Author’s note: All odds are from DraftKings Sports Book. Gamble responsibly.
At the beginning of the season I wrote that betting the Rays at +375 to win the American League East was full of value. They had great depth, made some key offseason moves, and in a year that was bound to be unpredictable, they were going to have a much better chance of winning the division. Not only did the Rays go on to win the AL East, they did it by a comfortable seven games, tied for the largest margin in any division in baseball this year.
Now the Rays have made it all the way to the World Series, where they’ll be facing the preseason favorites: the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right now, with a little over 24 hours before first pitch, the Dodgers are at -200 to win the series, while the Rays are at +160. Those odds carry implied probabilities of 66.7% and 38.5%, respectively.
Fangraphs has the Dodgers winning the series 68% of the time, with the Rays winning it 32% of the time. According to those numbers, there’s a slight edge in betting the Dodgers here. Similarly, FiveThirtyEight has the Dodgers at 69% probability and the Rays at 31%. Unlike the Rays odds to win the AL East, there isn’t a whole lot of value in this bet, according to those numbers.
However, this is a matchup between the best team from the American League, and the best team from the National League. The only teams to reach at least 40 wins in the 60-game regular season. The Dodgers are probably the better team, but better by how much exactly? In a seven game series, I still think there’s value in betting the Rays at +160 or better. Here’s why:
The Dodgers have an amazing pitching staff, much like the Rays. They carried a 3.02 ERA throughout the regular season, which was the best team ERA since the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays were third in baseball this year in ERA, but at 3.56, their pitchers were more than a full half run worse than the Dodgers in terms of ERA. However, if you look at xFIP, the Rays come out on top with 3.94 compared to the Dodgers 3.99.
If you’ve watched the Rays for even a game, you know their pitchers have amazing strikeout stuff. Rays pitchers finished the 2020 regular season with a 25% strikeout rate, better than the Dodgers 23.8%. This may look a little different through this series, as Dodger hitters strikeout less than almost any other lineup in baseball, while the Rays find themselves at the other end of the spectrum.
Now that three rounds have been completed, we can also start to look at postseason stats with belief that they mean at least something. The Rays and Dodgers are even in terms of ERA so far in the playoffs, with both teams at 3.36. The Rays have pitched 16 more innings than the Dodgers so far, so the lack of off days would imply that the Rays pitchers have had a harder time. Even with the bigger workload, they’ve been extremely effective at preventing runs.
By a lot of metrics, the Rays were one of, if not the, best defensive team in baseball this season. They were top five in baseball in DRS (defensive runs saved), UZR (ultimate zone rating), and Fangraph’s Def (Fielding Runs Above Average + positional adjustment).
During the postseason, they’ve been incredible. The web gems have been shown countless times on highlight reels, but there’s also been some really consistent play from Mike Zunino and Willy Adames—two names that are written in permanent marker on the Rays lineup, despite not being the biggest offensive producers. The Dodgers have some great defensive players themselves (see Mookie Betts), but the Rays definitely have the edge here.
I’m not going to tell you that the Dodgers aren’t and haven’t been the better team this year. They have been. They’ve got a stacked roster that they’ve been building for over a decade, and it’s led to them accruing several division titles, and a couple of previous trips to the World Series. But, if you were looking for the best team in baseball this year that wasn’t the Dodgers, it’s the Tampa Bay Rays. They are the best team that the Dodgers have faced this season, and in a seven game series, there’s a lot of room for variance. This series is going to be good, and it’s going to be close. I expect the public to be on the Dodgers, but at this number there's bound to be some sharp money flooding in on the Rays before first pitch on Tuesday night. Taking them at +160 or better is a solid bet.
(Updated 1:00pm EST 10/20)
Now that these lines have been up for a few days, we can start to pull from market data. How do the public view these two teams in terms of betting?
Although it’s unclear where the “sharp” money (large wages typically placed by professional bettors) lies on Game 1 or the Series, we now know that at this point the public are backing the Rays to take an early series lead and eventually take home the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Oddschecker has provided data that shows nearly two thirds of all bettors are on the Rays, most likely seeing value in the plus money odds. Oddschecker spokesperson Pete Watt weighs in on what might be driving the market just hours before first pitch:
“It’s not immediately clear what the betting public are seeing in the Rays, and it may be a case of heart winning over head. Tampa’s wage bill is less than a third of Los Angeles’, and given that everyone loves an underdog and to see the big teams topple, perhaps it’s a case of optimism rather than calculation. Moreover, the first game of a series often sets the tempo and so it may be a case of hedging their bets on the Rays coming out the blocks faster.”