The saving grace of one-run games

Oh boy.

On the 4th of July the Rangers had the best record in the American League, 52-32 (.619), and held an 8.5 game lead on the AL West over the Astros. It didn’t stop me from saying Texas is probably overrated.

Well things haven’t gotten any better for them since. The Rangers head into the All Star Break at 54-36 (.600), losers of 9 of their last 12 games. Their lead in the AL West has dropped to a mere 5.5 games over the surging Astros (48-41).

More impressively, since reaching their high-water mark on the year — 51-27, an amazing 24 games above .500 — Texas has been outscored 93-56 (-37) during their current 3-9 skid, an average of 7.8 to 4.7 per game. You are going to see stretches like this for every team during any given season, but it highlights awful pitching, which is where I directed the most attention when I wrote of Texas a week ago.

The mighty Rangers, who somehow still own the best record in the American League, have the 7th-best run differential in the league. In fact, of all AL clubs in the positive, the Rangers rank dead last. The only teams in the AL with worse run differentials than Texas are those in the negative — meaning on the season, they have been outscored by their opponents.

Now, obviously run differential is a distant second in overall importance to win-loss records. If you win a game, it doesn’t matter if it’s by one run or ten. But it nonetheless provides information on how good a team should be. If math ruled the world then the teams with the best run differentials would have the best records, the teams with the worst run differentials would have the worst records, and so on.

It’s basic logic.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Rangers’ 3rd Order Winning Percentage — which is defined as “a team’s projected winning percentage, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents” — is a mere .482, suggesting they should be 43-46 right now. (This was before they got blown out, 15-5, by the Twins on Sunday.)

So, I always say that “luck” only exists in baseball and blackjack. In baseball, you can hit the ball hard five times in a game and make five outs. Conversely, you could hit the ball on the bad part of the bat five times and register five hits. That’s luck. In blackjack you could be dealt a “20” five hands in a row with the dealer showing a “6,” and lose every hand. Conversely, you could be dealt a “16” five hands in a row with the dealer showing a face card, and win every hand. That’s also luck.

Over the long run, however, if you hit the ball hard you are going to have more hits than the guy who hits it softer. Or if it’s blackjack, you’ll win significantly more hands with “20” than “16”. The laws of larger sample sizes will win out.

There are six teams in the AL with better run differentials than the Rangers, but none of them have a better record than Texas does. If given the opportunity, do you think they would rather have the better run differential or the better record? The answer to that is evident.

The reason Texas’s record is so strong is in spite of their flawed pitching staff, and incomplete offense. The answer is simpler. It’s been their record in one-run games.

Below is a snapshot of all American League playoff contenders, which I’ll qualify as every team with a record of .500 or above, and how they’ve performed in one-run games:

1. Texas, 19-7 (.731) in one-run games; overall record 54-36 (.600)
2. New York, 14-8 (.636); 44-44 (.500)
3. Kansas City, 14-10 (.583); 45-43 (.511)
4. Detroit, 12-10 (.545); 46-43 (.517)
5. Houston, 17-15 (.531); 48-41 (.539)
6. Baltimore, 9-8 (.529); 51-36 (.586)
7. Boston, 10-9 (.526); 49-38 (.563)
8. Chicago, 15-14 (.517); 45-43 (.511)
9. Cleveland, 13-13 (.500); 52-36 (.591)
10. Seattle, 13-18 (.419); 45-44 (.506)
11. Toronto, 9-15 (.375); 51-40 (.560)

As you can see, one-run outcomes don’t discriminate against good teams or mediocre ones. The five-best American League winning percentages — in overall record — rank 1st, 9th, 6th, 7th and 11th in one-run-game winning percentages, respectively.

It just so happens that the reason the Rangers have the best record is because of how they’ve performed in one-run affairs. Which by nature should be closer to 50%, or a coin-flip. If all things were equal and Texas was 13-13 (.500) in one-run games, for argument’s sake, their overall record would be 48-42 and they’d be a half-game behind Houston in the American League West.

Which is funny, since the Rangers are 5-0 against the Astros in one-run games this year. If you need to know how small the difference was between those two clubs in the first half, it’s that Texas won all 5 coin-flip games.

The media has been using the “Team X has the will to win” platitude since forever, and it does a huge disservice to forward-thinking organizations like the Rangers have. From a year-to-year basis there isn’t any one team who wants to win more than any of the others, as we are talking about 25-man rosters filled with grown men who’ve spent the majority of their lives with the lone purpose of eventually winning a World Series.

It’s easier to use these narrative arguments after the fact, after a team wins it all. Then the national writers talk about how they just refused to lose, or how they beat all odds because they wanted it more, or some such fucking bullshit.

The truth is much less sexy, or interesting. Sometimes teams just win a lot of one-run games, and it propels them into the postseason where they have a one-in-eight chance of hanging a World Series banner.

If I had the choice, I wouldn’t care if the Rangers won every game by one run from here on out, and lost every game by 10. So long as the wins are there, I’m happy.

It’s a necessary philosophical exercise to spell out just how lucky the Rangers have been in 2016. If you told me before the year started that Prince Fielder would be the worst player in Major League Baseball, that Mitch Moreland would basically be worthless, and that Yu Darvish would only have made three starts in the first half, I would have expected Texas to be in the bottom half of the American League standings. Probably going into sell mode during the trade deadline.

Instead, the Rangers have everything to look forward to in the second half. Not only have they spotted themselves a 5.5 game lead in the AL West, but a fresh Darvish is expected back after the All Star Break. Keone Kela, one of the club’s three- or four-best relief pitchers, is supposed to return shortly thereafter. The offense, which has masqueraded as one of the best in the AL even without meaningful contributions from Fielder or Moreland, could add top prospect Joey Gallo in the second half.

And this is without mentioning that President and GM Jon Daniels will very likely add a high-leverage bullpen piece, and perhaps another starter, before the July 31st trade deadline.

Maybe I was right on July 4th. Maybe the Rangers are overrated. I can’t deny that being right is one of my favorite things in the world.

At the same time, whether I’m right about that or not right, it really doesn’t matter. Because we’re here now. Texas has the best record in the American League, and their roster will only get healthier and improve in the second half.

In April the Rangers were 0-0 and it was a 162-game season. Right now they are 54-36 and it’s a 72-game season.

In my very first article about the club, before the year started, I wrote:

I like the Rangers to make the over on 83.5 wins, but 90 is pushing it. I would love for the club to be in a position where they are within a few games of Houston come September, where they would have ability to play their way — head-to-head — to a division title, and still have one of the two Wild Card slots as a fallback option. The Astros are going to be a problem in 2016, so as long as the Rangers’ veteran roster is within striking distance to give themselves a shot at knocking off the upstarts for a second straight year, I would consider that a win this season.

To that end, they’ve already surpassed expectations as they have an actual lead on the Astros at the All Star Break. I can’t lie, the Astros are still a problem and are going to be a problem during the second half. But if Houston wants this division, the crown that Texas is defending, ironically it’s them who will have to earn it head-to-head against us.

So if it’s going to take a .700-plus winning percentage in one-run games in the second half to procure another division title, so be it. If the Rangers are overrated, so be it.

Because all that really matters is the standings, and right now there isn’t a team in the American League in a better position.

2 thoughts on “The saving grace of one-run games

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