Monday, March 16, 2015

How Could Gambling Permeate Baseball?

Last month, a tennis match in Dallas between Denys Molchanov and Agustin Velotti was marred by accusations of match-fixing. After Molchanov captured the first set, tons of money was laid on Velotti, who won the final two sets and the match. This incident was just the latest in a string of alleged fixed matches in professional tennis. That sport's match-fixing ills got me wondering about whether modern-day major league baseball might ever experience anything similar. As Ben Rothenberg wrote in the article linked above, "Given that it takes only one player to decide the outcome of a match, tennis is more vulnerable than most other sports to thrown matches." Still, it's worth pondering whether baseball could ever be prone to a gambling scandal, even in this era of mass media and widespread information.

While I doubt that any baseball players are throwing games under all of our noses -- like Springfield drinkers defying Rex Banner or something -- it's not totally insane to think that some form of betting could once again tarnish the sport. So what type of player would risk doing such a thing? What type of gambling would be most likely? Let's examine those and some other related questions. 

What gambling scandals have we seen in baseball history?
Whenever the topic of gambling in baseball is broached, 99% of people think of either the Black Sox Scandal or Pete Rose. However, the game has seen some other lower-profile scandals over the years. The ESPN Classic site outlines several of them, including legendary manager John McGraw winning money on his own team and accusations marring the late careers of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. However, most of those incidents happened generations ago, and there haven't been any betting scandals in the game since Rose was banned in 1989.

How has gambling affected other sports?
Even though baseball hasn't seen a gambling scandal in the past few decades, that doesn't mean sports fans haven't experienced plenty of them. In addition to the aforementioned tennis rumblings, hundreds of European soccer games have been deemed suspicious by Europol -- the European police -- in the last few years. But most of the suspicions are tied to low-level teams and leagues, who don't pay players the same tremendous sums earned by top-flight players. Closer to home, in American professional sports, the Tim Donaghy scandal looms as the largest. (Can you imagine if Twitter had existed then? How many players would have tweeted ill-advised rants aimed at the league office?) However, no recent professional players have been implicated in a similar betting case.

In college sports, gambling -- and especially point-shaving -- has permeated the NCAA for generations, with the 1978-79 Boston College episode remaining one of the most noteworthy. Such scandals still persist. Division I schools like UTEP and Toledo have been tied to betting misconduct in the past few years. Since players aren't paid for their services in college, they have much more incentive than pros to seek out illicit avenues of income. However, because of the much lower scores in baseball, point-shaving (run-shaving) would be much less possible than in basketball or football. Which brings us to our next question.

What types of baseball gambling are most prominent?
According to OnlineBetting.com, the most common baseball bets are money lines, in which the bettor simply picks the game's winner and earns different payouts based on the favorite and underdog. Over/unders and run line bets are also popular. Since each individual baseball player has a limited impact on a game's score, it's hard to concoct many scenarios in which one player could intentionally affect the run line (or over/under) in a meaningful way. It would take a confluence of planning and luck to even give a player the opportunity to impact either type of bet.

Photo via baseballhotcorner.com
How would a modern-day baseball player throw games?
Many baseball bettors favor betting on just the first five innings, which are usually the domain of the two starting pitchers. Barring a team-wide conspiracy on the level of the Black Sox, it would be hard to rig the score of those first five frames. However, on simple money line bets, it seems like relief pitchers would be the players most capable of deciding a game's outcome on their own. 

What type of player might be involved?
Lesser-known relievers could give gamblers the best bang for their buck. A well-timed hanging slider here, a wild pitch there, and a scrub reliever could conceivably throw an otherwise inconsequential game in September. However...

Would it be worthwhile?
Almost all the allegations of match-fixing in tennis have involved low-ranked players, who make peanuts compared to most professional athletes. For instance, Molchanov is ranked 174th in the world, and Velotti sits over a hundred spots lower. Molchanov has earned just over $300,000 in his career, making gambling a nice way to (hypothetically) pad his income. Most baseball players make millions of dollars a year. Even run-of-the-mill relievers make significantly more money than our country's best doctors. How much could a player feasibly earn gambling to make it worth it? Player salaries in MLB make it unlikely that any player would be stupid enough to risk it by gambling.

What about the managers?
Rose didn't get in trouble until he was managing the Reds, years after his playing days were over. Since managers make much less money than players (with very few exceptions), it makes sense that the old guys in the dugout might be more tempted to bet on the game than their players are. However, skippers have a much smaller impact on the game than even individual players. In a 2014 article about the mediocrity of most major league managers, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine wrote, "[S]abermetrics tells us that most dugout decisions barely have any effect on the outcome of the game. Furthermore, if we look at effects on player performance, it’s evident that hardly any manager can distinguish himself from his counterparts." Since even sub-optimal lineups or questionable pitching changes have little impact on the average game's outcome, it's doubtful that managers could be of much assistance to baseball gamblers.

What about the umps?
Here's where there seems to be a little room for foul play to penetrate our lovely little American pastime. On average, umpires start at a salary around $120,000, not a pittance but certainly not a significant enough deterrent to preclude the possibility of a gambling scandal similar to the Donaghy one. Despite the presence of pitch-tracking technology to hold them accountable, umpires can still have a meaningful impact on each game. On a recent episode of the Effectively Wild podcast, Grantland's Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus both agreed that umpires will not be forced to relinquish strike-calling duties to machines anytime soon. Therefore, the un-automated (and therefore somewhat subjective) strike zone will probably be a part of the game for the foreseeable future.

So even though the days of many umps having trademark strike zones seem to be numbered, an umpire still has the power to alter key moments in a game in order to affect the outcome for bettors. And just like Molchanov doesn't throw every match, if umps were strategic about spreading out their favoritism across MLB's long season, they could potentially get away with it.

However, the possibility of umpires fixing ballgames is definitely unlikely. Any noticeable deviation from the standard strike zone by an individual umpire would quickly raise red flags within the game. If that ump was acting alone, his biased behavior would probably cause his supervisors to either watch him more closely or relieve him of his duties. Incompetence would be that ump's undoing even if he wasn't directly tied to a betting ring. Moreover, the presence of replay challenges in baseball would make it difficult for an umpire to impose on the game in areas other than the strike zone.

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I don't gamble much, especially on baseball, so I might have neglected a few factors of which experts might be aware. The point of this exercise was simply to imagine some scenarios that might bring a tennis-like gambling scandal to MLB. Considering the factors that I've examined above, I find it highly unlikely that baseball might experience such an event any time in the foreseeable future. Players probably make too much money, managers have too little control, and umpires face too much accountability for any of those groups to fix the outcome of games.



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