Tampa Bay Rays' Randy Arozarena
Tampa Bay Rays' Randy Arozarena during a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

BEFORE YOU BET – 2021 MLB PLAYOFFS

We are a little more than two weeks away from the playoffs beginning in baseball – in my opinion, the second-best sports postseason period besides March Madness. Every year without fail, there are huge moments, upsets and heroes that emerge out of nowhere. Just think of how much money you could have made if you’d had any inkling that Randy Arozarena was going to turn into Mickey Mantle for 20 games last October.

Unfortunately for bettors, baseball’s playoffs might also be the most difficult to predict. With so many in-game variables dependent on basically one player – that day’s starting pitcher, series outcomes are harder to handicap, because an off day from a good starter changes everything, no matter how well his teammates are playing behind him.

Looking over the current World Series odds, I saw a few factors that I thought should be thoroughly considered by bettors before laying their bets and as you might have guessed, starting pitching is a big one.

FACTOR 1 – WILD CARD OR DIVISION WINNER
This is a huge factor if you’re going to bet before the regular season has finished. This year’s Wild Card, unlike in 2020’s expanded playoffs, is only one game. That means that any team currently fighting only for a Wild Card appearance (and not a division title) has a 50% chance of being out of the playoffs one game later. So if the season ended today, that would mean that half of some really good teams like the Dodgers (+370 on BetMGM), Blue Jays (+1700 on BetMGM), Yankees (+1500 on FanDuel) and Red Sox (+3200 on FanDuel) will be eliminated after one playoff game appearance. If the Dodgers catch San Francisco to win the NL West title, then the Giants (+900 on Bet MGM) would be added to that group instead, despite likely winning over 100 regular season games and having the second-best record in the league.

On the other hand, teams like Houston (+550 on Bet MGM), the White Sox (+750 on FanDuel), Tampa (+800 on Bet MGM) and Milwaukee (+600 on PointsBet) are all but certain to win their division and skip the one game insanity altogether. That means they have a guaranteed spot in the Elite Eight, home field advantage in the first round and they won’t have to use their best starting pitcher and elite relievers to just survive the Wild Card game. Those are undeniable, seismic advantages that you would be foolish to overlook when laying your bet.

FACTOR 2 – HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
In the last few years, MLB has mercifully ditched the much-loathed idea of giving home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game, so it will go to the team with the best record of the two finalists, as it should.

In the first round, whichever teams emerge from the Hunger Games…er, Wild Card scenario will not have home field advantage in a five game Division Series. That means guaranteed extra travel than their opponents who will be home and rested, and there are scenarios where teams would have to travel several time zones to play Game 1 of an LDS right after having travelled the previous night to play an away game for the Wild Card. Keep a wary eye on those teams – that’s a rough 48 hours, no matter how good you are.

As for the division winners, Tampa seems like a lock to finish with the best record in the American League, giving them home field throughout the AL playoffs. Houston currently holds a three-game lead over Chicago for home field in their looming LDS matchup (actually four games – the Astros hold a tiebreaker over Chicago).

In the National League, whichever team wins the NL West appears certain to have the league’s best record and thus home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Brewers likely will finish second, meaning that whoever wins the NL East (it could be Atlanta or Philadelphia – betting on the Mets at this point is just lighting your money on fire) will have to face the Brewers’ vaunted pitching staff in Milwaukee three times out of five.

FACTOR 3 – WILDCARD GAME STARTERS
If you’re going to bet on a team that seems destined to appear in the Wildcard game, then you have to assume that team will try to set up their pitching rotation to have their best starter appearing in that game. Here’s who would likely take the mound for each team if everything worked out in their rotation.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

BOSTON – Chris Sale 3-0, 2.52 ERA (just 25 innings so far this season)

NEW YORK – Gerrit Cole 15-7, 2.75 ERA

TORONTO – Robbie Ray 12-5, 2.64 ERA

OAKLAND – Frankie Montas 12-9, 3.72 ERA

SEATTLE – Chris Flexen 11-6, 3.73 ERA

-looks like the AL Wild Card game will feature a must-see pitcher showdown if 2 of the 3 AL East teams make it, which seems probable at this point. Hard to predict a winner out of those three aces, though Sale and Cole have much more big game experience than Ray.


NATIONAL LEAGUE

LOS ANGELES – Max Scherzer 14-4, 2.17 ERA

SAN FRANCISCO – Kevin Gausman 14-6, 2.78 ERA

SAN DIEGO – Joe Musgrove 11-9, 2.99 ERA

CINCINNATI – Tyler Mahle 12-5, 3.59 ERA

ST. LOUIS – Adam Wainwright 16-7, 2.88 ERA

PHILADELPHIA – Zack Wheeler 13-9, 2.86 ERA

-What stands out here is the depth of the Dodgers and Giants’ rotations beyond their aces. The other four teams would be in serious trouble not being able to use their #1 pitcher until the fourth game of an LDS. Keep that in mind if you have a ‘good feeling’ coming over you about one of those teams.

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