You like to make sports predictions, I like to make sports predictions, we all like to make sports predictions. How many games will the Tigers win this year? Who will win the AL Central? What teams will be facing off in the Fall Classic, and who will win the World Series?
But what if you had actual money and/or personal employment riding on your speculations? How sure would you be of your "can't miss picks" if there were hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake?
Steve Mikkelson has been putting his private prognostications up for public scrutiny as the sportsbook director for Atlantis Casino in Reno for the last seven-and-a-half years (although he's been in the oddsmaking business since 1987), and he has the distinction of being first-to-market with odds on MLB team win totals anywhere in the world for the last ten years.
"I'm a huge baseball fan," he admits, "so I actually like that little lull after the Super Bowl -- we come out with our baseball regular season win totals, but then you also have pitchers and catchers showing up ... my favorite time of year is always the end of the college basketball tournament and Opening Day of baseball."
Vegas odds are seriously undervaluing the Tigers
The Tigers did a disappearing act in 2015 after winning the division in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Why has the baseball world so quickly forgotten that this team is the long-time Dominator of the Division?
While it seems like risky business to be the first man on the front line of setting win totals for each baseball team, Steve believes he's good enough at what he does that there's reason for confidence. "I believe I follow baseball as close as most fans," he tells me, "so I'm not feeling like I'm sitting that far out on the limb ... I do take a little pride in it, I'm very comfortable and confident in our numbers."
Of course, Steve enjoys the benefit of being able to measure his success not so much by how accurate his predictions are, but by how much profit he turns for Atlantis. But make no mistake -- he's not usually wrong: "Historically speaking, I will get more right than I get wrong, and [Atlantis] has always made money ... I take pride in the fact that, yeah, there are some [totals] that I miss by a lot, but there's a decent amount that I am really close to that exact number."
If you were going to guess at how many games the Tigers are going to win in 2016, what would you base that answer on? Would you go with a gut feeling, heavy statistical analysis, maybe a blend of the two? Even as recently as a decade ago, casino oddsmakers would read the sports section of the paper, check the injury reports, and rely on personal knowledge gleaned by watching teams play day after day.
But in 2016, the business has changed, and big data plays a much larger role. "Foremost, you have to be a huge baseball fan," Steve reveals. "I watch as many games as I can, but year-round, I read Rotoworld, and I'm in a couple different fantasy leagues -- I'm never in them to win it, I want to be in the leagues where I can turn my roster over every single day because it forces me to look at how the players are doing at that current time ... I'm in there for a handicapping purpose, to help me with my job."
But even beyond the job requirements, Steve has always been a bit of a baseball geek: "In the past I've read Baseball Prospectus cover to cover for enjoyment ... most people look and go 'That's 800 pages of boring information,' but I actually enjoy it ... I look at all of this stuff. The Super Bowl ended, and I can tell you Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, this is all I did from the time I got up until the time I went to bed, getting ready to release these [win total] numbers on Thursday."
If you're reading this right now, chances are pretty good that you're already a slightly obsessed Tigers fan, and with that allegiance comes a certain bias. For someone like Steve, however, team analysis is slightly more objective. So how does a guy whose job is to analyze all the MLB teams rate the Tigers in 2016?
"To me, there are too many questions, and it's hard for me to go above that 85 wins when I have these questions, because if Cabrera goes down again, it really sets this lineup back -- and if Verlander is like he was an year-and-a-half ago, where he's not throwing strikes and struggling ... and Anibal Sanchez continues to give up the home runs like he did last year, this team's not going to go very far ... is Anthony Gose ever going to figure out how to hit a lefty?"
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Steve was willing to give a higher payout to bettors taking the over-85 total, offering 95 cents on the dollar, but only paying 87 cents on the dollar for betting the under-85 total. A gutsy move, or so I thought to myself, but Steve explained the delicate balance between predicting real-world probabilities and crafting a wager that would appeal to the general public.
"When I hung that number," Steve says, "I think they're 85, I think they can easily win this division, but the perception from the public is they're not going to get to 85, so I anticipated the public would initially bet the Tigers under because they only had 74 wins -- and they're not looking at the big picture, they're just going, 'oh, [Atlantis] is saying they're going to win 11 more games than they did last year, they're terrible, they're not going to' -- so that price is based on the perception and I can tell you, the first bet we took on the Tigers was on the under ... but I think it's going to go back up, I think 83.5 is too low."
Whether or not the Tigers get past 85 wins is probably of less importance to the fans than whether the team can find a way into the playoffs and go all the way to the World Series. As far as Steve is concerned, he's picking the Giants to win it all, and once again it goes back to how many question marks surround any given team: "I came out with the Giants as a [World Series] favorite even before I came out with my win totals," he says. "I believe the Giants on paper have the best 25-man roster with the least amount of questions ... they brought in Samardzija and Cueto to go with Madison Bumgarner, and there's not a whole lot of questions with that lineup."
When it comes to picking World Series champs, Steve knows a thing or two. Where other sportsbooks got hammered on the Kansas City Royals in 2015 by underestimating that team's value, Steve saw it coming: "I was high on the Royals the last couple of years, my [projected] season win totals were definitely higher than other places -- the Royals didn't get enough respect ... I believe in sabermetrics, but I believe there's an eye test to it that you also have to look at, and I just don't think the Royals match up with the sabermetrics."
I choose to remain optimistic about the Tigers, of course. Although there may be more teams, such as the Giants or Cubs, who have fewer question marks surrounding them, I'll just focus on the fact that the expert from Reno said that he thinks the Tigers can win the division. After that, as any casino will tell you, it's up to Lady Luck what happens next.