Orioles Defying the Odds

Over this past weekend, the Orioles split a 4 game series with the New York Yankees. Baltimore was able win 2 games and stay only 1 game behind the Yankess in the AL East standings, even though they were outscored 31 to 23. This trend of winning while being outscored is not uncommon for the Orioles this season.

The most remarkable part about the Orioles keeping pace with the elite teams in the AL is that they have done it with a negative run differential, (608 Runs scored vice 637 Runs Allowed). It may seem that it would not be too uncommon for a team to be a few wins over .500 and have a allowed a few more runs then they have scored, but it isn’t. Only the San Francisco Giants achieved the feat in 2011 (86-76, -17 runs) and no teams in 2010. Since 1962, when both leagues went to 162 games, 54 teams have been able to reach this feat, or just about 1 per season. The average run differential for the teams was -18.6 runs and the average number of games over .500 was 6.8 games.

Baltimore is doing more than defying the Lords of Math, they have a chance of having the best record ever for a team with a negative run differential. Of the 54 teams with a negative run differential, only 11 have been 10 games or more over .500.

Team Season W L Diff RS RA Diff
Arizona Diamondbacks 2007 90 72 18 712 732 -20
San Francisco Giants 1997 90 72 18 784 793 -9
New York Mets 1984 90 72 18 652 676 -24
Baltimore Orioles 2012 78 62 16 608 637 -29
Seattle Mariners 2007 88 74 14 794 813 -19
Baltimore Orioles 1981 59 46 13 429 437 -8
San Francisco Giants 1982 87 75 12 673 687 -14
Houston Astros 2008 86 75 11 712 743 -31
Boston Red Sox 2006 86 76 10 820 825 -5
San Francisco Giants 2011 86 76 10 570 578 -8
New York Mets 1972 83 73 10 528 578 -50
Houston Astros 1989 86 76 10 647 669 -22

The best a team has ever done in the W-L column was 18 games over .500 (3 times). The key for those teams wasn’t their great record in close games. All teams that are 18 games over .500 have to perform decently in 1-run games to have that good of a record. The difference for the 3 teams is how they do in blowouts. Here is a graph with the percentage of times the teams had a certain point difference.

Normally teams that are 18 games over .500 are blown out 5% of the time and blow teams out 7% of the time. The 3 teams instead get blown out 9% of the time and win in blowouts in 5% of their games.

The Orioles have two distinction from the distribution. First, they have rarely lose by 1 runs (5%). They have lost by 2, 3, 4 and 5 runs more than they have be one run. Also, Baltimore has won by 2 runs more than average.

Not one root cause exists for the discrepancy between the wins and runs the Orioles are seeing, but several different causes add up. The main way a team can have some control over their difference in runs scored and allowed is how their pitching staff performs in certain instances. Teams can just give up in blowouts and let them get those games get out of hand. On the other hand, they can then make sure they stay in every close game with a good bullpen.

The Orioles’ starters are 9th in the A.L. with an ERA of 4.58 ERA and 10th in QS. The starters have had a problem of keeping the game close and getting to the bullpen. Once the bullpen takes over, they have been lights out. In the AL, they are 1st in WPA and shutdowns and 4th with a team 3.07 ERA. For example, the Orioles have correctly leveraged Jim Johnson, their closer, in close games and he has performed great. He has the league’s highest WPA among relievers.

Another way the Orioles have been able to win close games is because of their performance in extra inning games. They are 12-2 and have scored 25 runs and only allowed 5.

The Orioles have been defying the odds by being 16 games over .500 with negative run differential. They kept up the trend this weekend with their series with the Yankees. While it has been a unique way to get a winning record, it has worked for them this season.




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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.


12 Responses to “Orioles Defying the Odds”

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  1. jevant says:

    As a Jays fan, this Orioles season is absolutely maddening to watch happen. It’s getting to the point I’d almost prefer to be lucky rather than good.

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  2. amoc21 says:

    Good read. It’s obvious the O’s have been winning most of the close ones and losing by a lot when they do lose, but this really puts it in a nice perspective. I knew Johnson was having a great season, but I didn’t know about the big discrepancy from their starters to their bullpen. That seems like a strong reason for their success.

    Is there any way to see numbers for their hitters in games where the score is within a run either way vs. when score gets lopsided?

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  3. Jaquen says:

    Unfortunately, when you are riding the tight rope like this, you can’t afford to lose more productive players to injury. The O’s have been fortunate to have their key players healthy most of the year. However, they just the perennially underrated Nick Markakis for the season. They were without Markakis earlier this year, and they were unable to make the stunning comeback until he returned. Losing him with such a slight margin of error is going to make finishing September tough on the O’s.

