Feng: How gambling markets view Tigers, AL Central foes

By Ed Feng, Special to The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera has been a big contributor to the Tigers' start, leading the team in batting average, hits and RBI.

How will the Tigers finish in the AL Central this season? Can they make up the 6.5 games they trail Kansas City in the standings?

In a previous column, I looked at how the AL Central teams ranked according to expected runs adjusted for strength of schedule. You can find the latest rankings here.

Here, we'll use a different source of information to rank AL Central teams: the gambling markets. These markets give an expected record for each team, which we can calculate from a price on each game called the moneyline.

For example, Detroit opened at -175 against the Chicago White Sox on Friday night. This means one would have to bet $175 to win $100 (in addition to the return of the original $175).

This moneyline implies a win probability for each game. The $175 investment brings a total return of $275. Dividing 175 by 275 gives a fraction of .636, which implies a win probability of 63.6% for the Tigers.

Once the sports book set this moneyline, investors put money on both teams. This market activity moves the moneyline until the price closes before the start of the game. This closing moneyline is an accurate predictor because of the collective wisdom of people willing to put money behind either team.

To evaluate a team, I took win probability from the closing moneyline and added these numbers for all games to get an expected win total. The expected loss total is the number of games minus the expected win total. This market record shown below, as well as all other statistics, are through games on Saturday, June 28.

The records implied by the markets have some surprises for the AL Central. Let's take a look.


Market record: 38.3-35.7

Actual record: 38-36

The markets have accurately predicted the Tigers record so far this season.

It's interesting to look at how this market prediction has evolved month to month. When the Tigers got off to a hot 15-8 start in April, the market didn't get too high on the team. They gave an expected record of 12.3-10.7.

In May, the Tigers fell back to earth with a 13-16 record. The markets still predicted a better than .500 record at 15.0-14.0.

The markets weren't as optimistic on the Tigers in May as in April, which could have resulted from a number of factors. The Tigers were unlikely to sustain their run production from April in May. In addition, the markets could have adjusted due to the injury to Alex Avila, who had an impressive .342 on base percentage despite a .200 batting average.

Now, after almost three full months of baseball, the markets still tends to favor Detroit more than its opponent. This might seem nuts to fans that have watched the seemingly erratic play of the team, but it shows how the markets tend to stay consistent in their predictions.


Market record: 35.9-35.1

Actual record: 43-28

The Royals have been the darlings of baseball. With their 43-28 record, they have shown that their World Series run from last season wasn't a fluke. Eric Hosmer graced the cover of the June 1 issue of Sports Illustrated.

The numbers also seem on their side as well. They have a run differential of +56 through Saturday's games, second in the AL to Toronto.

However, the markets aren't buying into this hype, as they have predicted a slightly better than .500 record. The markets expect the Royals to come back to the pack in the AL Central.

Perhaps they see the problems with the starting pitching. The Royals starters have the fifth-worst ERA in the AL. By the predictive pitching statistic xFIP, their starting staff drops to 14th of 15 AL teams ahead of only Texas.

Eric Hosmer and the Royals are playing way above what oddsmakers are predicting.


Market record: 38.7-33.3

Actual record: 33-39

The markets have Cleveland as the best team in the AL Central. It's a stark contrast to their fourth place in the actual standings.

While starting pitching might sink Kansas City, it represents the best hope for a Cleveland rebound in the standings. Cleveland's starters have been striking out batters at a record pace, which gives them the best fielding independent pitching numbers (xFIP) in the AL.

However, Cleveland can't catch the ball. As a result, Cleveland's starters have the second-worst ERA, a shocking difference from their elite fielding independent pitching statistics. If new SS Francisco Lindor and 3B Giovanny Urshela can make the defense better, Cleveland can make a run in the standings.


Market record: 32.9-41.1

Actual record: 40-34

The markets do not see Minnesota as a contender for the AL Central, as the Twins have the worst expected record in the division.

The Twins have gotten extraordinarily lucky in the sequencing of hits, as the offense as clustered hits while their pitchers have scattered them. They have had the most cluster luck of any MLB team by a wide margin, and the markets seem to recognize this.


Market record: 35.9-37.1

Actual record: 32-41

It's surprising the markets view the White Sox as an almost .500 team.

They made big waves this offseason with the signings of Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. However, the White Sox are tied for last in the AL in runs scored this season.


As we approach July, the standings give the following rankings of AL Central teams:

1. Kansas City

2. Minnesota

3. Detroit

4. Cleveland

5. Chicago White Sox

The markets have quite a different opinion:

1. Cleveland

2. Detroit

3. Kansas City

4. Chicago White Sox

5. Minnesota

This is the same order of teams by win totals released by the Las Vegas Hilton in March. (Data courtesy of Joe Peta, ESPN guru of preseason MLB win totals and author of "Trading Bases".

After three months of the season, the markets haven't budged from their preseason expectations for the AL Central.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Have a question about the Tigers you want addressed in this column? Email Ed Feng here.