To Meekly Go Where Few Teams Have Gone Before

Even after last night’s drubbing, the New York Yankees own the best run differential in baseball, an impressive +112. They’re in second place.

The Detroit Tigers have limped their way to their All-Star break, allowing more runs than they’ve scored. They’re tied for first place.

Only six teams in major league history have made the playoffs with negative run differentials: the 1981 (-8) and 1984 Royals (-13), the ’87 Twins (-20), the ’97 Giants (-9), the ’05 Padres (-42), and ’07 Diamondbacks (-20).

In each of those cases, the teams in question (unsurprisingly) faced weak competition. The most extreme case was the ’81 Royals, who finished below .500 for the year but made the playoffs after winning the season’s convoluted second-half title.

This season, the Tigers have perhaps the best shot to become the seventh team to accomplish the feat. Detroit plays in the worst division in baseball by both winning percentage (.482) and second-wost by run differential (-131).

The Tigers rank a solid 8th in MLB in runs scored. But they also have multiple weaknesses in their lineup, combining excellent performances by Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Brennan Boesch with disastrous effort elsewhere, especially at second base and third base. The bigger problem lies in run prevention. Only four teams have allowed more runs than the Tigers. It’s a terribly thin starting rotation after Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer‘s decent but not great follow-up to last year’s great second half ranks among the biggest disappointments. The bullpen’s been worse, ranking second to last in MLB in ERA despite a strong, healthy first-half effort by the shaky-in-the-past Jose Valverde.

Several other clubs also have a legitimate shot at joining the exclusive playoff club and chasing the ’87 Twins’ as the standard bearer for greatness in futility. The Brewers sit just a half-game out in the NL Central, a half-game behind the division-leading Cardinals, at a -10 run differential. The Giants have climbed to a +14 recently, but they’re just three and a half games ahead of the second-place Diamondbacks who themselves find themselves just barely on the positive side of the ledger, at +9.

Still, we shouldn’t just assume regression for these and over first-half overachievers. For one thing, teams can sustain good luck over the course of an entire season, sometimes later than that. For another, certain teams might be built to win close games a little more often than random chance might suggest. The Brewers, with their below-average team defense and somewhat iffy bullpen don’t profile like that team; neither do the Tigers with their porous pen and average D. The Giants, liked by UZR and owners of a good and deep bullpen, might.

The bigger reasons regression might not occur (other than random chance) are weak competition, and the possibility of trades.

Whether it’s a huge third base upgrade like Aramis Ramirez or the rumored potential acquisition of Carlos Beltran, there’s plenty of room for the Tigers to improve their lopsided offense. Meanwhile, virtually any able-bodied pitcher would seem likely to help Detroit’s staff.

Ditto for the Giants picking up almost any other major league shortstop not named Brandon Crawford and the Brewers doing the same for Not Yuniesky Betancourt (yes, you’ve probably heard that before). The Diamondbacks could and should do a lot better than Zach Duke (5.47 ERA, 3.97 xFIP) and Joe Saunders (4.79 FIP, 4.36 xFIP).

Given the glaring weaknesses these teams possess, as well as how close their respective playoff races are, we might see the biggest deals come from small- and medium-revenue clubs. The Brewers have already acquired Francisco Rodriguez, and have shown a willingness in the recent past to make big deadline trades, as they did with CC Sabathia. The biggest deadline trade last year came from the Texas Rangers — then considered a middle-revenue team, now rising toward the top of the heap below the usual big two.

In fact, it’s the Yankees and Red Sox that have some of the lowest incentive to make a big splash in the next two weeks. The Tampa Bay Rays don’t seem to have the horses to catch either team in a pennant race, and already sit four-and-a-half and six games back of the two respective teams. Holes that seem glaring, such as Boston’s currently starting rotation, probably won’t stay that way for long, assuming Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz return shortly as expected.

For all the perception that the Yanks and Sox often seem to get the big names, there’s an excellent chance it doesn’t play out that way between now and July 31.



