Posted August 08, 2012

Why the Orioles’ postseason dream is all but impossible

Baltimore Orioles

Closer Jim Johnson and the rest of Baltimore’s bullpen deserve much of the credit for keeping the team in the hunt. (Icon SMI)

At a moment when the Nationals, A’s and Pirates are all in line for postseason berths, one other surprise contender isn’t receiving much love: the Orioles. Yet they continue to remain in the playoff picture. Thanks to a 57-51 record, they’re second in the AL East, 6 1/2 games out of first place, and fourth in the Wild Card standings, one game out of a spot. Over the past week, they took two out of three from the division-leading Yankees in New York, and then two out of three from the Rays in Tampa Bay. All season long, they have held their own within the game’s toughest division, going 22-19 (.537) against AL East opponents, compared to 24-20 (.545) for the Rays, 20-17 (.541) for the Yankees, 15-19 (.441) for the Blue Jays, and 18-24 (.429) for the Red Sox.

Though they’re vying to be the franchise’s first playoff team — and first team above .500 — since 1997, the Orioels haven’t received the same amount of respect as the aforementioned surprise clubs because they’ve been outscored by 57 runs (501 to 444). Among AL clubs, the Rays (+19), Red Sox (+29), Blue Jays (+9) and Mariners (-3) all have better run differentials, even with the Sox, Jays and M’s a combined 11 games below .500. In fact, at this point in the season no other team with a record above .500 has a run differential that’s in the red. Baltimore’s Pythagorean record — its record based upon runs scored and runs allowed, a better predictor of future performance than a team’s actual record — is 48-60.

So how seriously should we take the Orioles? The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which are driven by remaining schedule and run differentials, adjusted for the quality of opposition, gives Baltimore just a 5.7 percent chance at making the playoffs. Even the Red Sox, who at 54-55 are 3 1/2 games below them in the standings, have a 10.2 percent shot. Those odds aren’t simply theoretical, as history suggests the deck is strongly stacked against them. Few teams wind up exceeding their Pythagorean records by nine wins, and even fewer teams with negative run differentials reach the playoffs.

It’s exceedingly rare for a team with a negative run differential to make the playoffs. In fact, just five have done so: the 1984 Royals (-13), 1987 Twins (-20), 1997 Giants (-9), 2005 Padres (-44) and 2007 Diamondbacks (-20). The Twins, who went 85-77, are the only one of those teams to win the World Series, with the Diamondbacks the only other team in that group to win a postseason series; they and the Giants are the only ones from among those teams who reached 90 victories. That said, none of those five teams played prior to the advent of division play (1969), and three of them hail from the Wild Card era (1995 onward). Given the addition of an extra Wild Card in each league this year, the likelihood that a team with a negative run differential might make the postseason increases, but it’s hard to imagine that a team with a differential 30 percent worse than the previous record-setting outlier, the 2005 Padres, can even squeeze into the “coin-toss” game.

It’s only slightly more common for a team to outdo its expected record by such a wide margin. Since 1901, 25 teams have exceeded their Pythagorean records by at least nine games in a non-strike season. Again, those teams aren’t distributed evenly throughout history; eight of them have occurred since the beginning of the Wild Card era:

YEAR TM W-L Actual WPCT Pythag. WPCT Wins Above Pythag
1905 Tigers 79-74 .516 .427 13.7
2008 Angels 100-62* .617 .543 12.0
2004 Yankees 101-61* .623 .551 11.7
2005 Diamondbacks 77-85 .475 .403 11.7
1984 Mets 90-72 .556 .483 11.7
1954 Dodgers 92-62 .597 .522 11.6
1955 A’s 63-91 .409 .334 11.5
1970 Reds 102-60* .630 .560 11.3
1924 Dodgers 92-62 .597 .525 11.2
2007 Diamondbacks 90-72* .556 .487 11.1
1972 Mets 83-73 .532 .461 11.1
1917 Cardinals 82-70 .539 .470 10.5
1961 Reds 93-61* .604 .538 10.1
1936 Cardinals 87-67 .565 .499 10.1
1997 Giants 90-72* .556 .494 10.0
2004 Reds 76-86 .469 .409 9.8
1932 Pirates 86-68 .558 .495 9.8
2009 Mariners 85-77 .525 .465 9.7
1943 Braves 68-85 .444 .382 9.5
1974 Padres 60-102 .370 .312 9.4
1946 Senators 76-78 .494 .432 9.4
1977 Orioles 97-64 .602 .545 9.3
1978 Reds 92-69 .571 .514 9.2
1998 Royals 72-89 .447 .391 9.1
1913 Senators 90-64 .584 .526 9.0

