The Orioles Battle Pythagoras

September 5, 2012
At this moment in the 2012 baseball season, the Baltimore Orioles have a 65-70 record, which has them in the basement of the American League East, looking up at the first place battle raging between the Yankees and Rays. The Red Sox are at exactly .500. Even the Blue Jays, absent Bautista and Lawrie, are the bird-pride of the division.
 
At least, that’s how it should be, based on the number of runs scored and runs allowed in the division. The hitting-heavy Yankees have averaged 4.8 runs scored per game, and have allowed 4.1 The pitching-deep Rays have a 4.2/3.6 split. The Red Sox are holding steady at 4.9/4.9…
 
The Orioles have allowed 4.5 runs per game. They have scored just 4.2 runs per game. Based on Pythagorean expectation, the Orioles should be five games under .500, battling the Blue Jays for last place.
 
Baltimore’s actual win-loss record is 76-59. They are currently seventeen games over .500. At this moment, they’re in a first-place tie with the Yankees.  
 
The Baltimore team is out-performing their expected win-loss record by eleven games. This has raised a number of questions. I’ll tackle some of them here.  
 
Question 1: How rare is this, exactly?
 
Very rare. Since we’ve had two major leagues, only nineteen teams have posted a win-loss record ten games better than their expected/Pythagorean win-loss record.
 
Nineteen teams, or one team every six years or so.
 
Question 2: Can you list them?
 
 Sure…
 
Year
Team
W-L
Pyth W-L
2009
Mariners
85-77
+10
2008
Angels
100-62
+12
2007
D'Backs
90-72
+11
2005
D'Backs
77-85
+11
2004
Yankees
101-61
+12
1997
Giants
90-72
+10
1984
Mets
90-72
+12
1972
Mets
82-73
+11
1970
Reds
102-60
+11
1961
Reds
93-61
+10
1955
Athletics
63-91
+10
1954
Dodgers
92-62
+11
1943
Braves
68-85
+10
1936
Cardinals
87-67
+10
1932
Pirates
86-68
+10
1931
Athletics
107-45
+10
1924
Dodgers
92-62
+11
1917
Cardinals
82-70
+11
1905
Tigers
79-74
+14
 
We’ll talk about a few of these teams later on down the page.
 
Question 3: The Orioles are trying to reach the playoffs. How many of these teams reached the playoffs? How many finished first?
 
We’ll split them up….two teams did terrible,despite their drastically better-than-expected win-loss record:
 
Year
Team
Finish
1955
Athletics
6th
1943
Braves
6th
 
It’s remarkable that these teams managed to be terrible despite a drastically better-than-they-deserved win-loss record. It’s hard to be terrible and lucky: the 1955 A’s and the 1943 Braves pulled it off.
 
Ten of the teams finished second or third….not quite first, but generally in contention:
 
Year
Team
Finish
2009
Mariners
3rd
2005
D'Backs
2nd
1984
Mets
2nd
1972
Mets
2nd
1954
Dodgers
2nd
1936
Cardinals
2nd
1932
Pirates
2nd
1924
Dodgers
2nd
1917
Cardinals
3rd
1905
Tigers
3rd
 
Which leaves seven teams that finished in first place:
 
Year
Team
Finish
2008
Angels
1st
2007
D'Backs
1st
2004
Yankees
1st
1997
Giants
1st
1970
Reds
1st
1961
Reds
1st
1931
Athletics
1st
 
Question 4: How did those first-place teams do in the postseason? Did they win the World Series? If they came along in the Championship or Division Series eras, did they advance?
 
They did badly. 
 