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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


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Josh
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Josh
5 years 2 months ago

You mean the Tigers could upgrade at third by acquiring ARAMIS Ramirez, right? Not Alexei.

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 2 months ago

Must be. Alexei is a SS and the odds of the White Sox trading a good, young, cost controlled player within the division for less than a king’s ransom are about equal to the odds that ESPN asks the Fangraphs crew to take over Sportscenter.

Ian
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Ian
5 years 2 months ago

No…the Tigers will clearly acquire the magnificent Alexei to play SS, so that we can move the Stephen Hawking-like Peralta over to 3B…that would be a physical-range jab, as opposed to mental-range. If only we had an Edwin Jackson to sell them in exchange for one of the White Sox top young players…maybe they’ll settle for Brad Penny…

Jason B
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Jason B
5 years 2 months ago

Ha. Ha. That’s the first time I’ve seen a baseball player described as “Stephen Hawking like”. Unexpectedly enjoyable, like Fresca.

WSO
Guest
5 years 2 months ago

Clearly a typo, but if the White Sox DO trade Alexei Ramirez within the AL Central to the division leader, it damn sure better be announced on July 25th’s Free Suicide Capsule Night….which is coincidentally a Half-Price Monday.

Hmm
Guest
Hmm
5 years 2 months ago

Sounds like the Tigers need JJ Hardy, Koji Uehara, and Jeremy Guthrie. Trade ideas?

The Nicker
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Member
The Nicker
5 years 2 months ago

Guthrie? Yes

Hardy? sure but unlikely to happen. The Tigers like Peralta at short and are basically going to ride with Inge (who has another year left on his contract)

Uehara? Probably not, unless Alburquerque isn’t coming back.

So, as far as Guthrie goes, what interests the O’s? I wonder if, after tanking his second year in High-A, Daniel Fields straight up would be a good price or perhaps it’s still too much?

The Nicker
Member
Member
The Nicker
5 years 2 months ago

Eh, all four of the teams you focused on are actually getting unlucky in their run differential compared to their WAR totals (and therefore, WAR%).

I think you’d have more success finding a team that’s outperforming both their WAR numbers and their run differential numbers. A team, like, say, the 2011 Indians.

Granted, people don’t expect them to stay in it so there’s that.

Jerome S.
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Jerome S.
5 years 2 months ago

The real shame in all of this is how the Rays will be a much better team than any in the AL Central, and they STILL won’t make the playoffs.

SC2GG
Guest
5 years 2 months ago

Jays, too.

Ever considered the reverse? Best run differentials to not make the playoffs?

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu
5 years 2 months ago

Surprised this doesn’t happen more often in the 8-team playoff era. What’s impressive is the 1984 Royals and the 1987 Twins, whose mediocrity was still somehow better than the 6 other teams in their division.

jurgen_nl
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jurgen_nl
5 years 2 months ago

The Jurrjens for Renteria trade was bad and is only getting worse….

soladoras
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soladoras
5 years 2 months ago

As a Giants fan, I’m OK with Brandon Crawford sticking at SS and finding an upgrade elsewhere, given that acquiring Jose Reyes or JJ Hardy seems unlikely at this point (Reyes because he costs too much, JJ Hardy because he looks to be resigning with Baltimore). SSS aside, Crawford’s UZR/150 of 19.6 confirms what I see with my eyes when I watch the games, and he’s not a complete lost cause at the plate like Tejada, as he can take a walk (11% BB%). I think Beltran is our best option, and we can pay less in prospects (which we don’t have a lot of) to acquire him by taking on his big salary.

Sparty
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Sparty
5 years 2 months ago

“The Tigers are 37-2 when leading after the sixth inning, 40-0 when leading after the seventh inning; 43-0 after the eighth.” – http://www.blessyouboys.com

While the Tigers middle relief has been awful, the back end of the pen has been very consistent. Al Al, Benoit, and Valverde are the reason the Tigers are able to win close games when they have a lead.

