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2011 MLB Over/Unders

Welcome to the 2nd annual edition of the MLB Over/Unders extravaganza. We’ll start with my regular intro to the column, and the process of picking Over/Unders, then get to this year’s picks.

A word of warning: I’m 5-0 lifetime (on actual gummi wagers…not quite perfect on suggestions). So if you believe in regression to the mean, feel free to short the hell out of these picks.

Every year around this time, I exchange emails with a smart baseball friend – we’ll call him Rollie. The conversation starts with me asking if Rollie has seen an updated list of Over/Under Win totals for MLB teams. A few days later, he collects his list, emails it to me, and we spend the next few days debating the most interesting lines. That conversation nets some of the most compelling baseball talk I’ll have all year.

The first year we broke down the lines, I found myself having to fight hard against my first problem as a baseball fan and writer: biases against lousy teams. Nothing brings out the fears and assumptions of a baseball fan more than hard predictions, with odds attached. What I learned was that you can’t look at the Washington Nationals and Kansas City Royals as uninteresting or even hopeless. The sharps that set the lines every year want to create attractive wagering possibilities on every team. They know that people will love the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and hate the perennial doormats. So they’ll adjust the lines accordingly to even out the action on both sides.

The second lesson learned was to always consider context. You might think that the Toronto Blue Jays or Baltimore Orioles look a little frisky this year. But they also play in the toughest division in baseball, and maybe in all of North American pro sports. So if you’re trying to pin down their expected results in any given year, you have to consider the environment in which they play, and baseball’s unbalanced schedule.

Last, and here’s where you can separate the novices from the true degenerates like myself who spend way too much time thinking about this stuff: You need to consider how each individual front office operates. Is the team aggressive in trading top veterans for prospects at the deadline if they fall out of the race, or even merely drop a few games behind? Or will it hold onto aging players a year (or more) too long, hurting its rebuilding chances but enabling the club to fare a bit better than expected every year? The former makes for a good Under bet, the latter’s usually worth an Over play.

This will be the fifth year I’ve reviewed the lines and made decisions accordingly. Now, I would NEVER EVER make an illegal bet on a sporting outcome – that would be terribly wrong. But if you’re planning to be in Las Vegas between now and Opening Day, there are some nice betting opportunities on this year’s slate. Since I won’t be in Vegas this year, I will be making my usual wager of gummi bears. They’re fruity, chewy and delicious!

One final word before we dive in: You will almost never see me take a team when the odds are sharply negative, nothing at -120 or worse, for instance (for you newbies, -120 means you’re betting $120 to win $100; +115 means you’re betting $100 to win $115). Baseball is rife with uncertainty, so best to focus on bets that (nearly) double your gummi output, or better. I’m not a big believer in diversifying either. Why make three bets you like and two you’re not sure about – potentially diluting your winnings or worse – when you can make one or two wagers with conviction? Finally, all things being equal, I prefer to take the Under. Aggregate odds tend to lean slightly in favor of Under bets anyway; plus, a whole season of schadenfreude is strangely satisfying.

My picks are below. The numbers in brackets represent projections made by FanGraphs’ Fan Projections, the CAIRO projection system, and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. The idea is simply that we have some numbers out there that you can compare to the Vegas odds in making your picks. As always, you’ll want to do some research beyond those big, broad numbers.

(Also, these are for GUMMI BEAR PURPOSES ONLY. I’m not looking for credit if you win so many gummis that you need a root canal, nor blame if you go into candy debt.)

With all of that in mind, here are my two favorite picks for 2010, plus one lower-confidence choice:

Philadelphia under 97 (90, 94, 90)…-105

Another one of my favorite betting principles: Never bet on extremes. It’s really tough to win 100 games, or lose 100 games. Players, teams, and phenomena tend to gravitate toward the center, influenced by what Bill James calls the Whirlpool Principle.

We needn’t rely exclusively on fancy statistical theories for this one, though. The Phillies lost a 5-win player in Jayson Werth. The latest on Chase Utley has the Phillies pondering ways to avoid surgery for a player who’s been top five in the game when at full strength. Dominic Brown broke a bone in his hand. The bullpen’s still a question mark. Jimmy Rollins‘ MVP season seems like forever ago. Ryan Howard is still the same beastly power hitter who’s highly vulnerable late in games against lefties and struggles defensively.

Even with one of the best starting rotations in a generation, there are too many risks here to assume an extreme season. The Phillies should still be considered (slight) favorites to win the NL East. But I’m not buying 98 or more wins. Short ’em.

Tampa Bay Rays Over 84.5 (87, 88, 85)…+115

The number on the Rays last year was 88.5, I recommended the Over, and they crushed it, posting the best record in the American League with 96 wins and claiming the AL East title. This year’s version isn’t quite as strong…but they should still breeze by expectations.

Rays GM Andrew Friedman often notes that the Rays never appear in the Winners column of columnists’ Winners and Losers off-season wrap-ups. To most observers, spending the most money and making the flashiest signings is how you get to be a Winner, cutting payroll makes you an automatic loser.

There are more reasons than ever this year to doubt the Rays, to be sure. This wasn’t just one or two personnel losses. Carl Crawford and his near-MVP-level performance, headed to the Rays’ arch rivals in Boston to boot. Matt Garza‘s gone. So are Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. Practically the entire bullpen turns over, with Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls all gone.

But the Rays have made a living off plugging in underrated players in key sports and reaping the benefits. Young power arms like Jake McGee and Adam Russell, along with better-than-you-think veterans like Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth (seriously, Kyle Farnsworth) have the peripherals to suggest future success. Reid Brignac is a better defender (and at least comparable hitter) when stacked against Bartlett. Jeremy Hellickson is a Rookie of the Year front-runner who might be better than Garza right now. Pena is one of the great personalities in baseball, but replacing a .196 batting average shouldn’t be too tough. Crawford is all but irreplaceable, but Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon signing for just over $7 million combined should help, at least on the offensive side.

Finally, the Rays do as good a job as any team of squeezing (ahem) The Extra 2% out of every possible move. Led by Joe Maddon and informed by a talented group of analytics experts and scouts, the Rays platoon, reverse-platoon, run aggressively (but intelligently) on the basepaths, and deploy unorthodox moves when necessary to regular squeeze an extra couple wins out of their roster every year.

The Rays are still a long shot to win their third AL East title in four years. But 85 wins? Very doable.

Los Angeles Angels Under 83.5 (79, 77, 78)…-105

Actually a very strong starting rotation with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro. But this is one of baseball’s worst offenses. The news that Kendry Morales is likely to start the season on the DL only makes the bet more attractive. Sure, projection systems always hate the Angels. But they have good reason to this year.