underdogs have posted a winning percentage of 46.2 as compared to 42.5% in the regular season, according to Bet Labs Sports. When wins and losses don’t matter, the playing field is leveled and it decreases the edge for the favorite.

“The key is betting these ‘dogs on the spread, also known as the run-line. This means betting the dogs at +1.5 runs, meaning they can either win the game or lose by one and you still win your bet,” Appelbaum said. “Spring training run-line underdogs are 61.8% since 2005. A $100 bettor taking each one would have profited $2,207. If they are also on the road, they improve to 64.4% (profiting $7,643). There is barely any home-field advantage in the preseason. Plus, games can end in a tie in the preseason, which would cash a +1.5 bet.”

UCLA’s Pac-12 winning streak has helped lift the Bruins to 8-3 against the spread in their last 11 games.

Feb. 24, 2020

Cokin said he bets only a handful of spring games and might play none in the first week.

“I’m mostly looking for lineup edges where one team is at least starting most regulars, and the same with likely pitchers,” Cokin said. “It’s getting tougher to play these games, though. Used to be, most of the games would all be priced pretty much the same. But with the lineup information now widely available, numbers are getting adjusted very quickly and it’s not uncommon to now see much bigger prices on games where there’s a talent edge in who’s going to be playing.”

Cole was set to make his Yankees debut Monday at Tampa, Fla., and William Hill listed New York as a -200 favorite over Pittsburgh. The Yankees were the biggest favorites of the day, when most games were lined around -120. The Dodgers were -180 against the Chicago White Sox.

“Even in preseason, the Dodgers and Yankees are big favorites. It’s a sign of things to come,” Bogdanovich said.

With the expectation that Cole will open the season as the Yankees starter on March 26, the Westgate SuperBook has posted a look-ahead line of New York -450 at Baltimore.


“I’m 99% sure there never has been an opening-ay favorite that big,” said Chris Andrews, South Point sportsbook director.

It’s a sign of things to come for Cole and the Yankees.

“This year, you’re going to see some of the most insane numbers for baseball favorites,” said Westgate baseball oddsmaker Ed Salmons. “There are so many bad teams, and imagine when a team like the Orioles throws their worst pitcher against Cole, who was unhittable last year. He’s in a different league.”

A year ago, Manfred directed a request to Nevada and other states to ban betting on spring training games. A key portion of the MLB statement on its stance — “These games are not conducive to betting and carry heightened integrity risks, and states should not permit bookmakers to offer bets on them” — exposed a failure to understand the protections built into legalized sports-betting markets.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board denied MLB’s request, and Bogdanovich said William Hill continues to book spring training games in the other eight states in which it operates.