How to Identify MLB Teams Winning on Luck vs. Talent

Over the course of a 162-game baseball season, the cream tends to rise to the top. However, A’s general manager Billy Beane suggested in Moneyball that playoff results tend to be random. In other words, the blame for Oakland’s lack of postseason success lies not with management but with Lady Luck. Whether Beane is right or wrong, carefully looking at baseball standings and team stats can help us identify clubs that are over and under valued.

A few weeks ago, we discussed the importance of run differential in baseball. It is a pretty good indicator of which teams are getting better results than expected and which squads are playing with bad luck. It is also worthwhile to take a look at teams’ records in one-run and extra-inning games.

Beane’s A’s have been an MLB worst 3-15 in one-run contests this year and they are 0-6 in extra frames. While Oakland’s record (more than ten games under .500) doesn’t mesh with their nearly even run differential, this can be explained. The A’s have the highest bullpen ERA in baseball. They are losing close games because their relievers haven’t pitched well enough to win tight contests.

It is much more difficult to explain what is going on with the Blue Jays. Toronto 4-12 in one-run games. The Jays’ bullpen ERA is just below average, but their relievers are allowing opponents to hit just .227, seventh-best in baseball. Toronto’s run differential ranks among the best in the majors. There is no reason the Blue Jays shouldn’t be winning a lot more frequently. (Editor’s note: as Dave predicted, they’ve now won seven in a row and are back at .500.)

While the AL features a team to bet on in Toronto, the National League has two squads that should be bet against more often than not. The Cubs and Giants have both been very lucky thus far. Each team has a run differential in the vicinity of zero, indicating an average record. However, Chicago and San Francisco are both five games over .500 in one-run games, and have winning marks in extra innings. As a result, their overall records make them look more dominant than they actually are. It would be understandable if you thought top notch managers help the Cubs and Giants in close games, but the numbers tell us they are average teams and, therefore, are overvalued right now.

As mentioned in the article about run differential, simply betting on the Blue Jays or against the Cubs and Giants everyday is not recommended. However, when you analyze match-ups, be aware of teams whose records are deceiving, and have an understanding of how that may change throughout the year.

(Photo credit: Terry Dobbins from Rockville, USA (Sonny Gray) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)