As denoted by the asterisks, six of those 26 teams made the playoffs, four of them in the Wild Card era, which raises the question as to why this should be something that’s more common recently. The reason may have to do with the increasing load being carried by bullpens. Back in 2009, I studied the history of Pythagorean overachievers for Baseball Prospectus and found that teams most likely to exceed their expected records tended to have bullpens that ranked among the league’s best. The focus in that study was on what BP calls third-order Pythagorean records, that is, records adjusted for expected runs scored and allowed, and the quality of opposition, as well as a measure of bullpen effectiveness that the site has since rendered obsolete.

Intuitively, the principle makes sense, however. We often talk of teams that over- or underperform their projected records as “lucky” or “unlucky,” but it’s a misnomer to chalk up the entirety of such discrepancies to luck. They generally stem from an irregular distribution of runs. “Randomness” may be a better term, but there’s often a method to the madness, in that overachieving teams tend to win most of the close games — the ones where narrow leads are protected by a team’s best relievers — but get blown out a few times, in games where the team’s worst pitchers are most likely to be deployed.

The Orioles fit that pattern almost to a tee. They have the league’s third-best bullpen ERA at 3.16, though that mark is offset somewhat by their league-high 36 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. Their Fair Run Average, which divides up the responsibility for inherited runners between starters and relievers according to the base-out situation, ranks fifth in the league at 4.18.

What’s remarkable is that the Orioles are an astounding 21-6 in one-run games, producing the highest winning percentage (.778) in such games since 1901. The 1970 Orioles hold the record for the best winning percentage over the course of a 162-game season at .727 (40-15), though that mark was bettered by the 1981 Orioles (.750 at 21-7 in a strike-shortened season) and 1908 Pirates (.733 at 33-12 in a 154-game season).

Furthermore, these Orioles are an MLB-best 36-17 (.679) in one- and two-run games, with a winning percentage that would rank 12th since 1901. They’re 19 games above .500 in a subset of games in which they have outscored opponents by just 23 runs; their Pythagorean winning percentage in such games is .552, meaning that they’ve won about seven more games than expected in that subset. Meanwhile, they’re 13-19 in games decided by at least five runs, six games below .500 in a subset in which they’ve been outscored by 54 runs; even there, they’ve won about one-and-a-half more games than expected via their Pythagorean record. No other team with a winning record this season has a sub-.500 record in such blowouts, and in fact, one has to go back to the aforementioned 2007 Diamondbacks to find a team that lost more blowouts than they’ve won and still made the playoffs. Those Diamondbacks went 20-26 (.435) in such games while being outscored by 62 runs, compared to 47-29 (.618) in games decided by two-runs or fewer, and 32-20 (.615) in games decided by one run.

Even given the strong performance of their best relievers — at 3.47, closer Jim Johnson has a higher ERA than setup men Pedro Strop (1.31), Luis Ayala (2.68) and Darren O’Day (2.68) — the weight of the historical evidence strongly suggests that the Orioles aren’t likely to keep winning the close ones with such frequency. If they can’t win the close ones, the O’s aren’t likely to remain in the crowded playoff hunt, or even sustain a winning record; indeed, after a 14-9 April, they’ve gone a combined 43-42 since then, while being outscored by 69 runs. Even so, while run differential is predictive, it is not destiny, and the Birds’ ability to even maintain a competitive front given the imbalance between their runs scored and runs allowed is one of those fascinating anomalies that bears watching.

