MLB Foreign Substance Ban: How Should Bettors React?

Posted By Mo Nuwwarah on June 11, 2021

Crashing levels of offense across MLB have led some to label 2021 the modern ‘Year of the Pitcher’.  But, something sinister appears partially behind the hurlers’ collective success. Will the impending MLB foreign substance ban affect betting markets for the remaining 2021 season?

TheLines posed that question to a few sportsbook operators. We’ll see what they had to say and how the betting stats have shaken out this year for some prime suspects.

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What Exactly Is Going On?

For those who haven’t been paying attention, rule 6.02(c) forbids pitchers from applying foreign substances to or defacing the baseball.

Rampant use of sticky substances has become normalized, though.

These allow the pitchers to get a better grip on the baseball and increase their spin rate and, potentially, even their command. Numerous studies have shown a clear positive correlation between spin rate and pitcher performance.

To wit, just today, an article on FanGraphs “bucketed” four-seam fastballs by velocity and spin rate and laid out how the results of said fastballs improve when velocity remains constant but spin increases.

The league took a laissez-faire attitude toward policing the rule. Managers who would ordinarily demand action from umpires knew full well their own pitchers were cheating, too. So, a sort of unwritten agreement took hold that resulted in even more cheating.

Just how widespread has it gotten? The most comprehensive reporting has come from Sports Illustrated with a source there estimating “80-90%” of pitchers are guilty.

Well, the league won’t stand by and watch idly any longer. The MLB batting average has sunk to an anemic .237, tied for the worst in history with 1968. That season led to the mound being lowered, and this one will result in random inspections of pitchers, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. Rule changes could come into effect as soon as June 14.

Is this longshot the value play in NL MVP markets?

Will The MLB Foreign Substance Ban Affect Betting Markets?

How are sportsbooks reacting to this news? Are they ready to boost totals slightly across the board? Are certain pitchers or teams under the microscope and in line for an adjustment?

The short answer appears to be no.

TheLines reached out to multiple operators to see how they planned to react to the news. BetMGM sports trader Darren Darby said it “would not have an impact on day-to-day handicapping.”

The most comprehensive answer came from Michael Korn, sports analyst at PointsBet.

“From a sportsbook’s perspective, this is a wait-and-see situation where we’d prefer to be reactive versus proactive, letting the data compile and trends develop to point us in the right direction on potential adjustments,” he said. “We believe the crackdown of foreign substances used by pitchers will have an impact — probably minimal, but just how big of an impact, only time will tell — so this is an area we’ll be keeping our eye on in the coming months.”

How Have Alleged Offenders Done In The Betting Markets?

The reporting from SI singled out one team as the chief offender in doctoring the baseballs: the L.A. Dodgers. They had the largest year-over-year jump in spin rate.

However, if the Dodgers have cheated their way to glory, it hasn’t been reflected in the betting market thus far in 2021.

Through June 9, there hasn’t been an edge to be found by blindly clicking Dodgers every game. In fact, just the opposite. Despite their 36-25 record, betting the Dodgers every game would have resulted in about -7 units, owing to their frequent status as large favorites.

What about specifically betting on Trevor Bauer? The No. 1 name associated with massively increased spin after he called attention to the phenomenon himself, Bauer has found a home with the Dodgers and continued to crush.

There, too, no obvious betting red flags exist. The Dodgers have gone 6-7 in Bauer’s starts for -5.28 units.

Perhaps the operators are onto something with their unwillingness to commit to an adjustment. Caution does appear warranted as far as a sportsbook’s reaction.

That’s not to say bettors should assume there’s nothing actionable happening, though. For instance, another pitcher who has been under the microscope is the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole. His first start in June saw a widely-reported drop in spin rate as the Yankees, -200 favorites, lost 9-2 to the Rays.

Cole blamed his mechanics and returned to his usual stellar — and high-spin — self in a win over the Twins.

MLB bettors should keep an eye out for changes in pitchers that may portend a drop in true talent level. If they can adjust faster than the books, they may be able to find some profitable bets.

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