On Tuesday night, the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 12-0 and moved into a tie for first place in the AL East with the New York Yankees. The O's, written off before the season began, had tied the mighty Empire. A team that writers around the baseball world have disregarded as a fluke because of their propensity for winning the close ones and losing a few lopsided games has proven the pundits wrong. A main reason why the Orioles have been doubted so thoroughly is because of one misleading statistic that many in baseball put too much stock in: run differential.
The Orioles have confounded many analysts because according to the sabermetrics, the team should not be performing as well as they have been. Their run differential, a statistic that is now one of the leading "predictors" of winning and postseason probability, has been in the red for most of the season. Because of their tendency to win tight ballgames, Baltimore has been unfairly labeled a "lucky" team that cannot be relied upon to win over time.
Not so fast.
On Monday, as Baltimore drew within one game of the Yankees, ESPN.com's Pythagorean "Percent Chance to Make Playoffs" statistic gave the Orioles a 43.1 percent shot at the postseason. The O's were within one game of first place and held a 1.5 game lead over the third team, just out of the second Wild Card spot, fellow AL Easters Tampa Bay. However, the stats said the Orioles probably won't make the playoffs.
This was largely due to their ugly -31 run differential, a result of having 24 one-run games, and 11 losses by seven or more runs on their 2012 resume. The result suggested -- suggested, not determined -- that the O's would not be able to continue their winning ways because they had given up more runs than they scored throughout the course of the season. The stats counted how they won or lost, not if they did or not. But, Buck Showalter's team, as he often puts it, has never said "Woe is me" because of the lopsided losses and narrow victories. The O's care about wins whether they come 4-3 or 12-0.
Advanced statistics may be able to predict roughly how good a team is or should be. But they do not consider the question, Are they good enough? Does the team use their runs scored well? Simply put, the Orioles do. They tend to score more runs than their opponents. It does not matter how they win, just that they do.
The eye test -- looking beyond one or two statistical categories that simply do not concretely define how good a team is -- has proven itself to be more predictive than the stats-based conclusions. The math says the Orioles are slightly below average and yet they stand 17 games above .500 and have a fighting chance at making the playoffs.
With Tuesday's win, and Tampa's win over New York, the Orioles moved into a tie for first place. In the AL East, the Orioles moved up EXACTLY one game. One. Yet, this game was labeled statistically significant because of how the Orioles won. Their run differential moved closer to the black, satisfying the theorems that give us the "Percent Chance at Making Playoffs" statistic. Baltimore's playoff chances jumped up to 52.7 percent. With this one game that improved the dubious run differential stat, the Orioles' playoff chances went from "probably not" to "probably" simply because of how the team won.
The Orioles used a 12-run victory to help appease the non-believers and statisticians. They are closer to reaching an acceptable statistical status, which is closer to resembling what a playoffs-bound team should look like. The New York Yankees are 76-59, and their "Percent Chance at Making the Playoffs" stands at 79.6 percent. Their run differential is +83, a nice statistic that allows one to assume that they will make the playoffs. All because they win big and lose close. The Orioles are also at 76-59, yet their "Percent Chance at Making the Playoffs" is 26.9 percent less than the Yankees because they do the opposite. The Tampa Bay Rays, who are 1.5 games out of both first place in the AL East and the final Wild Card spot, have a solid 65.1 percent chance to make the playoffs largely because their +81 run differential.
When it comes down to the final month of the MLB season, how a team wins or how much they win by should not matter. What should matter is putting up victories at a faster pace than putting up losses. So far this season, despite having to outplay their unimpressive peripheral statistics, the Orioles have been doing just that.
As the famous Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis famously said, "Just win, baby."
Stuart Dezenhall has worked in the communications departments of professional and collegiate sports organizations.