Year
Team
First Round
Second Round
2008
Angels
Lost ALDS, 3-1 (Red Sox)
 **
2007
D'Backs
Won NLDS, 3-0 (Cubs)
Lost NLCS, 4-0 (Rockies)
2004
Yankees
Won ALDS, 3-1 (Twins)
Lost ALCS, 4-3 (Red Sox)
1997
Giants
Lost NLDS, 3-0 (Marlins)
 **
1970
Reds
Won NLCS, 3-0 (Pirates)
Lost World Series, 4-1 (Orioles)
1961
Reds
Lost World Series, 4-1 (Yankees)
 **
1931
Athletics
 Lost World Series, 4-3 (Cardinals)
 **
 
Two teams reached the World Series prior to the division split….both teams lost their matchup.

 
The 1970 Reds won the NLCS in a clean sweep over the Pirates….they were the first +10 Pythagorean team to win a series. They lost the World Series.
 
Of the four +10 Pythagorean teams from the Wild Card era, two won their Division Series matchups (2004 Yankees and 2007 Diamondbacks). Both teams lost in the Championship Series.
 
Question 5: What about the years to come? Does a really high ‘luck’ factor translate to contention in future years, or do teams that exceed their expected win-loss records tend to drop out of the pennant race?
 
I thought the answer would be the second one: that teams that contended with a high ‘luck’ factor tended to drop off.
 
The Orioles will obviously finish over .500 this year…leaving out the sub-.500 teams that notched at least ten more wins than their run differential suggested, we have sixteen teams to look at. So we’re not looking at long tables, I’ll split them up into pre- and post-Division era groups.
 
Starting with the old +10 Pythagorean teams:
 
Year
Team
Finish
1 Year Later
2 Years Later
3 Years Later
4 Years Later
1905
Tigers
3rd
6th
1st, Lost WS
1st, Lost WS
1st, Lost WS
1917
Cardinals
3rd
8th
7th
5th
3rd
1924
Dodgers
2nd
6th
6th
6th
6th
1931
Athletics
1st
2nd
3rd
5th
8th
1932
Pirates
2nd
2nd
5th
4th
4th
1936
Cardinals
2nd
4th
6th
2nd
3rd
1954
Dodgers
2nd
1st, Won WS
1st, Lost WS
3rd
8th
1961
Reds
1st
3rd
5th
2nd
4th
 
Only two of the eight teams reached the World Series in the four-year window after their ‘luck’ seasons:
 
The 1905 Tigers went on to reach the World Series in three consecutive years, losing in 1907-1909. The 1905 team had an eighteen-year old backup outfielder who hit .240 over 41 games. Two years later, at age 20, that same kid led the league in batting average and stolen bases, winning the first of eleven batting titles. His name was Mike Trout Ty Cobb.
 
The 1954 Dodgers were a famous team: they won the 1955 World Series over the Yankees, and lost the 1956 Series. (This is a question unrelated to anything else: I could name five starting players on that team….five of the eight. Snider, Campy, Robinson, Hodges, Reese. I bet most semi-knowledgeable fans could name that many. How many teams is this true for?
 
I could only do four for the 1927 Yankees: Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri and Combs (I missed Bob Meusel). I thought I’d do well on the 1961 Yankees, but they didn’t have Rizzuto or Martin then. I got Mantle, Maris, Berra, and Howard.
 
The Big Red Machine have to be the champs: Morgan, Rose, and Bench are the big names; George Foster, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey and Dave Concepcion came easy enough. What are the other teams that a casual fan can list the majority of lineup card?)
 
Okay…digression over. Back to the chart.
 
Two of the eight teams reached the World Series. But other teams had successful seasons in the years following their ‘luck’ seasons:
 
-The 1933 Pirates, fresh off a +10 season, managed to against finish second in 1933, five games behind the Giants. They had another positive luck score (+5), but they were a contending team.
 
-The 1939 Cardinals, three years removed from a +10 season, finished just 4.5 games back of the Reds, also in second place. With a core of Johnny Mize, Ducky Medwick, and Enos Slaughter, this team was as good as their record suggested (+1 luck score). It was Medwick’s last good season, but Stan Musial was coming around the corner.
 
