Why it’s time to start betting on the Diamondbacks

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The Arizona Diamondbacks are the worst team in baseball. Or, at least, that seems to be the public consensus based on recency bias. After all, they had lost 17 straight games entering Monday — before defeating the Brewers, 5-1. They have not been favored by betting markets to win a game in nearly three weeks. They had a .274 win percentage this season. Over the previous 17 games, Vegas odds have given them a combined 38.9 percent chance to win, on average. And over the last week, that dropped to 36.5 percent.

So why am I talking about a team that is obviously awful? Because it’s not. Arizona is, in fact, the unluckiest team in baseball at the moment, and the unluckiest we’ve seen in quite some time. If they were to finish the season at that .274 win percentage, they’d lose 118 games. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, only three teams have lost 118 or more games — the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (134), 1962 Mets (120) and the 2003 Detroit Tigers (119).

David Peralta (left) of celebrates scoring with Ketel Marte.
David Peralta (left) of celebrates scoring with Ketel Marte.
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Even at the recent Vegas projected win rate, they’d still lose 100 games — no easy feat. So, the question is: Are we confident, after just a couple months that the Diamondbacks are one of the worst teams that have ever played the game? The only rational answer is no. This isn’t an all-time bad team. It’s a bad team that is also getting very unlucky.

Collectively, Diamondbacks players are underperforming their actual talent level due to random variance over a small sample size given the historical stats each player has put together.

Over the rest of the season, my projection system, THE BAT X, projects Arizona with a .440 win percentage. FanGraphs says .447. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA says .465. That’s literally double their current win rate, and would make them only the sixth- or seventh-worst team in baseball over the rest of this year (forget about all time). If you average the three together, it would mean pacing 89 losses per 162 games instead of their current 118-loss pace.

A .450-or-so win rate would also be quite a bit higher than their recent Vegas implied win rates. And that means value. Nobody likes to bet on bad teams. Nobody wants to make a bet that looks and feels ugly. But that’s exactly why there’s value on these types of bets sometimes. When the public would rather bet on the opposite side, the lines are shaded in that direction, leaving enticing odds on the ugly end.

You might argue, “Well, OK, maybe they’ll get better eventually, but they’re on such a cold streak you can’t possibly bet on them right now.” Except you absolutely can. Cold streaks have marginal utility on the player level, and on the team level they’re utterly irrelevant. No predictive value on the next game whatsoever. None. The only thing it impacts is the actual odds, because lines are set partially by public perception.

The perception of the Diamondbacks right now is that they are utter, stinking garbage, the kind of garbage even Oscar the Grouch wouldn’t go near. But they aren’t utter garbage. They’re run-of-the-mill garbage! And run-of-the-mill garbage still wins 4.5 out of every 10 games.

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