Four weeks ago, I introduced Expected Run Differentials, using the various linear weights tools we have on the site to construct a metric to evaluate a team’s performance without any timing or sequencing factors. Essentially, this method just counts up the context-neutral value of positive or negative events a team allows, and gives us an expected result if every team had distributed those events in the same manner. While run differential strips timing out of the conversion from runs to wins, this construct strips out timing from the runs themselves, and gives us the most sequencing-free look at a team’s overall performance to date.
Since it’s been nearly a month, let’s go ahead and update the numbers and look at what we can learn from them. There’s a lot of information in the table, and each column is sortable, so you can see where teams stand either by runs scored or allowed, expected runs scored or allowed, run differential or expected differential, or the differences in each section. The table is presented by expected run differential, from best to worst, and a reminder that the differences are set so that positive numbers are always favorable for the team.
A month ago, the A’s and Angels came out on top as the two best teams in baseball, with a pretty good sized gap between them and the third place team. That remains true, and the gap has only gotten larger. The gap between the #2 and #3 teams is now essentially equal to the gap between #3 and #13. Or, to put it this way, the Angels are as far ahead of the Cardinals as the Cardinals are ahead of the Cubs. The Angels have gone 16-10 since the first publication of this list suggested they were better than their mediocre start, but by their underlying performance, even that could be considered a disappointing result.
It’s tempting to still see the Angels as an offensive juggernaut who is trying to get enough pitching to survive, but the team has actually been just as good at the things that prevent run scoring as they are at the things that lead to run scoring; they are third in the majors in expected runs scored, but tied for second in expected runs allowed. Because their wOBA allowed is being driven by in-play outs as opposed to the kinds of things that are more obviously good pitching — they have allowed just a .269 BABIP — it’s less likely that they will sustain this kind of performance all year, but even with some expected regression, it’s time to stop thinking of the Angels as a team that is going to give up a lot of runs. Their defense is good, the pitching is fine, and they can really hit. The Angels of 2014 are playing like the team people have been expecting the Angels to be for a few years now.
And yet, they’re still playing as well as the A’s, who are just a steamroller destroying anything in their path. It’s still hard to fathom that a team of cast-offs is this good, but we’re going on over a year of total dominance, and they’re not showing any signs of slowing down. The A’s are amazing.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Diamondbacks are no longer the league’s biggest dumpster fire, as both the Padres and Phillies have surpassed them with a combination of lousy everything. Expect all three to be sellers in July.
But then, look at who is fourth from the bottom; the defending World Champs. Injuries have been a legitimate problem, but the Red Sox haven’t fluked their way into a big hole; they have really played terrible baseball over the last month. It’s too early to write them off after a couple of bad months, but it’s certainly worth noting that this isn’t a team that is simply failing to hit in critical situations, with an obvious area for progression coming. For two months, the Red Sox have just played like one of the worst teams in baseball.
And as Jeff noted this morning, the Astros are showing some real signs of improvement. They had a -59 expected run differential four weeks ago, and now they’re at just -18; in other words, they’ve played like a team that should have outscored their opponents by 41 runs over their last 27 games. For the better part of the month of May, the Astros have played like one of the best teams in baseball. Of course, the fact that they were atrocious in April still counts, and we shouldn’t ignore previous history when projecting them forward, but they certainly appear to be significantly improved.
The season still has four months to go, so there’s enough time for the teams in the middle to change their course and salvage the 2014 season before it is entirely a lost cause. I wouldn’t even give up entirely on the Red Sox yet. But these numbers are a good reminder of who is actually playing well on a daily basis, rather than who is just getting hits or outs in the right situation, inflating their run differential and win-loss record in the process. Right now, it looks like the road to the World Series runs through the American League West.
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