-Lastly, the 1964 Reds went down the wire for the NL pennant, losing the race on the last day of the season, and finishing in a tie for second place, a single game behind the Cardinals. The Reds were a luck-neutral team in 1964, while the Cardinals were +5. Pete Rose stole four bases in fourteen attempts.
 
In the pre-Division Series era, five of the eight teams contended for a spot in the World Series, in the four year-window following their ‘luck’ seasons.
 
Looking at the eight Division Era teams:
 
Year
Team
Finish
1 Year Later
2 Years Later
3 Years Later
4 Years Later
1970
Reds
1st
4th
1st, Lost WS
1st, Lost NLCS
2nd
1972
Mets
2nd
1st, Lost WS
5th
3rd
3rd
1984
Mets
2nd
2nd
1st, Won WS
2nd
1st, lost NLCS
1997
Giants
1st
2nd
2nd
1st, Lost NLDS
2nd
2004
Yankees
1st
1st, Lost ALDS
1st, Lost ALDS
2nd, Lost ALDS
3rd
2007
D'Backs
1st
2nd
5th
5th
1st, Lost NLCS
2008
Angels
1st
1st, Lost ALCS
3rd
2nd
3rd
2009
Mariners
3rd
4th
4th
4th (?)
n/a
 
All of these teams reached the playoffs again.
 
Well…not all of them. The 2009 Seattle Mariners didn’t reach the playoffs in 2010 or 2011, and they probably won’t in 2012. We’ll see how 2013 plays out before we write them off.
 
But the other seven teams all reached the playoffs in the four-year window following their ‘lucky’ season.
 
Granted, this is partially because it’s easier to reach the playoffs now. In the Division Era, four teams reached the playoffs every year. In the Wild Card era, it’s been eight teams (and it’ll go up to ten this year).
 
It’s interesting that two of these teams are ‘dynasty’ teams, the teams of their decade: the Big Red Machine lost the 1972 World Series, but they won in 1975 and 1976, and were in contention in nine of the ten seasons of the decade.
 
The other dynasty team is the New York Mets. Despite having only one championship to show for it, the Amazings were a terrific team from 1984 thru 1990, finishing first or second in the NL East every year. In a decade where no team managed two World Series victories, we’ll give ‘em the nod.  
 
Bottom line: teams that have really ‘lucky’ seasons tend to go from ‘lucky’ to ‘really good’ in subsequent years. Good news for Orioles fans.
 
Question 6: Do you think the Orioles are building a dynasty?
 
Well…maybe. I doubt it.
 
I’m really happy for the Orioles and their fans: Baltimore’s had a rough string of years in the AL East, and it’s fun to see them make a Cinderella run this year. I’ve been waiting for them to fall back to the pack all year; instead they’ve been surging. I’m rooting for the O’s.
 
But the core of the current team isn’t great. The offense relies heavily on homeruns: the hitters are ranked 11th in the American League in on-base percentage, and eighth in slugging percentage. Their pitching staff has an ERA a few ticks ahead of the league average (4.01 to 4.08), but the six relief pitchers with sub-3.00 ERA’s have a lot to do with that.
 
The best Orioles this season, according to b-WAR, are starter Wei-Yin Chen (2.8), relief pitcher Pedro Strop (2.8), outfielder Adam Jones (2.6), catcher Matt Wieters (2.3), and shortstop J.J. Hardy (2.2). Nick Markakis is having a typical Nick Markakis season (.300 batting average) and Chris Davis has an outside shot of reaching 30 homeruns. It’s a young (though not drastically young) group of players, but only Jones and Wieters are likely to get MVP votes in the coming years.
 
The Orioles minor league system has some interesting players: Manny Machado is already in the major leagues, and Dylan Bundy has been excellent in AA (2.08 ERA, 10.3 K/9 in A/AA ball). But it’s a shallow minor league system, probably not one of the top-fifteen in baseball.
 
