Playing the Ponies

5 keys to betting on the Belmont Stakes

The Belmont Stakes will cap off this year's Triple Crown, which will go down as one of the most controversial and eventually disappointing three races in a long time. But there is still money to be made, so here are five ways to approach the race. My horse-by-horse analysis is here. My premium plays are available at pregame.com. Historically the Belmont is where we do our best work in the Triple Crown. It is the longest of the Triple Crown races, and it takes a good combination of stamina and speed. Most of these horses will never run this far again.

1) Hard to get around the favorites

Tacitus, one of our Derby horses, will be the favorite after finishing fourth in that race on a track he hated. He has classic distance breeding, a good running style for the distance and has all the qualities you look for in a Belmont winner. He is also 9-5. War of Will, who dominated the Preakness and is very tough at his best, is 2-1. Both horses should be significant factors. That makes it more difficult to put together a decent score. However, when faced with this scenario, you look for long shots in the trifectas, and that is how we will approach the race.

2) About those long shots...

There are three that are intriguing. Master Fencer was seventh in the Derby, but the Japanese horse was beaten just four lengths and was finishing very strongly. His style should suit Belmont, and Japanese horses tend to run well everywhere. He was not elite in Japan, but let's face it, this field isn't either. He could surprise at a big price. We were all-in on Bourbon War in the Preakness and he took us all out by finishing eighth. He really had no excuse that day other than maybe the long layoff got to him. We will give him one more chance to reward our faith. Sir Winston already has a nice effort over the surface and always seems to show up at a big price.

3) The next tier

Everfast was second in the Preakness, but that effort came out of nowhere and horses that don't run in the Derby, then run well in the Preakness tend to falter in the Belmont. Intrepid Heart is a regally bred, lightly raced colt who could improve. Joevia should be the pace setter, and that is a big advantage in longer races, because he will likely get the lead all to himself and could last a long time. All of these could be bottom factors in the trifectas.

4) So how do we play it? 

I like exacta and trifecta boxes with the two favorites plus Master Fencer and Bourbon War. I also like the idea of keying the two favorites on top and in second with the long shots we like and as many horses as possible in third.

I also like the idea of playing the two long shots - Bourbon War and Master Fencer, across the board.

On the undercard, I like some long shots to throw in your wagers:

Race 8: No. 8 Hog Creek Hustle

Race 9: No. 5 Tale of Silence

Race 10: No 4 Qurban.

5) Keep an eye on the surface

As of today, they are expecting nice weather at Belmont so everything is handicapped for a fast track. Should that prove wrong, check back on Twitter as I will likely change some plays. Good luck and let's finish this year strong.

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TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN!

The answers in the outfield are becoming clearer than the Astros hoped

*Note: Some Advanced Statistics, courtesy of Baseball Savant, do not include Thursday night's game against the Diamondbacks. Others, courtesy of Fangraphs, do include Thursday night's game*

The Corpus Christi Hooks Twitter account confirmed that Yordan Alvarez is alive and able to take swings, meaning the slugger's return to the Astros lineup is getting closer. Alvarez will get a bulk of the DH at-bats. With Springer being the primary center fielder, and Brantley being the primary left fielder, Dusty Baker will have to choose between Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker for his primary right fielder. Who should he choose?

How do you boil down picking between two players to one question? What is the most important thing to judge a hitter on? The answer

The better player is the player that does the most damage consistently.

Sounds easy, right? But how do you judge that?

  1. Hard Hit %
  2. BB:K
  3. Contact %

Why these three? Well, hitting the ball hard usually leads to damage, so it is good to hit the ball hard. A player that walks and strikes out roughly the same amount is generally pretty consistent, so BB:K ratios closer to 1:1 (this is extremely rare, and a vast majority of MLB hitters are worse than 1:2) are good. Lastly, players that make contact a lot not only can generally do more of the little things like moving runners over, lifting a ball with a runner on third, or executing a hit & run, but also they generally don't swing and miss at their pitch when they get it. Action happens.

Kyle Tucker has a hard hit % of 38.5% so far in 2020. That is 55th in MLB amongst players with at least 25 batted balls (Tucker has 26). For context, Padres star third baseman Manny Machado is ranked 54th with 38.9%, thorn-in-the-Astros-side Kole Calhoun is t-58th at 37.9%, and Padres star shortstop Fernando Tatis leads the big leagues at 66.7% (wow).

So, more than 1/3rd of the time Tucker makes contact, he hits it hard. That's pretty good...But how often does he make contact?

Tucker has a contact % of 75.6%, meaning he makes contact with the baseball three out of every four times he swings the bat. That is 88th amongst qualified hitters. He is 1% worse than the slumping Jose Altuve, tied with that guy Kole Calhoun again, and about 1% better than the also-slumping George Springer. Tucker is far from elite at putting the bat on the ball, but he isn't terrible either.

However, despite hitting baseball's hard one-third of the time and making contact three-thirds of the time, Tucker strikes out entirely too much. His 29.3% K-rate is the 35th worst in baseball, and he doesn't offset the strikeouts with a lot of walks either. Tucker walks just 7.3% of the time, which is the 62nd lowest. Ultimately, Tucker has a BB:K ratio of 0.25, which is 49th in MLB right now.

Lastly, while it isn't part of the criteria above, Tucker doesn't have a very diverse batted ball portfolio. Tucker hits the ball to the pull side 65% of the time, and he's hit it on the ground 50% of the time. Eventually, teams will start placing heavy shifts on him, and those balls that have snuck through holes in the early parts of the year won't anymore.

But, is Josh Reddick any better? While none of Tucker's numbers blow you away, they aren't terrible, and he's a young prospect that needs playing time to develop.

Reddick has a 31.3% hard hit % so far in 2020, about seven percentage points below Tucker. 31.3% places Reddick in 96th place, between players like Marcus Semien and Yuli Gurriel. So, Tucker has Reddick beat here, but it isn't by a landslide.

Reddick has a contact % of 80.5%, which is 50th in MLB right now. He's better than Tucker by 5%, and he's in the top quartile in baseball. Reddick also sprays the ball around when he makes contact, hitting the ball to center field 43.8% of the time, right field 37.5% of the time, and left field 18.8% of the time. His ground ball rate is also 31%, almost 20% lower than Tucker's. That would explain why Reddick and Tucker's Barrel % (hard hit baseballs hit in the most desired exit velocity) are within a percentage point of one another despite Tucker having a seven point hard hit advantage.

Lastly, Reddick doesn't strike out very much. He strikes out 14% of the time, which is the 34th best K% in baseball (funny enough, Gurriel and Brantley are 33rd and 32nd). While Reddick doesn't walk a ton either, he walks more than Tucker, clocking in four percentage points better at 11.6%. That results in a BB:K ratio of 0.83, which is tied with Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman for the 30th best in MLB.

Throw in the fact that Reddick plays significantly better defense, and it's really a no-brainer who should play. Astros fans might want the sexier and newer model in Tucker, but it isn't time to trade in old reliable just yet. When Yordan Alvarez returns, Josh Reddick is the right answer in right field.

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