Alternatively, when Detroit doesn’t have the lead, they are forced to bring in a different reliever. Without fail, they get pounded, and the game tends to get out of hand (In the last four weeks alone before the all-star game, Detroit gave up more than 13 runs on 5 different occasions in Tigers losses). Other than the fact that Detroit has had some bad starting pitching outside of JV, this accounts for a large reason why the Tigers have a negative run differential.

Jeff
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Jeff
5 years 2 months ago

I was gonna say that as well. Detroit probably has a top 5 back end of the pen and easily the worst middle/long relief. When you consider that, plus the WAR ranking (easily the best in the division), the Tigers don’t look nearly as bad.

If they can plug one of their two black holes on offense or get a #5 better that Furbush, they’ll run away with it.

cuck
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cuck
5 years 2 months ago

Can’t leave the Twins out of the discussion for worst long/middel relief. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve gone to where the bullpen has blown a lead.

Jason
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Jason
5 years 2 months ago

I like FIP, but to put saunders and duke in the same sentence is insulting to saunders; he’s pitched very well for 2 months now and is 100x better than duke.

Sitting Curveball
Member
5 years 2 months ago

The Indians have a better run differential than the Tigers; I doubt they are the more talented team, though.

Anyways… can we get rid of divisions, please, Comrade Selig?

dat cubfan daver
Member
5 years 2 months ago

If the Cubs did trade Aramis Ramirez to the Tigers, what could they reasonably expect to receive in return? And would the Tigers really want to pick up Ramirez’s 2012 option?

quincy0191
Member
quincy0191
5 years 2 months ago

Coming out of the All-Star break the NL Central had a winning percentage of .467, 257-293, worse than the AL Central (who are 2nd to last). I think that happens when the Cubs and Astros are two of the worst teams in baseball.

Al Dimond
Guest
5 years 2 months ago

There was a comment in the article that Detroit, not having a great defense or bullpen, doesn’t profile like a team that would win more than its run differential would suggest. Is there any evidence that teams with good defense and bullpens win more games than their run differentials would suggest? That doesn’t make sense to me intuitively. A good defense and bullpen keep runs of the board regardless of how close the score is.

On the other hand, a bullpen that’s strong in the front-end but weak in the back-end might be expected to perform better in high-leverage situations by pitching the good pitchers when it matters. Also, starting pitchers that are quite inconsistent might expect to have win-loss records (or WPA totals) that correspond more with their ratio of good games to bad games than with their aggregate (per-inning or per-batter) stats. Perhaps teams with excellent role players on the bench might have an advantage in close games — in high-leverage situations they can tune their lineup to the game situation.

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
5 years 2 months ago

In 1987, winning your division meant something.

Anyways, “The bigger reasons regression might not occur (other than random chance) are weak competition, and the possibility of trades.” mean reversion means the extraordinary get more ordinary. In this case, that means the Yankees will likely have lower excess runs and the Tigers will likely have a smaller deficit, post ASG.

Joe R
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Joe R
5 years 2 months ago

About your last point regarding the Yanks and Sox not needing to make big moves – I can’t agree. They’re both likely to make the playoffs, but these 2 teams don’t play with that endgoal in mind, or “get into October and see what happens” mentality. The goal is to win the World Series, and to accomplish that goal, both teams might need to pick up some pieces. I get why you said they have the least incentive to, and in one regard you’re right (both are likely to make the playoffs), but when the endgoal is a world title, neither of these teams are going to feel confident heading into October with their presently constructed rotations.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
5 years 2 months ago

Please, for the love of all that’s good and right in the world —

“difference”: the quantity when subtracting one number from another
“differential”: an infinitesimal difference between successive values of a variable

Seriously. I’m begging. Enough is enough. It’s “run difference”. Please. Seriously. Please. Just, from now on. Please.

Tek
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Tek
5 years 2 months ago

There are multiple definitions for differential.
One of them is
A difference between amounts of things

Anon
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Anon
5 years 2 months ago

u mad?

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