The starting pitching is interesting: Chris Tillman, who entered the season with a 5.58 ERA, has posted a 7-2 record this year, along with a staff-best 3.29 ERA (in short playing time). Chen and Jason Hammel have been effective. If former first-round pick Brian Matusz can turn around a disappointing career, an optimist could imagine the Orioles trying to build a perennial contender around a deep pitching staff. But with the (better) Bundy brother still a year from the majors, it’s unlikely that the Orioles pitching staff will jump ahead of the Rays and Yankees rotations.
 
But they’re doing something special now: they’re winning. Against all expectations, the Orioles are tied for first place in the AL East. Here’s hoping the luck stays with them.  
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

KaiserD2
I had some problems with this study. The teams that were identified were teams that had overperformed by winning a lot of close games. Some of those teams, however, such as the 2004 Yankees and the 1970 Reds and the 1931 Athletics, were very good teams anyway. There was no reason to expect those teams not to do well in the nexts season or not to do well in the post season. On the other hand, many of the teams on the list were either mediocre of terrible and you wouldn't expect much from them. It seems to me the study should have compared the performance of all these teams in the year they overperformed to the next year, I think that would shown a decline in a majority of cases. But the study used an absolute measurement--how high they finished--rather than a relative one--how did they do in comparison to their record in the year they beat Pythagoras.
The 1984 Mets, one of the biggest overperformers, managed to improve the following year, but only because they strengthened their roster very significantly, adding Gary Carter. Unless the Orioles make dramatic moves there is absolutely no reason to expect them to contend for the division title next year.
11:23 AM Sep 10th
 
studes
I'm just testing, Dave. You can ignore this.
6:43 PM Sep 7th
 
sprox
100 years ago that 20-year-old ballplayer's name was .... I see what you did there.

Very nicely done, sir!
7:55 PM Sep 5th
 
brewer09
The Dodgers are probably the team of the decade. Two World Series titles. Two pennants. Four division titles. Two second-place finishes, losing a one-game playoff in 1980 and on the last day of the season in 1982.

The Cardinals won one World Series, three pennants, three division titles and had the best record in the NL in 1981.

The Royals won one World Series, two pennants, three division titles and made the playoffs in 1981. They finished second four times.

The Mets won one World Series, one pennant, two division titles. They finished second four times.

The Phillies won one World Series, two pennants, two division titles and made the playoffs in 81. They finished second twice.

The Athletics won one World Series, two pennants, two division titles and had the best record in the league in 81. They finished second once.

The Yankees had the best record of the decade with just one pennant and two division titles. The finished second twice.

4:52 PM Sep 5th
 
tigerlily
Nice article. Thanks, Dave
2:28 PM Sep 5th
 
pgaskill
Yup, the '81 playoffs would have been Cardinals vs. Reds and Brewers vs. Athletics without the *retroactive* split-season monstrosity. (The splittiness was announced *after* the first half was over; in fact, since they didn't know when the games would start again, I doubt it was announced until that date was known. Don't remember that part, but I do remember that it came as a surprise to teams that had already won [or lost] their half-flag.) Anyway, note that *neither* of the NL teams ended up winning *either* half-season, but they had the two best records in the league full-season-wise. (In fact, the Reds had the best record in baseball.)
9:23 AM Sep 5th
 
3for3
Greg: Dave probably blocked out 1981, as did many basbeall fans. The Dodgers didn't even win their division, if the season had just remained one season, instead of the split season monstrosity.
7:56 AM Sep 5th
 
Trailbzr
BillJ has brought up a couple of times (spread out over three years) a system to equate final scores with W-L percentages. I wonder if that's developed enough to evaluate what the Orioles' record in different score ranges "should" be, and whether the 24-7 in one-run contests is the whole reason they're tied for the division lead at this writing. Or if it has something to do with having three starters who are 12-27.
7:40 AM Sep 5th
 
gregforman
In your section regarding th 1980's Mets you are mistaken about no team winning two World Serieses that decade. The Dodgers won in '81 and '88.
6:09 AM Sep 5th
 
 
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