34 comments
Dmac
Dmac

Wow don't they look like Azzhats :)

 

StevieHagerman
StevieHagerman

yeah bet you feel dumb as hell now! 5% chance huh?!

JoeWong
JoeWong

There are so many stats in sports - especially in baseball that can lead or indicate winners and losers. However, only one true stat matters - WINS.

palatinetickets
palatinetickets

Come on SI! You let this blither pass and accept it as though it is meeting SI standards but the article is of similar quality to Yahoo. It contains a misconceived topic backed by faulty math written by an inwardly obvious Oriole hater. The Orioles run differential on August 6 will have a different look on October 4 yet you are comparing their Aug 6 numbers to season end numbers of the other teams. Shame on you. You know better. And if you don't know better then stop writing articles as though you do. You should have done the research to see how other teams that were -57 runs as of Aug 6 had done by the end of the season. I know why. Because that would have been W-O-R-K and a lot of it because you can't just flip over to baseballprospectus.com and find a simple answer to the incredibly complicated outcome scenario as easily as you'd like. Although lucky for you most of America is also made up of blithering idiots who chew this up as a well researched article without question because the source is SI.

e8plumer
e8plumer

It is fascinating but the bullpen has been unbelievable all year. Johnson's ERA is misleading, he was awful for 2 weeks in July hiking it from 1.5 to 3.5. What people overlook is their 32 road wins(best in AL) and their 9-3 record in NY and Bos. This team will win 80-88 games.

bncegod
bncegod

The author has so little respect for the Orioles, that he wrote "Orioeles" in the 2nd paragraph.  Nice.

jdbolick
jdbolick

I just want a winning season.  Making the postseason would be awesome, but as a lifelong Orioles fan I'm thrilled that the team is watchable again.  That's pretty much all I ask.

andrews.j.m
andrews.j.m

Post hock ergo propter hoc. These concepts always seem like nothing more than lucky coincidence- its hard to believe that outcomes reached from the utilization of limited pieces of data, out of the exponential number of true factors, is anything more than a hot streak at the roulette table. Mankind's deeply-ingrained need to extrapolate, identify patterns, and ultimately impose order to the terrifying fact that is "chaos" is both a blessing and a curse. It helps us to evolve intellectually, to solve problems, to grow scientifically and to advance our species.

