MLB Betting Report: First Quarter

Minnesota's sluggers have been hitting homers at a historical pace. Will they continue their offensive surge?

The Minnesota Twins crushed eight home runs yesterday on their way to a rout of the Los Angeles Angels, their second such game this season. The Twins currently sit in first place in the American League Central, much to the surprise of most of our staff, and they've outscored their opponents by 81 runs, second only to the dominant Astros.

Minnesota has been the biggest surprise in what has been an eventful first two months of baseball. There have been surprises and disappointments, as there are each year, but the Twins go beyond the typical surprise team from a betting perspective. Minnesota has been by far the most profitable team to bet on this year according to the money standings from OddsShark.

On the other hand, the Washington Nationals, a team expected to contend in the National League East this season (and was the predicted National League winner of yours truly) has managed to win only enough games to stay ahead of the lowly Miami Marlins in their division, and they've been the least profitable team according to the money standings. They’ve easily been baseball’s biggest disappointment this year, a title they’re defending after they missed the playoffs last season with one of the best rosters in the majors, behind a truly atrocious bullpen with the exception of Sean Doolittle.

So how will Minnesota and Washington fare for the remainder of the season betting-wise? The underlying numbers tell us the whole story.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins have been such a surprise because their offense wasn’t expected to be the top-scoring team thus far. Minnesota was in the middle of the pack offensively last season, and although they added the seemingly ageless Nelson Cruz, they hadn’t made flashy moves that foreshadowed this type of surge.

Minnesota leads the league in isolated power (ISO), which is slugging percentage minus batting average, according to FanGraphs. Collectively, they have a 39.2% hard-hit percentage, which proves that the increase in production is relatively sustainable, even if they don’t maintain this type of dominance for the full season. Cruz has continued where he left off with the Mariners, and new first baseman C.J. Cron is building off his first thirty-homer season last year with the Tampa Bay Rays with a career high in slugging percentage.

However, the most important hitter in the lineup in the Twin Cities is arguably Jorge Polanco, the 25-year-old shortstop who has already eclipsed his home run total from 2018. Polanco has already amassed three wins above replacement (WAR) in 46 games and might be an MVP candidate in a league without Mike Trout. His biggest improvement at the plate has been his discipline; Polanco’s walk percentage has increased from 7.5% to 9.8% in 2019, while his strikeout percentage has decreased from 18.6% to 15.1%. Polanco has also increased his contact rate outside of the strike zone from 71.4% to 75.0%, making it much more difficult for opposing pitchers to get him out.

While the Twins’ sluggers have been making all the headlines, Minnesota’s pitching staff has quietly improved quite a bit as well. They’ve allowed the sixth-fewest runs in baseball behind a deep rotation and bullpen. While some statistics suggest they might not remain amongst the best in the league for the entire year, such as their 76.1% left-on-base percentage (7th in the league) or their 12.6% home-run-to-fly-ball rate (26th), their unit will be consistently good behind ace Jose Berrios throughout the year.

Our model currently ranks the Twins as the fourth-best team in baseball, only behind the other-worldly Astros, consistently great Dodgers, and frisky Rays. Minnesota has been the most profitable team thus far, and the odds will surely be adjusted by sportsbooks as they continue to win. However, they’ll still likely be under-the-radar enough for bettors to glean value from games against public favorites, such as the Yankees and Red Sox.

Washington Nationals

Washington seemingly has a loaded roster every year since they’ve drafted Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, but they’ve never won a playoff series in franchise history. Even worse, they missed the playoffs last season and are currently sitting nine games out of first in fourth place this season.

While the situation seems dire for Nationals fans, Washington has actually had some incredible misfortune that is likely to regress as the season moves on. For instance, the Nationals’ pitchers have allowed the fifth-most runs, but their starters have more WAR than any other team. Obviously, there is some level of disconnect. Part of the reason is due to a struggling bullpen, but Washington has also allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .314, highest in the majors, and a left-on-base percentage of 68.8%, second lowest only behind Seattle.

The Nationals employ three of the top ten pitchers according to numberFire’s nERD score: Max Scherzer (first), Stephen Strasburg (third), and free-agent acquisition Patrick Corbin (10th). Washington’s pitching is their best asset to recover and contend for the division title. However, their hitting has underwhelmed with the exception of Anthony Rendon.

Washington’s core of Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner was supposed to be the reason that the Nationals would be fine without Harper, but Soto has regressed since his rookie season, and Turner has been injured for the majority of the season thus far, which has led to more plate appearances for backup shortstop Wilmer Difo. Difo has been awful, not even breaking .300 in slugging percentage, and he’s accrued -0.3 WAR so far.

Turner’s return should greatly help the lineup, since he replaces a below-replacement-level player, and our projections have Soto performing somewhere in between his stellar performance last season and this season’s slower start. If Washington’s pitching staff, especially the bullpen, can regress positively, they might not be out of the division race just yet. More importantly for bettors, their odds from game to game will likely be deflated, as the underlying statistics show that they’ve been underperforming. Bettors should take advantage of the Nationals’ woes as they’re likely to bounce back.