Recently, fellow Call to the Pen author Spencer Hendricks used some advanced metrics to examine which pitchers across Major League Baseball had benefited from the most luck and, conversely, been hit the hardest by negative fortune. I’ve decided to do the same by examining which teams have actually been fortunate to have the record they currently do and which teams should be higher up in the standings than they are today. All records and numbers used for these purposes are through the end of play on August 1st.
The main things I’ll be looking at here are run differential and Pythagorean win-loss record. Run differential of course simply details how many more runs a team has scored than its opposition on the season as a whole. Obviously, if a team has a negative run differential it shouldn’t have a winning record once the sample size gets large enough. Pythagorean records use run differential data (the number of runs scored and the number of runs surrendered) to project what a team’s record would be if everything broke right based on normal results. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays (55-50) and Washington Nationals (61-42) are actually playing at the exact level Bill James and Pythagoras think they should be.
For this post, I’ll discuss the luckiest teams in the game. Next time around I’ll tackle the teams who may have encountered a black cat, walked under a ladder, or played too many games on Friday the 13th.
1. Baltimore Orioles: Actual record 55-50, Pythagorean record 46-59, -60 run differential
The Orioles simply have not played like a team that should be five games over .500 or tied for second in the AL East. They’ve been outscored by a wide margin, they’re a MLB-best nine games over their expected record, every other team in the division has a positive run differential, and they rank near the bottom of the game in most team categories. The Orioles are 26th in OBP, 21st in ERA, and 23rd in batting average against. By the end of the season, you’d have to think Baltimore will find its rightful place at the bottom of the standings in their extremely difficult division. They played well enough for a couple of months, but the results are starting to catch up to them.
2. Miami Marlins: Actual record 48-56, Pythagorean record 41-63, -89 run differential
Off the top of my head, I think I might have actually called the Marlins unlucky prior to their recent extreme losing ways and subsequent fire sale. Well, in a way they have been unlucky; Gaby Sanchez bottomed out, Giancarlo Stanton has missed plenty of time due to injury, and Josh Johnson has had bouts of ineffectiveness. No matter the circumstances, the Marlins have been pretty much drubbed by the opposition and have a record seven games better than expected. Miami doesn’t sport a good win-loss record, but without a little luck things would look even worse.
3. Cleveland Indians: Actual record 50-54, Pythagorean record 44-60, -74 run differential
The Indians actually led the AL central for a decent chunk of time, but lately their results have started to catch up to their actual level of play. The Indians have outperformed their Pythagorean record by six games and have actually been outscored by 74 runs on the season despite just recently dipping under the .500 mark. The Indians have managed to post a .328 team OBP, good for eighth in baseball, but they’re 21st in slugging percentage, 27th in ERA, and 27th in WHIP. It’s a bit backwards, as most every baseball fan and pundit out there probably expected a pretty decent showing from Cleveland’s underrated pitching staff. Well, I guess we thought they were underrated at the time anyway.
It’s also worth noting (although there’s much more margin for error with a smaller number) that the San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds have all outperformed their projected records by three games. All three teams are in contention for their divisions and the two wild card spots, so any bit of luck has to be appreciated by their fans and the members of their rosters. While each of these squads have technically been a tad fortunate, they are also solid enough (particularly the excellent Reds) to have above-.500 records no matter how you look at it.