Run differentials tyrannize standings

Brian Kersey

One of my favorite moments, during my previous professional life, was when ESPN.com started showing runs scored and allowed on their standings page. If you're young enough, it might be hard to imagine a decent standings page without those columns, but please trust me: This is a relatively recent innovation. And there wasn't some diktat handed down by the suits in Bristol or New York; there was just one young man who thought it would be a good idea, and did it. And now it's there, and we look at it every day. Once the season really gets going, anyway.

A few days ago, I decided the season was going plenty, and I should write my annual hey-look-how-well-run-differentials-track-the-standings column. It was going to be real interesting! There were four or five teams slightly out of place!

But that was a few days ago, and now the standings and the run differentials correspond so closely that this column's just barely worth writing. I hope. Because I'm still writing it.

As I'm sure you know, there's a strong relationship between runs scored, runs allowed, and winning percentage. We've known this for quite some time and ... well, I suppose it's always been obvious that if you score more runs than your opponents you'll probably win more games than you lose, and that if you score a lot more runs than you allow, you'll probably win a lot more games than you lose. But Bill James actually quantified this relationship with something he called "the Pythagorean method," and of course that method's been refined a bit over the years.

What's most interesting are the teams that stubbornly refuse to adhere to the Pythagorean method; was any team more interesting last season than the Orioles, who won nearly a dozen games more than their run differential might have suggested? Alas, teams like the 2012 Orioles are few and far between. This season their record precisely mirrors their run differential. Exactly as we might have expected.

Really, it's fairly amazing how quickly the standings and the run differentials line up. You'd think, or at least some people probably think, that the relationship's not really that strong. That the blowout wins and losses just don't even out, or might even out eventually but certainly not before the calendar turns from May to June.

Except, look at the standings.

In the American League East, the standings line up precisely with the run differentials.

In the American League Central, the standings line up precisely with the run differentials.

In the American League West, the standings line up precisely with the run differentials.

In the National League East ... well, finally we've got a glitch. A tiny glitch. The third-place Phillies have been outscored by 43 runs, and the fourth-place Mets have been outscored by 41 runs.

In the National League Central, the standings line up precisely with the run differentials.

In the National League West, finally we've got something that looks pretty interesting: the Colorado Rockies have the best run differential (+31) ... but they're in third place. Sure, they're just 2½ games out of first place. But third place is third place, and the Rockies trail the Diamondbacks (+26) and (somewhat oddly) the Giants (+1). Still, everything might look normal in just a few days, or in a week.

It's not really so simple. Some strange things do happen that don't necessarily show up in the standard rankings of the different baseball clubs. The 21-27 Royals should be 24-24, if you believe their run differential. If you believe run differential, the 26-25 Nationals should actually be 24-27, which would make them even more disappointing than they've been. The Pirates have probably been a little lucky, and the Cubs have probably been more than a little unlucky.

There are other ways to be lucky, and unlucky. But as Brian Kenny tried (and failed) to convince Harold Reynolds last week, run differentials predict wins and losses better than wins and losses. Which doesn't mean the Nationals are dead, or that the Cubs' rebuilding efforts are working sooner than we expected.

It's okay to wonder some, though.

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