05/24/2002 12:00AM

Tracking baseball betting angles

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LAS VEGAS - Baseball, with each team playing a 162-game schedule, has the longest season of any of the major team sports. It's a daily grind for oddsmakers and bettors alike, but that's what makes it bettable for those with the discipline to pick their spots.

Handicapper Dave Cokin said on the "Stardust Line" radio show last Sunday that if he could only bet on one sport, it would be baseball. He said it's a purely statistical handicap task . . . and baseball is the most statistics-driven sport.

But while you would think that with 125 years of historical data there wouldn't be any surprises, there are certainly ebbs and flows - and it always pays to be on the beginning of a new trend.

The most obvious trend for bettors this baseball season has been the change at Coors Field. Since the Rockies came into the league, scores have been a mile high in the Rocky Mountain altitude and oddsmakers adjusted from the beginning with totals in the 13- to 14-run range being the norm.

Through the first 25 games at Coors Field this year, through Thursday night, runs are down an average of 5 per game and the under was 18-7-1. What makes that even more amazing is that oddsmakers set the totals at 10 1/2 on April 10 and 11 when the Rockies faced the Diamondbacks's mighty Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling - and both those games went over.

Except when other top pitchers faced the Rockies, oddsmakers continued to set Coors Field totals at 13 1/2 until they saw more and more unders cashing. Then, word got out that the Rockies were storing their baseballs in a humidor set at 40 percent humidity to keep them from flying as far. Oddmakers have gradually adjusted totals downward, but the under was still 7-3 on the current homestand that ends Sunday against the Giants.

It's probably too late to jump on the under bandwagon, with totals now hovering in the 9 1/2 range, but there is sure to be a breaking point at which the over starts looking attractive again at Coors Field.

Another long-time angle for serious bettors had been tracking umpires and their over-under trends. Some umpires tended to have a larger strike zone, which was beneficial to pitchers and led to more unders, while others were considered batter-friendly and resulted in more overs. This system would be useless for the first game of each series as Major League Baseball keeps its umpiring assignments under wraps, but then the rest of the series could be charted as umps rotated from third base to second to first and then behind the plate. If you checked the boxscore and saw an over or under umpire at first base, you would know to factor that into your handicapping.

Unfortunately for bettors, the league has cracked down on umpiring, stressing a more consistent strike zone, and combining the AL and NL crews.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants claims umps don't even factor into their totals anymore.

But umpire brothers Mark and John Hirschbeck are still renegades. They call a generous strike zone and have been under umps for years. Last year, they were a combined 42-22 with the under. This year, they are a combined 16-5. The most recent game was when Mark was behind the plate for Thursday's series opener between the Red Sox and Yankees. Oddmakers set the total at a very low 7 1/2 with Pedro Martinez on the mound for the Bosox, but the under was never in doubt, as the Red Sox won 3-1.

Red Sox best team for bettors

As far as side betting goes, the Red Sox are the most profitable teams for bettors so far this season. Based on money-line betting and laying a price with a favorite to win a unit or betting one unit to win more on an underdog, the Red Sox are +12.9 units on the season with their record of 31-13. The Yankees, who are almost always favored, have a 31-17 record but are only +2.7 units for bettors. Other top teams are the Reds (+11.3 units), Angels (+9.2), and Diamondbacks (+8.3).

The biggest losing teams - or winning teams if you're betting against them - are the Cubs (-20.1 units), Brewers (-13.4), Royals

(-11.4), and Indians (-11.3).

World Cup overfloweth

The World Cup, which begins Friday, is not big in the United States but it's a huge event for the rest of the planet. Americans are less likely to take an interest unless the U.S. starts off well, but it's still a major event and is getting the requisite treatment on the betting boards in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants has Argentina as the 7-2 favorite, followed by France (4-1), Brazil (6-1), Italy (6-1), and Spain (8-1). The United States and the host country of Japan are both 60-1 in the 32-team field.

Odds are also available on each four-team group. The U.S. is 6-1 to win Group D, which also includes Portugal, Poland, and South Korea. The U.S. opens play vs. Portugal, the 2-5 favorite to win Group D, on Wednesday, June 5. The U.S. is a 1-goal dog and +105 (so you bet $1 to win $1.05, and also get a push if the U.S. loses by exactly one goal).

Japan is the 2-1 second choice behind Russia in Group H. Bettors have been taking Japan at Vegas sports book on the angle that the host country usually fares well.

Bookmakers are hopeful that World Cup handle increases this year because all games will be televised.

Squeaky wheels get contest back

Last month, when Station Casinos launched its "Southern California Handicapper's Challenge" on Wednesdays, the Texas Station property decided to continue its own Wednesday through Friday contest, meaning they were doing two separate contests on Wednesdays.

After a few weeks with that experiment, Texas race and sports book manager Jenny Melton was asked to run her contest only Thursdays and Fridays to see if that would increase the number of entrants in the big company-wide contest. But what it did was irritate Texas regulars who liked their own contest.

The customer is always right (or at least that's what we'd like to think), so Texas Station has reinstated its Wednesday through Friday format for the foreseeable future.