James Baker: Beating Pythagoras

The Baltimore Orioles have been confounding sabermetricians and national pundits all year. The Orioles currently sit eight games over .500 and are tied for the second wild card spot, even though they have been outscored this year. And not just outscored, but outscored badly. The Orioles’ current run differential is currently -55 (447-502), which is awful. It is one of the worst run differentials in baseball and should not belong to a team in a legitimate playoff hunt.

Bill James developed something called the Pythagorean Win Percentage. Looking at the team’s runs allowed and runs scored and putting them in a modified Pythagorean Theorem, you should get an “expected” win percentage. Right now with those numbers, the Orioles should have a record of 46-60.

If you wonder why this team is not being taken seriously by national media outlets and seems impossibly low on many power rankings, it is this. It is hard to ignore a -55 run deficit. Normally you see a team that is outperforming their expected win total and you think two things:

* They are very lucky.
* They will come crashing down eventually.

Therefore, every major baseball mind has been waiting for the impending collapse of the Baltimore Orioles. No team beats their Pythagorean record by that much. It just doesn’t happen.

Here is why it is happening.

One of the problems with run differential is that it assumes that, over time, the runs get spread out pretty evenly. It assumes that an average team will get blown out (losses by 5+ runs) in a bunch of games, but will most likely blow out other teams to even things out. Good teams will score more runs, bad teams will have more runs scored on them.

Then along came the 2012 Orioles to screw everything up and defy maths and all sense of logic. Or are they? Here’s how it breaks down:

The Orioles’ biggest strength is arguably its bullpen. It has been well-managed and well-constructed and has been playing at an exemplary level. The Orioles’ biggest weakness has been its inconsistent starting pitching outside of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.

Combine that with a middling offense, at best, and you get what you see here.

When the Orioles are allowed to leverage their best asset, their bullpen, they usually win. When that asset is largely taken away, they usually lose. And that makes all the difference.

Take a look at June and July, the two months where the Orioles run differential really got out of whack. Let’s take a look at June, when the Orioles were 13-13 with a run differential of -30. But things become more interesting if you focus on 10 the blowout games.

0-5 -5
0-7 -7
7-1 +6
12-6 +6
5-0 +5
0-5 -5
0-5 -5
1-13 -12
2-7 -5
5-11 -6

In June, the Orioles were 3-7 in blowout games. That led to a run differential of -28. Looking at June another way, in non-blowout games, the Orioles were 10-6 with a -2 run differential. That is MUCH more acceptable when it comes to the expected wins. It also is worth noting that all seven of the Orioles non-blowout wins, out of 13 total, in June were either by one or two runs.

July works out largely the same way. The Orioles were 13-14 with a run differential of -29. The Orioles were 3-5 in blowouts with a run differential of -24. In non-blowout games the Orioles are 10-8 with a -5 differential.

But James, you rugged exemplar of all things man, Can’t you do that for all teams? Yes, I am sure you could. But while it would not reveal much in those teams’ records, it does reveal how the Orioles have been winning games - by keeping things close. When the starting pitching goes bad, it tends to go very bad. But when the starting pitching gives the Orioles a chance, and the team is allowed to leverage its strongest asset, its bullpen, the team wins more often than not. Moreover, the Orioles’ offense has not been able to score enough runs to blowout teams on a regular basis to make up for those handful of very bad losses.

Just to drive home my point: Over the last 20 games, the Orioles are 13-7. This dates back to the beginning of the Orioles’ five game win streak through Minnesota and Cleveland, and the lowest point of their record when the team was only two games over .500. Since then the Orioles have gained five games, and have a run differential of +5. In that stretch of games the Orioles have given up 41 runs, but 18 of those runs came in two losses. In every other game, the Orioles have a 12-5 record with a run differential of +23.

This may not fully explain the mystery of how the Orioles are beating their run differential by such a wide margin, but it does give one food for thought. Dumb luck simply cannot explain how the Orioles have stayed in the race this long, but I do not expect any national writer to put this team under a microscope and dissect it even further. And I don’t blame them. But the 2012 Orioles are currently doing something very unique. There is no doubt about that, and if they can keep it up it might be a season that will have the stat gurus scratching their heads for a long time.

James Baker blogs about the Orioles at Oriole Post. His observations about the O’s appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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