Rays fans, want to make yourself cry? Here are the AL standings according to Bill James’ Pythagorean Won-Loss Percentage, which is based on runs scored and runs allowed.
1. Texas Rangers, 88-64 (Actual Rank in Standings: 1st)
2. Tampa Bay Rays, 88-65 (Actual Rank: 6th)
3. New York Yankees, 87-65 (Actual Rank: 2nd)
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 85-68 (Actual Rank: 5th)
5. Oakland Athletics, 84-68 (Actual Rank: 4th)
6. Chicago White Sox, 83-69 (Actual Rank: 7th)
7. Detroit Tigers 81-71 (Actual Rank: 8th)
8. Baltimore Orioles, 75-77 (Actual Rank: 3rd)
Yes, according to Pythagorean Winning Percentage, the Rays shouldn’t be making a desperate drive for the postseason- they should by vying for the AL East title and home field advantage throughout the AL Playoffs. The Orioles, according to this measure, should be happy with their progress after not being a .500 time in such a long time, but they shouldn’t be anywhere near the pennant chase. Of course, that is exceedingly far from the truth. The problem with Pythagorean Winning Percentage is that it doesn’t account for how runs are distributed. Scoring 13 runs one game and winning 13-1 gives you only one actual win but can give you more that in Pythagorean Winning Percentage. Let’s do a little experiment: how many of the Rays’ biggest blowout wins and how many of the Orioles’ worst blowout losses do we need to remove to give both teams an equal Pythagorean Winning Percentage? Let’s find out.
Right now the Rays have a .575 Pythagorean Winning Percentage compared to the Orioles’ .493 mark. That’s a huge difference. Let’s see how long it takes to close the gap.
Taking Out 1 Game:
The Rays have had a pair of 11-run wins this season, most recently Friday versus the Blue Jays, and we’ll take out of those out, and the Orioles have two 12-run losses, most recently July 19th versus the Twins. Taking those games out and recalculating the Pythagorean Winning Percentage for both teams, the Rays are at .569 and the Orioles are at .504. We see the difference between the two get smaller, but there’s still a long way to go.
Taking Out 3 Games:
Now we’re taking out both of the Rays’ 11-run wins and a 10-run win and also both of the Orioles 12-run losses and an 11-run loss. Now the Rays are at .554 and the Orioles are at .518. If you want to say that it’s only a couple games that have made the Orioles’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage differ so much from their true winning percentage, that’s not true. How far does it go?
Taking Out 5 Games:
Here it starts to really get close. The Rays’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage is .541 while the Orioles are at .535. At 6 games, the Orioles finally overtake the Rays, with the two teams’ Pythagorean Winning Percentages flipping as the Rays go to .535 and the Orioles go to .541. Six games is a small fraction of the 162-game MLB season. But it’s nothing to scoff at. And we’re also doing something pretty ludicrous here- any team would be quite a bit worse if you removed their best wins and any team would look better if you got rid of their worst losses.
What does any of this mean? A big assumption for Pythagorean Winning Percentage is that the distribution of runs from game to game has a lot to do with luck. That isn’t always true a starters shutting you down are likely to do so most of the game, and when a starter gets knocked out early and his team is trailing by a lot of runs, they’ll bring in worse relievers who are more likely to give up runs. Essentially, teams that lose blowouts and win close games can overcome a poor run differential (and Pythagorean Winning Percentage) to win a lot of games. It doesn’t happen very often. The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks and 2005 San Diego Padres both made the playoffs while being out-scored, but before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1987 Minnesota Twins (who won the World Series that year) to find another team who pulled it off.
What we are seeing right now is a very rare occurrence in major league baseball history. Just four times has a team been outscored and made the postseason (the 1981 Kansas City Royals are the other) and just twice, the ’07 D-Backs and the ’87 Twins, has a team with a negative run differential made the playoffs over a team with a positive differential. And adding the Rays into the mix, we have never seen anything like this. How will this end? Only time will tell. But there is something crazy going on, and we’re fortunate as baseball fans to have the opportunity to see something like this.