Unfortunately, ugly little side-effects also occur, such as these formulas. We all love to satisfy ourselves by attempting to account for everything by way of tidy little exercises in applied mathematics, but the fact of the matter is that these theorems born of historical aggregations amount to little more than saying that sharks live in water because they were born with fins. For instance: Oriole relievers have inherited a total of 152 runners, of which 55 have scored. Luis Ayala has allowed 18 of 32 inherited runners to score on the season. (The lion's share of this damage occurred prior to the all-star break.) The removal of his contribution to this statistic drops the inherited-runners-scored to 30.8%. Does a drop from 36.25% to 30.8% cause any significant movement in the team-reliever ranking (vs. all other teams) in this category? Subsequent to Ayala's allowing of 2 inherited runners to score vs Oakland (7/27), he has been given the responsibility of exactly 1 inherited runner in his last 6 appearances. It is likely that this trend was identified by (anyone with eyeballs, including the coaches) and his game-utilization modified accordingly- something hardly accounted for in these elaborate equations. Jim Johnson's meltdown in the very same game vs. Oakland (6 runs in 1 IP), ballooned his era by 1.22 in a single appearance (2.49 to 3.71). His 5 ER in 1/3 IP against the Twins earlier in the month caused it to rise by 1.15 (1.41 to 2.56). 1 1/3 anomalous innings out of 47 2/3 create a grotesque distortion. (I am unsure what should be derived from the mention that his ERA is higher "than setup men Pedro Strop (1.31), Luis Ayala (2.68) and Darren O’Day (2.68)".) Incidentally, if one removes Johnson's two above-mentioned outings from the Orioles RS/RA statistics, the differential drops to -38. The latter game, which also included 6 unearned runs resulting from a single two-out error, further drops the differential to -32. A pragmatic eye must see that 6 unearned runs is a highly atypical result of a single error committed. (The Orioles lead MLB with 84 errors on the season- Orioles pitching has surrendered 51 unearned runs on the season- resulting in 0.607 unearned runs per error). I digress. The two games above account for nearly 35% of the negative run differential balance. Another two losses in the first half (Texas: 14 - 3; 10 - 3) account for another 18 runs, reducing the remaining differential by more than half (now at -14). As an aside, these two losses were started by Brian Matusz (5.42 ERA), and Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA), respectively. Neither pitcher has started a game or appeared in relief for the team in over a month, and both are likely to remain in at the triple-A affiliate indefinitely. Arrieta's ERA was above 4 by his fourth start of the season; Matusz's first start resulted in a 9.00 ERA which never dipped below 4.5. The replacement of 40% of the starting pitching staff (and resulting statistics) with the present starting pitching staff's median statistics likely influence these predictive equations to some moderately significant degree. How are factors such as those listed above, accounted for in these equations, or are they not? Have teams historically moved starting pitchers up and down between the majors and minors with the incredible frequency that some teams do presently? As mentioned, 8 of the 25 teams occurred since the beginning of the wildcard era; how differently are games, players, roles, and teams-as-a-whole managed now than they were 15, 25, 50 years or more ago, and what impact does that have on trying to catch a minnow with this dragnet equation? I'm too tired to conclude this voluminous essay with the obvious conclusions that might be drawn by the simple analysis above of how fleeting, nuanced factors invalidate significant degrees of these types of formulas. Perhaps tomorrow. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for the state of Florida- my dumb-luck theorem indicates that Florida is due for extensive brush-fires, given the historical propensity of states (whose names contain 6 - 8 letters, that touch at least 3 other states, and which feature horizontal, primarily-flat northern borders, in years which had both sunny and rainy days in at least two different months but a population of less than 60 million and a per-capita income/per-capita Sonic Drive-Thrus of less than $30,000-to-.0025) to suffer spontaneous desert-tumbleweed combustion.

MatthewGerardKnauer1
MatthewGerardKnauer1

And still they keep winning. Its okay. Just like our Ravens, we like to be dissed and spit on by the media. Makes it more satisfying to shove it back in their faces when we win.

Matt L
Matt L

Article title: "Don't discount the Orioles"

The article body: "Here's why you should discount the Orioles"

Great stuff...

RyanBrokaw
RyanBrokaw

Their is a reason the most popular thing SI does is A swim suit magazine... Go O's...

Steven1
Steven1

Why can't the media enjoy the fact the Orioles are competitive? Actual Win % is the only thing that matters.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @palatinetickets Wow, the whining O's fans certainly managed a quick infestation of this forum.   The article was nothing but one writer's projection, and suddenly he hates the Orioles and most SI readers are idiots?   Because the O's have become relevant for the first time since the 90's does not mean that they are without their flaws and that someone cannot point them out.  Lighten up and enjoy the ride.  It's only baseball.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @bncegod Yes, a typo is a sure sign of complete disrespect.  My god, you people and your whining about bias and disrespect are amusingly miserable.   The O's have not been relevant for years.  I would think that you would be enjoying their resurgence.  Instead you wallow in self-pity over an article.

andrews.j.m
andrews.j.m

Oh dumb, it smashed all the paragraphs together.  Enjoy your wall of text!

FeliciaFitzgerald
FeliciaFitzgerald

 @Matt L It's very rare that the author of an article picks the title of the printed article. That's typically done by another person who job is to give titles to the article.

Matt L
Matt L

 @RyanBrokaw I actually find myself coming more and more to SI for sports coverage with how crappy ESPN has gotten.  Gone are the days when ESPN was just another media outlet trying to find the story.  Here are the days when ESPN pulls a Fox News and tells us what to think about non-news stories that get overplayed and overhyped (See: Coverage of the Jets training camp)...

