Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Last Baseball Bet

The other day, rummaging through cartons in advance of a yard sale, I found a ticket for the only golf bet I ever made. It was a bet on Tom Lehman to win the 1994 Masters. Three months earlier, I had never heard of Tom Lehman, who was making the jump from the minor-league tour to the big-time. I watched him play several holes at Spyglass during the Crosby Pro-Am and liked the way he hit the ball, so I invested $10 on him at 50-1 odds. I got a great run for my money, as Lehman contended all the way, had a chance to win late on Sunday, and fell just short as Jose-Maria Olazabal won.

It reminded me of the last baseball bet I made, in 1995, the last year I lived in Las Vegas. I was never a big sports bettor, was never willing to do the homework and legwork necessary to find the best prices and the little edges a bettor needs to stay ahead and survive. After my first few years there--the early 1980s--I pretty much gave up betting altogether. I did come out of the woodwork in 1990 when my Reds went to the World Series, and made a small score when they swept the A's. After that, I rested on my laurels. Until 1995.

It was around that time when I first heard about the notion of monitoring umpires and tracking how many runs were scored when they worked behind the plate. The theory was that with an increasing tendency of umpires to create "their own strike zones," some were becoming known as "pitchers' umpires" and some as "hitters' umpires". By identifying the most extreme strike zones, you could find good bets on the over/under numbers. Simply put, you could bet on the total number of runs scored in a game. It didn't matter who won, just how many runs scored.

Was it possible that some umpires always generated high scores or low scores? I thought it might be worth checking out. As a wise gambler once said, "they can take your bankroll, but they can't take your theory." As the 1995 season began (a few weeks late thanks to the lingering strike begun the previous August), I made a little chart of umpires and began compiling data. My plan was to take the first two months to get enough data to spot the tendencies, and then take the plunge.

This research would be a lot easier today with multiple internet sources and other computer applications. I know that sophisticated gamblers were using computer programs to aid sports betting as early as the 1970s, but I didn't travel in that crowd. All I did was get the morning newspaper, check the box scores, and note the home-plate umpire and the runs. I didn't bother to track the betting lines or the starting pitchers to see how those factored into the totals, as I would today if I were pursuing this research.

Sure enough, some patterns did emerge in the first few weeks. There were a few umpires in each league who were calling low-scoring games, and a few who just happened to be behind the plate for slugfests. I was more interested in the slugfests. Why? When you bet the "over," your bet is always live until the last out. Many games that have little scoring early on have an explosion of runs once the bullpens take over. Just the other day, I found a box score at http://www.retrosheet.org/ in which a 1-0 duel through seven innings wound up with a final score of 11-10. If you bet the "under," your bet could be over in the first few innings. Psychologically, it is less stressful if you always have a chance to win.

With at least five or six games' worth of data for each umpire (admittedly a small sample size, but it was June and time to get in action), I looked for a good spot. All I had to do was find one of my high-scoring umpires working at first base, and the next day, when he'd be behind the plate, find an over/under number that wasn't too high and a matchup of pitchers capable of giving up runs in a ballpark that didn't punish hitters.

It took a few days, but I found my spot. Jim Joyce seemed to be one of the standout purveyors of high-scoring games. So far in 1995, he had worked the plate five times; the run totals were 7, 19, 17, 18, and 18. Beautiful! Whatever he was doing, the scores were sailing over any line that would be posted (except for games in Denver, the highest over/under number would be 9 or 9 1/2.

On June 7, Joyce was at first base at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees played the A's. Both teams had good offenses, and the first three games of the series produced totals of 16, 14, and 7. On June 8, the scheduled starting pitchers were Mike Harkey and Jack McDowell, with a combined won-lost record of 2-7. They were ripe for ripping, and I was ready to capitalize. I think the over/under number was 9. I invested $40 on the over and grabbed a seat in the sports book to take in what I expected to be plenty of action.

The action began early, as Geronimo Berroa drilled a two-run home run off McDowell in the top of the first inning. The Yankees got one of those runs back, but the A's scored twice more in the second. Ruben Sierra added a pair of solo homers off McDowell, and by the fifth inning the A's were ahead 6-2 and I felt comfortable. Sort of. Nothing happened in the sixth or the seventh, and as they headed to the eighth inning my ticket was not yet a winner.

In came a forgettable lefty named Bob Macdonald, and the A's broke through with two outs. Rickey Henderson scored when a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter made a wild throw on a relay play, making it 7-2. A Mike Stanley passed ball let in another run, and I was a winner! The Yankees scored in their half, and the final tally was 8-3. Oh boy! Was I brilliant or what!

Or what, it turned out. I cashed my winner (a $36 profit) and looked forward to the next morning's box scores so I could find my next target. I glanced quickly at the box score of the game I had watched--and got a major shock. Jim Joyce was not listed as one of the umpires. Nope. He went on vacation after the June 7 game. For most of baseball history, umps never got a day off. In the early 1990s, their union negotiated a week or two off during the season for each umpire. But nobody told me about that.

Today, of course, you can check mlb.com or other sites a little while before a game starts and see who will be umpiring. Not then, not for me. I was stunned to see that Brian O'Nora worked the plate in that 8-3 game at Yankee Stadium. Who the hell was Brian O'Nora? He was a minor-league umpire who occasionally filled in for a major-league cohort on vacation. As of June 7, 1995, he had worked exactly 33 major-league games behind the plate.

I just checked his record on Retrosheet. In 20 games calling balls and strikes in 1994, the average runs per game was 9.2. In 1995, his three starts behind the plate had produced totals of 11, 9, and 3. Hardly the conclusive evidence I required to pinpoint a tendency.

In other words, if I knew then what I know now, I never would've invested $40 on that game. I didn't know then, so I won my bet. But when I saw O'Nora's name in the box score, I got spooked. Suppose it had been the other way around? I would've felt like an idiot losing a bet because somebody went on a damn vacation six weeks into the season. It was an existential epiphany for me. Betting baseball was as absurd as everything else in life, and if I wasn't willing to invest the time and effort necessary to find out who was umpiring every game before it started, then I shouldn't be doing this at all.

Besides, my landlady apparently needed the $76 more than I did. So I retired from baseball betting on the spot. I suppose I could've limited my expertise to Jim Joyce. If so, I would've done well. He called 21 more games in 1995. In 13 of them, the score totaled in double figures. Those would've been winners. Once the total was 8, and once it was 7; those could've gone either way. Six times the total was 6 or less; I would've lost. Overall, that would be at least 62% winners, a figure any serious bettor would die for. In 1996, Joyce again had more than twice as many totals in double figures as definite "under" games. Hindsight says I could've made another killing.

But no. I decided to go out a winner. Why press my luck? Since then, I've limited my gambling to betting on myself, and I've been much happier with the results than I could have been from relying on a bunch of strangers.

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