As we conclude the observance of the Memorial Day weekend we have almost reached the end of the first third of the regular baseball season.
From a mathematical standpoint one third of a season represents 54 games, and through this past Sunday no team had yet played 54 games although a couple of teams were scheduled to do so on Monday.
With more than two dozen weather related postponements (an unusually high number for this point of the season) we are about a week away from all teams having played 54 games with Minnesota having the most ground to make up after having played game number 46 on Sunday.
Yet this is still considered the first major milestone of the season, a time at which some legitimate assessments can be made about the progress teams have made through the first two months and how things are shaping up going forward.
Whereas a look at the standings can give us a view of how things are at a specific point in time, there are other measures that may offer a glimpse into what might occur going forward.
For example, runs differential is a key measure and predictor of success or failure. It was first introduced by Bill James, considered the Father of Sabermetrics, in the late 1970s with his concept of the Pythagorean theorem.
James came up with a formula that has held up pretty well over the years that considers runs scored, runs allowed and the corresponding runs differential on a team by team basis. The formula effectively equates these factors with an expected winning percentage.
Over the years it has become a useful tool in evaluating and handicapping teams going forward. A team whose actual winning percentage at any point in time is either significantly above or below the theorem’s as of that date will, or at least should, bounce back toward the expected percentage in the coming days and weeks by winning more or fewer games as the two percentages get closer to alignment.
Through Sunday the top six teams in runs differential had a combined record of 189-113. Not surprisingly those six teams were each at least 10 games above .500. The teams were the LA Dodgers (plus 78 runs), Houston (plus 66), the New York Yankees (plus 58), Washington (plus 57), Arizona (plus 51) and Colorado (plus 45).
Of the six the Yankees, Nationals and Diamondbacks had records within one game of what the theorem had projected.
The Dodgers’ 31 actual wins was more than three games below the theorem’s projection of 34.4, which might suggest a potential winning streak is on the horizon.
Both Houston and Colorado might be poised for a short term downturn. The Astros had 35 wins through Sunday, tops in the majors, and the second best runs differential of plus 66. But the theorem projected just 33 runs for Houston, two fewer than they’ve actually won. Colorado’s actual 33 wins were 2.3 more than the theorem’s projection of 30.7.
The interesting team to monitor in the short term is the Chicago White Sox with the seventh highest runs differential, plus 27. Through 49 games the theorem projected the Pale Hose to have 27.6 wins. The Sox were just 23-26 through Sunday and that deficit of 4.6 wins is the greatest deficit or surplus – by more than a run – of any of the 30 MLB teams.
At the bottom of the standings are three teams with run differentials of minus 50 or worse. Those teams – San Diego, San Francisco and Kansas – are minus 94, minus 62 and minus 50, respectively. The combined record of that trio is 62-91, yet each has won a few more games than expected based on their runs scored and allowed, ranging from 2.8 to 3.5.
Teams that fit this model are often very poor teams that lose many lopsided games yet manage to win a fair share of 1- or 2-run games. These teams can make for good candidates against which to consider laying a run and a half, depending upon the specific opponent.
Two other teams near the bottom of the list – Philadelphia and Miami – also have significant negative run differentials (minus 42 and minus 38) but have not won as many games as projected. Philly falls short by 2.5 wins and the Marlins by 2.0. Both of these teams may be primed for modest winning runs over the next week or two as their wins catch up to expectations, even though they remain solidly outscored.
Oakland ranks fourth from the bottom with a minus 44 runs differential and having won 2.3 games more than expected.
In future columns I’ll present my annual discourse on playing the Run Line whereby you have the option of taking or laying a run and a half as an alternative to a straight money line play.
Here are some thoughts on three series to be played this weekend.
St. Louis at Chi Cubs: These long time rivals are meeting in their third series this season. The teams have split the six games. No Cubs starter is averaging more than Jon Lester’s 5.9 innings per start. Only Kyle Hendricks has a WHIP below 1.31 (1.16) and Hendricks is also the only starter who has made at least four starts with an ERA below 3.85 (3.25). The rotation has remained very healthy with only Eddie Butler’s three starts being made by anyone other than the five man rotation.
St. Louis has needed only five starters in total this season and all but Adam Wainwright have gotten off to strong starts with each of the four posting ERAs below 3.75 and WHIPs below 1.25.
And even Wainwright is coming around with three very strong starts entering this series, including a home start against the Cubs on May 14 in which the veteran hurler pitched seven scoreless innings of four-hit baseball, although he did walk four while striking out three. The Cardinals should provide the “value” in this series and, depending on the matchups, could come as underdogs in all three games, or perhaps small favorites. Look to play on the Cardinals as underdogs of any price or if favored by no more than -110 against Lester. Both have been solid OVER teams thus far and if the totals are in a “normal” range of 7.5 to 9.5 look toward the OVER.
Houston at Texas: The Astros have put together a solid top of the rotation with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. continuing to pitch brilliant baseball. In their combined 21 starts; 18 of them have featured at least six innings pitched while allowing two or fewer earned runs. The best Texas starters have been Yu Darvish and the currently sidelined Cole Hamels (who has made just five starts) although veteran Andrew Cashner has had several solid outings as well. Houston took three games of four in a home series against the Rangers at the start of May. The OVER was 3-1, with each Over featuring at least 11 runs.
This should be another high scoring series and with the exception of games involving Keuchel, McCullers or Darvish you might consider OVER 8.5 or less, although seven of Cashner’s nine starts have stayed UNDER. Texas’ A.J. Griffin has made eight starts, seven of which have gone OVER. Texas would make for an attractive underdog if getting at least +160 against Keuchel or McCullers whereas Houston would be an attractive play if laying -140 or less not facing Darvish.
Washington at Oakland: Andrew Triggs and Kendal Graveman have been their best starting pitchers for Oakland but neither is in the class of Washington’s top duo of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Rather, both are more at the level of the Nats’ third and fourth starters, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. In starts by Scherzer or Strasburg, laying up to -150 is acceptable against any Oakland starter. Should the A’s be priced at +160 or more against that duo they can be backed if starting Triggs or Graveman.
In starts by others Oakland would be playable at +140 or more or Washington at -125 or less. The preference would be to look UNDER 8 or higher or OVER 7.5 or lower in starts made by other than Scherzer or Strasburg.