Scoring less than your opponents ... and winning?
Positive run differentials typically result in predictable success, but not always
It's a simple game, baseball.
Score more runs than the other team and you win the game. Win more games than the other teams and you're in the playoffs.
But those two things -- run differential and playoff berths -- don't always correlate, and this season, thus far, is a prime example.
The defending-champion St. Louis Cardinals have been first in the Major Leagues in run differential for most of the season. Entering play Wednesday, they have scored 107 more runs than their opponents, yet they're seven games behind the first-place Reds in the National League Central. Even stranger, they trail the current second Wild Card, Pittsburgh, which has put up only a +21 run differential this season.
The Cardinals aren't the only ones with a counter-intuitive record/differential split. The D-backs are first in run differential among NL West teams at +34, but haven't been able to shake the .500 mark. They trail the Dodgers and Giants, who each have a lower differential.
In the American League East, the Orioles sit at -43, while the Red Sox are +35. Yet it's the Orioles who have played 6 1/2 games better than Boston and are in prime position for a Wild Card berth, leading that race in the AL.
This type of statistical anomaly is by no means a yearly occurrence. Last season, all six first-place team were the division leaders in run differential. The Red Sox missed the playoffs despite being among the top four in the AL in differential.
They lost that playoff spot on the last day of the season to the Rays who were just behind Boston in differential. In fact, the 2011 Red Sox are the only team since 2008 to be among a league's top four and miss the playoffs. In the past 10 years, 66 of the 80 playoff teams ranked in the top four.
What's the biggest reason for the shift this season? The obvious answer are records in close games, and the stats back it up.
The D-backs (8-17) and Cardinals (12-19) are among the worst in the Majors in one-run games. Similarly, Arizona is 4-10 in games decided in the final at-bat, while St. Louis isn't much better at 7-12.
"We have to play a cleaner game," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said in explaining the close defeats. "... It's very frustrating for everybody, but we move on and get back after it. We've lost some tough games."
Meanwhile, the Orioles are the best in baseball in one-run games, posting a 22-6 mark. They could become the first team to make the playoffs despite a negative run differential since the D-backs, with a -20 mark, won the NL West in 2007. Those D-backs led the Majors with a 32-20 record in one-run contests.
One of the reasons for Baltimore's remarkable record in one-run affairs has been its bullpen, which has posted the second-best ERA in the AL.
"We've been able to use everybody in the 'pen consistently and mix [and] match roles and not really wear out anybody for a bunch of days in a row," said reliever Kevin Gregg. "It's created an environment for success for everything."
History tells us there's a good chance that the parallel between run differentials and wins may even itself out by season's end. Last year at this time, only three of the six first-place teams led their divisions in run differential, but all six led come October.
During the season, run differential isn't always a great reflector of a team's record, but it often can project future records, should the results even out. That would appear to bode well for clubs like Arizona, Boston and St. Louis, but games aren't played on paper -- or in stat sheets.
"We know there's a sense of urgency that we need to get this going," said Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse, whose team has won six of its past 10 games and are a game out in the Wild Card standings. "We've got a great offense. Our starting pitching has been great. Our bullpen has been great of late. We feel like if we keep pushing, we're going to get on the roll that we need."
"We're not where we want to be, but we know we can get where we need to be."
Run-differential statistics from recent seasons tell us that Lohse's optimism is justified.
AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.