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.