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Over-achievers, and proud of it

The 2007 Diamondbacks made it to the playoffs, despite conceding more runs than they scored. While not uncommon, it's actually far from unique; the increased size of the post-season makes it a great deal more likely now, when eight of 30 teams reach the playoffs, than it used to be. Until 1980, only four of 26 saw October action, and before 1968, there was just the World Series, so 90% of outfits missed out. It's thus no surprise to learn that all the successes with negative run-differentials have come in the past 25 years. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the five such cases, and see how they did it, what the results were - and perhaps most importantly, what happened to them the following season.

1984: Kansas City
Record: 84-78, 1st in AL West [+4 over Pythag]
Run Differential: -14 (672-686)
Playoffs: Swept in ALCS by Detroit
Next season: +7, World Series Champions

Much like this year's Diamondbacks, the '84 Royals were not an offensive force: they averaged only 4.15 runs/game, 11th of 14 in the American League, and the entire team had just 117 homers, in a largely-neutral park. First-baseman Steve Balboni had the best OPS (.818), and led the team with 28 homers, but K'd 139 times. DH's Hal McRae and Jorge Orta, as well as 3B George Brett, also performed well. Their pitching was only mediocre, a 3.92 ERA only seventh-best. Bud Black anchored the rotation, going 17-12 with a 3.12 ERA, and got valuable support from Charlie Leibrandt (11-7, 3.63) and Dan Quisenberry, who saved 44 games.

The team was a first-half flop, having a 31-40 record on June 27, and were still five games back of Minnesota as late as August 25. But KC went on a bit of a tear, winning 15 of the next 22, and clinched after Game #160. Like Arizona, they had a good record in one-run games (26-21), contrasting with a poor one in blowouts (13-21), and also benefited from a very solid bullpen, which posted a 3.24 ERA, fourth-best in the league. They were mauled by the World Series-winning Tigers in the post-season, scoring only four runs over three games, but stormed back the following year. They improved by seven games, outperforming Pythagoras by five, then won both the ALCS and 1985 World Series in seven.

1987: Minnesota
Record: 85-77, 1st in AL West [+6 over Pythag]
Run Differential: -20 (786-806)
Playoffs: World Series Champions
Next season: +6, 2nd in AL West

The Twins were middling with the bat, despite the Metrodome proving to be a fairly hitter-friendly environment - the team OPS of .756 was almost on the league average, .758. Three players (Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky) reached 30 homers each, and Kirby Puckett batted .332 to finish fourth in the league, but the team couldn't take a walk, managing a meagre 3.23 per game. Lefty Frank Viola was the team ace, going 17-10, with an ERA of 2.90, though he and Bert Blyleven were the only starters with winning records. Jeff Reardon had 31 saves, but the bullpen was generally weak, its ERA (5.11) surpassed only by the Boston 'pen that year. Their one-run record was only just positive (24-22), but they suffered no less than 31 losses by 5+ runs.

Regardless, the team was never worse than tied for first from June 9 on. They clinched with five games left - then promptly lost those last five. However, the Twins beat the Tigers for the AL pennant, and clinched the World Series at the Metrodome, beating the Cardinals in Game Seven: MVP Viola got the win, and Puckett hit .357 for the series. The team improved by six games in 1988 to 91-71 [+1 over Pythag], but lost out, by some way, to the 104 wins posted by the A's. As a result, Minnesota failed to make the playoffs, despite having the second-best record in the American League, and fourth-best in the majors.

1997: San Francisco
Record: 90-72, 1st in NL West [+10 over Pythag]
Run Differential: -9 (784-793)
Playoffs: Swept in NLDS by Florida
Next season: -1, 2nd in NL West

San Francisco did hit, posting an OPS+ of 105, behind Bonds .291 with 40 HR; J.T. Snow was another lynch-pin, playing 156 games at first and batting .281, credible figures in 3Com Park. However, their pitching was weaker, an ERA+ of 93, despite Shawn Estes going 19-5 with an ERA of 3.18. Kirk Rueter (13-6, 3.45) was also very solid on the mound. By coincidence, I note that then-rookie Keith Foulke started eight games for the Giants that year, before being traded to the White Sox and becoming a closer - probably wise, since his ERA as a starter was 8.26.

