World Series odds underestimate Braves

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

The Braves have won three straight National League East division titles, a number they hope to extend to four in 2021.

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

I waited all weekend for the betting markets to react to the Braves re-signing slugger Marcell Ozuna. I was still waiting on Tuesday afternoon. The Braves were 10-1 to win the World Series before signing Ozuna on Friday. They were still 10-1 after signing him.

Four teams have shorter World Series odds than the Braves: Dodgers (3½-1), Yankees (5½-1), Padres (8-1) and White Sox (8½-1). The Mets also were 10-1. The Braves kept the heart of their lineup intact and fortified their pitching after losing Game 7 of the 2020 National League Championship Series to the Dodgers. Yet bettors see four teams as more likely to win the 2021 World Series.

The PECOTA projections released by Baseball Prospectus are even lower on the Braves. That system predicts the Braves will finish fourth in the NL East with an 82-80 record. It forecasts the Mets to finish 11 games ahead of the field, with the Nationals, Phillies and Braves bunched together. If PECOTA is right, the Braves won’t even make the postseason.

PECOTA underestimated the Braves over the past three seasons and is doing it again. The betting markets were slow to catch on to the Braves, too. There’s been a correction as far as their odds to win the NL East — they were favored to win the division before last year and are favorites again — but they still aren’t getting much respect as a World Series contender.

I don’t get it. I think the market is much too low on the Braves. I wouldn’t pick them over the Dodgers. They won the 2020 World Series and will defend that title with a roster that’s even better. But I see the Braves as no worse than the third in the pecking order behind L.A. and the Yankees.

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The Braves needed more pitching depth to make it through a 162-game season and give them more postseason options. They achieved that by signing right-hander Charlie Morton and lefty Drew Smyly. The Braves have a strong rotation with those two and Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson.

PECOTA disagrees. Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus writes: “There are a variety of reasons that PECOTA is, in my estimation, undershooting the Braves, but the most important factor is that it sees their pitching much differently than the public does; notably, their ace Max Fried.”

Goldstein provides some sound reasons why PECOTA is skeptical of Fried and, to a lesser extent, Soroka. But even if both young pitchers regress a bit, Morton is a very good insurance policy as a good veteran pitcher. It’s also possible that Anderson can pick up some slack. I just don’t see the rotation as a big worry for the Braves.

Some other areas are potentially more problematic. The Braves probably could use another solid bat in the lineup so that Cristian Pache, a fine center fielder, doesn’t have the burden of producing at the plate. The bullpen isn’t as deep as last year. The defense isn’t as good with Ozuna in left field.

If the Braves don’t make more moves in those areas, they might be good reasons to believe they won’t win the World Series. Those weaknesses aren’t enough for me to place them lower than third on the list of World Series contenders. The Braves are so good that it would be an upset if they don’t make it back to the NLCS, where they would be a challenge for the Dodgers in a rematch.

Ozuna’s return means the Braves have every major piece of the offense that finished one run behind the Dodgers for the most in baseball in 2020. Better injury luck for Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies this season will make the offense even better. Freddie Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP, presumably won’t start this season recovering from COVID-19.

It’s plausible that the Braves will have MLB’s best offense. The Dodgers certainly can match them, and the Yankees probably can, but that’s it among World Series contenders. I see no more than four MLB teams with better pitching than the Braves. One of those teams, the Mets, always is waiting on an injury calamity, and another, Washington, lacks the scoring punch to be a contender.

The Dodgers are the only team that clearly is superior to the Braves. Los Angeles fell behind 3-1 to them in the last NLCS but prevailed because of superior pitching depth. The Dodgers have even more of it now.

The Dodgers reportedly have a pending deal with right-hander Trevor Bauer. He will be the third Cy Young Award winner in L.A.’s rotation, with Clayton Kershaw and David Price. Right-hander Walker Buehler might be the best of the bunch. The Dodgers are so flush with pitching that Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, who tied for second among the team’s pitchers in b-WAR last season, are projected to begin the season in the bullpen.

The Dodgers still have MVP candidates Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger in the lineup. Their depth took a hit when Kike Hernandez and Joc Pederson signed elsewhere, but both players had fallen out of favor while struggling to produce in 2020. Young slugger Edwin Rios, who homered twice in the NLCS, should flourish in a full-time role.

Weird things happen in baseball, but it’s hard to argue against the Dodgers as clear favorites to win the World Series. Chances are they will win the NL West again. In October the Dodgers again will bring quality starters out of the bullpen and send out a parade of sluggers.

Those 3-1 odds sound about right for the Dodgers. But the betting markets haven’t been good at identifying baseball’s eventual champion before the season.

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According to the archives at SportsOddsHistory.com, only five of 26 World Series champions during the wild-card era were the betting favorites on the eve of the season. Those teams were the 1995 Braves (4-1), 1999 Yankees (2-1), 2000 Yankees (2½-1), 2009 Yankees (5-1) and 2016 Cubs (6½-1).

It’s been much more common for long shots to win it all in the wild-card era (the 2003 Marlins, 75-1 to win the World Series before the season, were the longest of them all). And it’s not the case that a bunch of wild-card teams slipped into the postseason and went on lucky runs. Among the 10 World Series champions with 20-1 odds or higher in the preseason, six were division champions.

It’s just hard to identify the World Series champion in the spring. I think bettors are missing something about the Braves this year. They are a definite “buy” at 10-1 to win the World Series.

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