When you check the up to date MLB standings on MLB.com each morning, you see the following:
As of 8/8/2019, this is the current view and its not terrible for Milwaukee. They are currently tied with the Phillies for the 2nd Wild Card spot. Notice that both the Phillies and Brewers have something in common. They both have run differentials well into the red indicating they have given up more runs than they have scored. Typically this does not bode well considering that to win baseball games a team must score more than the opponent. Obvious, right? When looking at this picture, Arizona may look like the best Wild Card contender as their run differential is nearly 100 runs better over the course of the season. The AL is the exact opposite. Every team in the mix has a run differential in the green.
We can see this season that in one league there are two contenders who have scored less than they have allowed by a significant amount, and in the other, every contender has a run differential well in the green. What does this mean for the Brewers and Phillies? Obviously, everyone wants the Phillies to lose because nothing is more satisfying than seeing a team paying Bryce Harper the world not even make the playoffs. Harper is overrated. Who wasn’t even an All-Star this year? Oh yeah, Bryce Harper. I digress. But what about the lovable Brew Crew? They were one game away from the World Series last year and now are they bad? Well maybe not.
Baseball is a flukey game. If you’ve had the upbringing of being exposed to the game, you already know that. Run differential simply can shed light on a fluky team. What the negative run differentials mean for the Brewers and Phillies is that they win a lot of close games, but when they lose, they lose big. This makes sense. Here are the top ten teams with a margin of victory of 2 runs or less:
Both Milwaukee and Philidelphia rank in the top ten. This historically has been seen as something that is unsustainable to keep up. Last season the Seattle Mariners were in the Wild Card picture with a run differential around 0 and winning an unsustainable amount of close games. They ended up nowhere near contention. To find a team that has made the playoffs with a negative run differential, you have to go all the way back to 2007 when Arizona did it with a -20 run differential. The last time it happened before that was in 1997 when the Giants did it with a -7 run differential. This has not yet happened since adding a 2nd Wild Card in 2012. Considering two teams are tied for the 2nd spot with a negative run differential, this could be the year.
I am not going to run models to prove that run differential is highly correlated with team success. There are countless articles out there if you want to read more. Just Google “run differential and team success” and you will find millions of proofs. In addition, it can be deduced by logic:
If a team wants to win a baseball game they need to score more runs than the other team. A team above .500 win percentage executes this more times than not. Thus, a team is scoring more than they give up more times in a season than not. Simple.
This leads us to the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball. Do not be afraid of the name. I know it may bring back painful memories of high school geometry. The theorem states the following:
Runs scored ^2 / runs scored ^2 + runs allowed ^2 = estimated team’s winning percentage.
Here is what it says about the Brewers and Phillies this year.
At least the projections have the Brewers better than the Phillies. According to projections, the Mets would get the 2nd Wild Card spot.
Again, baseball is fluky. A team could definitely win an absurd number of close games and get blown out in their losses and still make the playoffs. In history, however, this does not happen very often. The Brewers and Phillies are competing in a packed Wild Card hunt and their negative run differentials stick out like an underperforming Bryce Harper. I mean a sore thumb. Let’s sit back and see if history can be made in 2019.