Plenty of books have been written on the topic of sports handicapping; few are worth the paper they're printed on. The list of worthwhile reads is a short one - Wong, Yao, Kellen are among the standouts. Most treatments of handicapping focus too much on the subjective side, filling their pages with fluff and generalized advice while avoiding the real nitty-gritty of handicapping. Worse yet, nearly all the gambling literature on the market is football-centric, leaving bettors of other sports short of worthy reading material.
Baseball, though, has had its share of coverage, particularly on the statistical side. The nature of the game lends itself well to analysis, and plenty of authors have tackled this subject, from the best-seller Moneyball to the works of Bill James, whose sabremetrics propelled him into a job in the Red Sox office. Unfortunately, relatively few authors attempt to take that statistical analysis a step further to predict outcomes for betting purposes. Michael Murray's Betting Baseball attempts to address the void for an essential handicapping text about America's pastime. What results is an excellent introduction for beginner handicappers, with an intelligent treatment of many of the important subtleties of betting on baseball that is worth perusal for even more seasoned bettors.
2008 marks Murray's sixth edition, and comes complete with updated statistics through the 2007 season as well as capsules on each team for the current year. The prose moves at a very accessible pace for readers of all levels, though Murray doesn't shy away from using statistics and formulas when necessary (which they very often are, when talking baseball). Murray delves into the math while keeping it simple enough to avoid overwhelming casual readers. The less intuitive formulas could use some more detailed explanation of the logic behind them (for instance, why does xERA multiply walks by 0.28, instead of, say, 0.31? And how did someone come up with these numbers?). Truly understanding the real-world basis of abstract formulas is key in determining their worth. To his credit, Murray breaks down calculations in a simple, stepwise fashion, which anyone versed in simple arithmetic should be able to duplicate without issue. He also provides a brief but effective tutorial in using spreadsheets, an essential skill for stat-based handicapping.
The book is organized more as a series of unconnected essays (32 in all) than as a complete work. This approach works well, as each chapter acts as a focused treatment of a topic over a few pages, easy to digest in a quick sitting. Murray is clearly versed in handicapping baseball, well-read enough to incorporate the thoughts of those preceding him while possessing a keen understanding of the statistical side of baseball and how those numbers can be used predicatively.
At its heart, this is a book about setting baseball lines. The formulation of offensive, defensive, and pitching ratings are described in detail. Murray briefly visits the seminal work of Bill James and his Pythagorean formula, and describes subsequent improvements. Finally, the contributions of other confounding factors such as home field advantage and weather are explained. In his chapter "Putting it All Together", Murray takes the reader step-by-step through setting a line by breaking down a real-life example. Murray keeps his ego in check and draws heavily upon many of the pioneers in the field, tying together their views with his own to craft a unique methodology.
A chapter on "The Physics of Baseball" provides the answers to many common questions regarding temperature and altitude effects. The section about ballpark layouts, among the longest in the book, breaks down each park's tendencies and provides useful maps to understand wind conditions. The book also serves as a brief compendium of recent baseball statistics. Six year win/loss histories with net moneyline profits are provided for each team. Park factors and over/under records are presented for the past five years for each ballpark. The chapter on umpire performance is extensive, breaking down the relevant stats for current officials and providing a brief description of each ump's tendencies.
What you won't find here are any get-rich-quick schemes or "foolproof" systems. Murray is experienced enough to know that those don't exist in the complex world of baseball handicapping. He suggests that profit-minded beginners focus on team totals, halves and props, where variables are limited. And while he admits baseball lines are evolving in accuracy, he also notes that sharp bettors "will always be one step ahead if the motivation to win is still there".
Where Betting Baseball succeeds is in presenting a fundamentally sound introduction to the intricacies of evaluating a baseball matchup. Reading this book won't turn profits overnight, but it is an excellent stepping stone for the reader to use in developing his own handicapping methodology. While perhaps challenging for complete novices, Betting Baseball is a good read for handicappers at all skill levels. Beginners get a solid foundation in the basics of breaking down an MLB match-up, while more experienced punters will find plenty of wisdom hidden between the lines.
Murray doesn't have all the answers, nor does he claim to. Betting Baseball is far from the final word on baseball handicapping - entirely too much material is out there, and more complete treatments of many topics can be found elsewhere. But as a primer to baseball handicapping, Betting Baseball is a worthy addition to your handicapping arsenal.
Betting Baseball is available at the Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas or through Amazon.com. This review refers to the 2008 edition.
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