Max Kink
Max Kink

 @Steven1 Clearly there's an anti Orioles bias in the media these days.

raylemire
raylemire

 @Steven1 I agree. They play the games between the lines, not in a stats report.

palatinetickets
palatinetickets

 @JoeCabot It's not just "one writer's projection". It is SI giving me an article that they made meaningless by making a comparison without a control group. I didn't say SI readers are idiots. I said most of America is made up of idiots. But thanks for helping with my points.

andrews.j.m
andrews.j.m

@Matt L

The same reason I happened upon this article...Dear ESPN: Boston, New York, and LA (amongst others) all have their own specialty-sites within your main site. Do you really need to further inundate us with inane, sorority-house-like rumor chatter about the Jets, or 40,000,000 hours of Paterno/Sandusky/Penn State coverage, or yet another dozen or so breathtaking stories about Mike Trouts over-the-wall catch? You said it right- "...pulls a Fox News and tells us what to think..."

 

If this sort of rote recital of trivial theorems (which 20 years from now as baseball continues to evolve, will prove themselves far less impressive) is the alternative, then I guess I will just stick to the local coverage.

 

Oh well. At least kudos to SI for not lacing nearly as many videos with 15-second ads preceding 30-second clips, and putting 50% of their non-readily-available-statistics-and-recaps behind a pay-to-read wall.

 

Meh.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @Max Kink The Orioles have not been relevant, and suddenly there is an anti-O's bias?  Lighten up.   They guy wrote an article voicing his opinion that he does not believe that the Orioles will a playoff team at the end.   No bias.  No hating.  Just an opinion.

Matt L
Matt L

 @Max Kink It seems to come with being between DC and Philly/New York/Boston.  Sometimes feels like Baltimore sports just don't matter even when they're relevant.

RyanBrokaw
RyanBrokaw

I think the point is that all SI does is look at number and then writes an article... they were wrong last year i.e. braves,redsox and they are wrong this year.it is just an article but you can only write crap so long before you become irrelevant Oh wait... they are irrelevant cause of espn... the best thing si does is swimsuits...JoeCabot @palatinetickets

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @palatinetickets No thanks. This is only baseball, and this is only one baseball article.  The writer made his case that he does not believe that the O's will have enough to make the playoffs, yet for some reason a bunch of you took it personally, which still does not make sense to me.  As much as I love an underdog story and was enjoying the Orioles run,  I am starting to lean towards hoping they do miss the postseason since it will seemingly twist you guys in knots.  Games played by adults.  Why let it consume you?

palatinetickets
palatinetickets

 @JoeCabot This is a comments section, Joe. Not a compliments section. Although you've given me the advice twice, as you are the one critiquing a comment in the comments section maybe I should pass it back to you. Lighten up. Actually I take that back. You are light enough. You need to take these things a little more seriously. Get bitter inside and go show the world some logical pessimism. Have fun doing it but not too much fun. They'll see right thru the pessimism.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @palatinetickets You expect every article printed here to be on your terms?  Rather big expectations.   Lighten up.  All that bitterness will eat you from the inside.

FeliciaFitzgerald
FeliciaFitzgerald

 @tadonovan I'm I lifelong Red Sox fan as well and I find it very easy to root agains the O's (and I even lived in Annapolis for three years).

 

I'll never forgive the O's. Not for last season but for that game three years ago when they came back from a 10-1 deficit in the 8th to win the game. Un-freakin-believable...

tadonovan
tadonovan

 / \

  | Four people who didn't actually read the article. 

  |          

 

There is definitely a severe northeast sports bias that is obnoxious... but this is hardly an example of it. While Andrews did a great job of pointing out other potentially positive contributing factors on the O's that Jaffe didn't include in his piece, there is a wealth of statistical evidence far beyond the numbers for the Orioles' current season that bear out the predictive value of a team's Pythagorean record. It's not to say it can't happen. He's just making the case that there's strong evidence that it won't be easy. But victory is sweetest when it's born from improbable success, and even as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I can't help but root for the O's this year, and would love to see them make a run in the playoffs. Baseball's better when long-suffering teams have fairy tale seasons.