Sports and numbers go together like macaroni and cheese. We have a nearly endless pool of stats, figures, and percentages through which we can view our sports fandom. Sports bettors take advantage of this, using combinations of past performance and betting trends to help them find value bets.
But one statistic is so overvalued, most bettors don’t even realize what a big mistake they’re making when they use it to handicap a contest.
This is true in all four major US sports, and probably in most global sports that have betting markets.
This post will tell you what that irrelevant stat is, why it’s irrelevant, and what you can look at instead to make smart quick picks in your favorite sports betting market.
The Least Relevant Statistic in Sports Is …
a team’s win/loss record.
Sounds crazy, right?
If you think about things from a sports bettor’s perspective, you’ll start to understand what I mean.
The Problem with W/L Records
A team’s number of wins doesn’t grant that team any particular advantage, at least not one that can be quantified. The same goes for losses. Teams don’t come into games wearing their record around their neck. The NFL doesn’t give a 10-0 team bonus points, nor do they saddle a team on the skids with a handicap. That’s not how the league (or any pro sports league) works.
Look back at 10 years of win-loss records in any of the major American sports and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
In baseball, going back some 1,800 games, only fourteen teams have won more than 50% of their games outright, with the other sixteen averaging a win rate of 46.6%. There’s only about a 15% difference between the win rates of the club’s worst and best teams over ten years. In the NHL, it’s common to have ten to twelve teams hovering within 8-10% of one another in winning percentage – there’s rarely a massive matchup in any of the big four US sports, hockey included.
When you’re approaching a game from a handicapping perspective, you should consider the matchup as a (mostly) independent event. That means considering how the teams and players will compete against one another based on strengths, weaknesses, and other factors.
The one thing you shouldn’t give any weight to when you’re considering an independent event is the result of previous independent events. We’re talking about the gambler’s fallacy here – and avoiding the gambler’s fallacy is why we don’t track hot and cold numbers on the roulette wheel or in your favorite state lottery game. Each outcome is influenced by factors independent of previous outcomes.
There’s a sports cliché to describe this phenomenon – “any given Sunday.” Originally applied to the NFL at a time when league parity was high, the notion that any professional team can beat any other team in any given matchup now holds across the board.
The NBA is made up of the 500 best basketball players in the world. When two NBA teams play each other, you’re talking about a pool of talent better than 99.9994% of the entire world. Even the least talented of these have an incredible skill level. Throw in an off night for a dominant team, and it’s easy to see why sports parity exists.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider recent performance when handicapping – but this isn’t quite the same as assuming the team with the better winning percentage will always win. Making chalk picks based on winning percentage ignores things like the power of the road favorite in the NFL (which wins at about a 60% clip) or the home underdog in MLB (where the average team wins often enough to be profitable) in favor of previous performance against teams not involved in the contemporary bet.
How Have the Best Win-Loss Records Performed?
If a team’s winning percentage alone were significant enough to influence handicapping, we’d be able to find a trend to back this up. We’d see teams winning more as their winning record improves or losing more frequently as they rack up more losses.
There’s no direct correlation between W/L record and success, not at the level of an individual game. That further holds up my point, that when you’re a sports bettor handicapping a game, there’s almost nothing less important than how the two teams facing off have performed in recent weeks against other teams.
How have the sports teams with the best winning percentages performed historically? Does the best team usually win the championship? In most cases, the answer is no.
The hockey teams that have turned in the most impressive win-loss records don’t go on to win the Stanley Cup very often. Look at the 95-96 Detroit Red Wings who put up 62 wins and 13 losses but didn’t even make the Cup. The 2018-2019 Lightning also won 62 games but were upset in the first round, barely making a dent in the playoff picture at all. In 2006, the Red Wings had another embarrassing first-round exit after recording an incredible 58-16 record in the regular season. You can’t always predict championship success in hockey based on which squad has the highest winning percentage.
In modern baseball, the team with the highest winning percentage rarely wins the World Series. Teams with a .700 winning percentage or better have only won the baseball championship twice in the modern era – the 2020 Dodgers (playing in a Covid-shortened season) and the 1998 Yankees. The Mariners turned in a 116-46 record in 2001 but lost in the 2001 ALCS to the Yankees, who closed that series out in grand fashion at Yankee Stadium.
In the NFL, the team that turned in the best all-time winning percentage didn’t even win the Super Bowl that year. The 2007 Patriots went 16-0 during the regular season but were upset by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. In fact, of the best 10 W-L records overall in the NFL, only four of them won the big game. Every Super Bowl champion since 1985 has lost at least 2 games. There’s no link between going undefeated or losing just one game and having success in the postseason.
The NBA is the only big four league where a win-loss record correlates most closely with championship success. The ten best regular-season NBA records were recorded by six teams who went on to win the NBA Finals and four teams who did not. Notable teams to record a huge W-L record but fail to win the title include the 2016 Warriors, who went 73-9 before giving up a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the Finals, and the ’73 Celtics, who put up a winning percentage of 83% in the regular season before being manhandled by the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stats to Consider Before Winning Percentage
Hopefully, by now you’re on board – you can’t handicap sports successfully by just looking at win-loss records and picking the higher winning percentage.
So, what can you use to quickly handicap a contest?
The answer is a little different for each major sport.
A Quick Handicapping Tip for the NHL
Hockey has the softest lines of all four major professional US sports, so looking for value, betting early to lock in the best odds, and working the sportsbooks from their angle will lead to way more success than trying to game your bets by picking the team with the better winning percentage. Stick to those boring -120 to +120 bets and you’ll cut the card down to 8 games or so. Handicap your preferred way from there.
A Quick Handicapping Tip for the NFL
If you must look at just one number to make your NFL pick, ignore the W-L totals for the two teams and bet on the side that has a lower opponent third-down conversion percentage. Consistently, teams that allow a higher percentage of 3rd down conversions line the bottom of the league standings. If you compare two teams and find one allows 52% of opponent third downs while the other is allowing just 33%, your pick should be clear.
A Quick Handicapping Tip for MLB
Forget about using any one statistic to give you baseball insight – the game’s too complex for that. Instead, focus only on divisional contests where one team is a significant underdog. If that underdog is on the road, and if the game total is 8 or more, back that team. Divisional road dogs overperform, and the books recognize this, which explains the abnormally-high game total number.
A Quick Handicapping Tip for the NBA
No league is as affected by player rest as the NBA, which has a long but relatively short season, leading to periods where players are simply out of gas. Occasional benching for rest aside, you should use this to handicap an NBA contest, rather than focusing entirely on W-L records. Going back twenty years, just six teams have won more than 50% of their games on short rest, and none more than 60% total. Fade short-rested teams in favor of ones with more rest, and you’ll have a ridiculously fast somewhat efficient system for picking NBA winners.
Don’t get hung up on win-loss records in any major sport that you’re betting on.
Modern pro sports depend more heavily on individual performances than sports did in decades past – and, of course, on any given day, any of these amazing professionals can go off and upset all the expectations of the pundits and talking heads.
With league parity as high as it is, in all four major sports, making chalk picks is a losing strategy. Consider the alternatives mentioned above if you want to save time and pick winners more often.