If the team had a defining moment, it was likely the September 18 game against LA. The Giants won in twelve innings: their closer, the late Rod Beck, hurled three shutout innings before catcher Brian Johnson swatted a walk-off homer off the first pitch. That tied the teams for first, and the Giants won seven of their last ten. Overall, they were 23-17 in one-run games, and 18-23 in blowouts. However, that record deserted them in the NLDS, where they lost the first two games by one ninth-inning run to Florida, on the way to getting swept. Despite improving their run differential to +106 the next season, they won one fewer game and finished 9.5 back of San Diego.

2005: San Diego
Record: 82-80, 1st in NL West [+5 over Pythag]
Run Differential: -42 (684-726)
Playoffs: Swept in NLDS by St. Louis
Next season: +6, Lost NLDS 3-1 to St. Louis

Were the 2005 Padres the worst-ever playoff team? Mustering only 82 wins, and being soundly outscored, their offense wasn't actually bad - once you took the cavernous confines of Petco into account, the team OPS+ was 103, with a solid outfield of Ryan Klesko (110), Dave Roberts (112) and Brian Giles (146), overcoming the black hole which was Sean Burroughs (70). However, their pitching was awful; among their five most-regular starters, only Jake Peavy had an ERA+ better than 90. Somehow, they led from May 26 (the Padres went a monstrous 22-6 that month) until the season end, save July 31 when we tied them for one night.

A large part of this were the relief corps, who were bank. Trevor Hoffman (44 saves) and Scott Linebrink (1.83 ERA in 73.2 IP), were crucial in boosting San Diego to a 29-20 record in one-run games, and led the 'pen to a 3.49 ERA, beaten only by St. Louis. And, funnily enough, that's what happened to the Padres too. Their starters allowed 15 earned runs in ten NLDS innings, and they never led in a single inning as the Cardinals blew them away. The 2006 version suffered a very similar fate, losing the NLDS to the same opponents, but improved by six games to 88-74, two better than Pythagoras.

2007: Arizona
Record: 90-72, 1st in NL West [+11 over Pythag]
Run Differential: -20 (712-732)
Playoffs: Swept in NLCS by Colorado
Next season: ???

The good news is, looking at the above teams, the average change the following season is a gain of 4.5 games. Half of them followed up with another playoff trip, and the 1988 Twins can consider themselves somewhat unlucky not to have made it three of four. The teams do also tend to outperform Pythagoras again the next season, though since we're talking a very small sample size, I am not claiming this as evidence that this is necessarily some kind of repeatable skill. Mind you, under Bob Melvin, this team is now +19 over three years, and the 2005 roster has few survivors from it still present, so I am beginning to wonder.

The general theme is one we know: win the close games, lose the blowouts. Merely for amusement, I thought it might be fun to see which of the previous four Pythagoras-slayers we most closely resembled. Here are the most obvious attributes of the 2007 Diamondbacks;

  • Weak offense: =15th in OPS+
  • Solid relief pitching; 7th in NL
  • Excellent in one-run games: +12 [32-20]
  • Awful in blowouts: -6 [20-26]
  • Young team: average 27.3 years old

And here's how our ancestors stacked up in these areas. The final column is simply the sum of the differences from Arizona, across the five categories.

          Off  Bull  1-Run  Blow  Age   TOT
2007 AZ   =15    7    +12    -6  27.3    0
2005 SD    =6    2     +9    -2  31.0   24.7
1997 SF     5   11     +6    -5  29.2   22.9
1987 MN    =8   12     +2    -9  29.6   27.3
1984 KC    =7    4     +1    +5  28.3   34.0

This suggests we most closely resemble the 1997 Giants, with a side-order of the 2005 Padres; given what happened the following season, I was hoping to find us matching the 1984 Royals, but it was not to be. This does, however, hardly count as a scientific assessment, and further analysis would seem someone with more time on their hands than I! ;-)