By Eric Clark
The Chicago Cubs opened their offseason with 40-to-1 odds to win the 2015 World Series – and then they started making waves.
The club fired manager Rick Renteria, hired heralded manager Joe Maddon and signed coveted starting pitcher Jon Lester. But after two straight last-place finishes in the National League Central, one might venture that the Cubs would still be a ways away from title contention. And they very well might be – but they currently hold 16-to-1 odds to win the World Series at Las Vegas’ Westgate SuperBook.
Jeff Sherman, assistant manager of Las Vegas’ Westgate Superbook, said there’s never any question as to if bettors will take their chances on the Cubs. Sherman acknowledged that on any given year, sportsbooks stand to lose a hefty sum of money if the Cubs win it all.
“The Cubs are one of the most highly supported teams in sports,” Sherman said. “We’ve got a lot of liabilities on the Cubs’ fortunes.”
The Cubs held 14-to-1 odds in January, but more bets of smaller denominations allowed the Superbook to raise the odds and ease the risk of losing a large amount of money.
According to Sherman, the Cubs are the most popular team in terms of the total number of wagers made by bettors at Superbook. Approximately seven percent of the futures bets, bets placed on what team will win the 2015 World Series, are on the Cubs.
“These are not unusual circumstances,” he said. “The Cubs get support no matter the outlook.”
But sports fans often fall victim to the misconception that Vegas odds are directly correlated with expert projections and predictions. That’s not how it works. Rather than set their odds to actual projections from experts or statisticians, sportsbooks aim to both attract bettors and minimize their financial liabilities with odds.
“If someone is willing to bet a 12-to-1 rather than a 20-to-1, then that’s a win for [the sportsbook],” Sherman said.
Former WGN radio personality Mark Carman said even if fans are betting on the Cubs at such good odds, their expectations aren’t becoming too lofty.
“I don’t think there are a lot of Cubs fans running around thinking that they’re going to win the World Series, even the biggest lunatics,” he said. “There will be more people at the park, more people listening on the radio. But if they actually do anything, it’ll mushroom real fast.”
Carman said while Cubs fans are starving for a title, most of them won’t let Vegas odds fuel false hope.
“They’ve got to start winning for it ever to get to insane levels,” he said. “Even the craziest Cubs fans aren’t that crazy.”
Dan Szymborski, an analyst for ESPN and developer of ZiPS, a mathematical system that predicts individual statistical performance by baseball players, does not think the Cubs are major players for the World Series title. His system projects output for both pitchers and batters by using weighted statistics from previous years while employing growth and decline curves based on particular player type.
But his predictions aren’t based on maximizing his moneymaking potential – they’re the result of a crafted formula. ZiPS led him to place the Cubs with approximately 26-to-1 odds to win the World Series.
“Those odds generally represent an above-average team that isn’t a top contender,” he said. “[Sportsbooks] are rightfully trying to capitalize on the increased moves. I would not have placed them that aggressively.”
“These are not unusual circumstances. The Cubs get support no matter the outlook.”
– Jeff Sherman, Westgate Superbook
Even with the addition of Jon Lester, a six-time 15-game winner and two-time World Series Champion, Szymborski doesn’t buy the Cubs as a top-tier team.
“His addition doesn’t warrant the jump,” Szymborski said. “With him, I have them projected at about 84 to 81 wins. Without him, I’d have them at about 77 to 81.”
Szymborski said one player does not make as much difference in baseball as one player might in football or basketball – especially a starting pitcher that appears only once every five games.
“They’ve improved greatly,” he said. “But even if you’re guaranteed to win your division, you’re still at 8-to-1 odds to win [the World Series].”
Szymborski isn’t saying that North Siders should abandon their optimism and start looking ahead to 2016, though. With a loaded farm system funneling exciting players to AAA and the majors, the Cubs certainly have a lot of potential.
“A lot of the hype surrounding the Cubs is warranted,” he said.