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    • ticars says:

      Fortunate to be healthy??? They’re projected #2/3 starter had TJ before the season. Their starting LF and 2B has been down all but a few weeks of the season. Their #1 starter and RF have missed several months. Their starting 1B went down at the ASB. Their #4 starter didn’t start the season until a month ago. And their DH has been down for 2 months. This doesn’t include guys who have had short stints on the DL and Bullpen injuries.

      Its probably easier to list the guys who haven’t been hurt this year; Jones, Wieters, Davis, Hardy and Chen.

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  4. gobears says:

    If this is happening once per season, that’s really not that strange: it’s a low probability but consistent outcome. Not that I can explain it, but I sure do enjoy it! Sorry jevant- I can’t say I think we deserve it, so I’d be frustrated too if I lived in Toronto….

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  5. Danny says:

    The majority of run differential can be explained by some awful starts by Matusz & Arrieta, then having guys like Kevin Gregg come in and waving the white flag while giving Strop & Johnson rest. Just look at the guys that pitched in the 13-3 game, Gregg, Zach Phillips and the aforementioned Arrieta versus Strop, O’Day & Johnson.

    It is a bit remarkable the run they have been on this year, and is worth putting the RD in the conversation. But it has some explanations that are fairly easy to identify. However, I am surprised that there are not more teams that go through this where there top 3 guys in the pen are really good and the others really bad.

    As someone who has watched a majority of O’s games the past 20 years, it really has been an amazing season in which it is a blowout or a win. The 1 run record has also been a case in which a lot of 2-5 run leads going into the 8th or 9th have somehow been turned into a 1 or 2 run game by the bullpen before having Johnson come in to finish it off.

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  6. chuckb says:

    In reading this, it strikes me that the thing that the O’s may be doing better than other teams — and you allude to this toward the end — is leveraging their relievers in the best possible way. I haven’t followed them at all this year and know nothing really about the O’s but it occurs to me that maybe Showalter is using their worst relievers properly when behind, such that he’s decided, “well, we’re going to use anyway (probably) so I’ll use my mop up guys.” Then, he’s using the best relievers when ahead by just a couple.

    How often do managers use their better relievers when down a couple in the 7th when they have about a 15-20% likelihood of winning and then the reliever either isn’t able to pitch or pitches ineffectively the next day when they have to maintain a 1 run lead? It doesn’t matter if you lose by 2 or lose by 4 but maintaining those 1-2 run leads does matter. An interesting follow-up to this would be an examination of how those relievers have been leveraged. Good work.

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  7. Baron Samedi says:

    This post should be called “Fucking Orioles Defying the Odds”

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  8. Brian says:

    Showalter leveraging his relievers well could be a logical outcome of a dropoff in reliever quality after the first couple guys. Take, for example, two bullpens with 1 closer with a 2.50 ERA (forgive the non-sabr stats for simplicity) and the other 6 guys averaging a 3.50 ERA. In Bullpen 1, among the 6 non-closers, 3 have a 3.00 ERA and 3 have a 4.00 ERA. In Bullpen 2, the other 6 guys all have a 3.50 ERA. You could possibly argue that with a bullpen similar to #1, the manager has a much easier time getting it right with his reliever choices. Would be interesting to study if, all else the same, there is a sustainable advantage in having a setup similar to Bullpen 1 vs. Bullpen 2.

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  9. Smokey Rivers says:

    More like “Odd Orioles Defiant” amirite…

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  10. Matt P says:

    Every team uses its worst relievers when they’re in a blowout. But if you actually look at the Orioles bullpen, the Orioles top five guys in innings thrown have ERAs under 3. The Orioles have used a reliever with an ERA with an ERA under 3 in 78% of their total innings. And Eveland has an ERA of 3.57 in another 5% of the total innings thrown by the bullpen. Sure, he isn’t as good as some of the other guys, but it’s not like bringing him in threw ball games. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blowout or not, the Orioles relievers pitch well regardless.

    And while it’s true that the common narrative that having a good bullpen helps you win one run games sounds nice… it’s not really true. Take the Rays as they have a bullpen ERA of 2.78. So, why are they 20-24 in one run games again? The correlation between bullpen ERA and win pct in one run games is only about ~ .3.

    Maybe finding a more complicated but accurate narrative would be a better idea.

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  11. I’m begging you, as leaders in this community of baseball analysts, to stop using the word “differential” here. You’re not doing calculus. It’s “difference”.

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