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Sportsbooks stay focused amid MLB uncertainty

Sportsbooks are staying alert and rolling with the punches as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on baseball.

The Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies haven’t played since July 26 after an outbreak among the Marlins’ players and staff. That has led to subsequent postponements for the Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals.

On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals’ game at the Milwaukee Brewers was postponed after two Cardinals tested positive for the virus.

That’s not all. MLB changed the playoff format, expanding from 10 teams to 16, just before first pitch on opening day, throwing a wrench into calculations for World Series and pennant futures.

And bookmakers also have to keep track of whether the other wrinkles for this shortened 60-game season, including a universal designated hitter and no fans in the stands, should affect the way they are pricing games.

“You do have the attitude of, ‘What’s going to happen today?’” Westgate sportsbook manager Randy Blum said.

The postponed games are easy enough to handle. The games come off the board, and bets are refunded.

Late pitching and lineup changes are another matter. In the last game the Marlins played, their scheduled starter, Jose Urena, and other regulars were scratched shortly before the game. The Phillies went from a favorite of around -150 to -220.

With all the uncertainty each day brings, Blum said the Westgate feels good about its decision not to list pitchers this season. The sportsbook simply adjusts the price and moves on.

Books that do list pitchers have to refund wagers for bettors who listed them or give bettors who chose “action” new odds based on the new starter. (Some bettors like the certainty of listed pitchers; others just want to have a bet and are not as price sensitive.)

Circa sportsbook manager Chris Bennett said the book’s biggest baseball issue was with futures, and it has decided to take World Series and American and National League futures off the board for now.

Circa also has an extra degree of difficulty with its futures, in that it usually allows yes/no props on each team winning the title, meaning it could open itself up to greater liability than books with yes-only futures.

“Futures have become really messy and complicated to deal with,” Bennett said. “… There’s just too much uncertainty. Baseball could change the whole structure and rules of the game at any point.

“It’s just not worth all of the effort to update on a daily basis.”

Action on World Series and league futures stands at most sportsbooks regardless of how many games are played this season. Circa also didn’t have a game limit on division futures, though they are also off the board now.

Blum said the Westgate requires 59 games to be played by every team in the division for those bets to stand, so unless the Marlins manage to play a bunch of doubleheaders, NL East division bets will be refunded.

Of course, doubleheaders will present their own wrinkle after players agreed to limit those games to seven innings. Blum said the Westgate would likely still post first-five-inning lines, but full-game prices will have to be adjusted.

Amid everything, Bennett and Blum said baseball handle had been very good, though interest could go down as the NBA and NHL return to play, followed by football in September.

The action “has definitely been good for the house as well,” Blum said.

“The rule of thumb is, if one underdog wins, it will keep you from a bad, bad day,” he said. “If two dogs win, it’s probably a good day.”

Four MLB underdogs won Thursday, and six more won Friday.

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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