It’s all about perspective. If you are a Chicago Cubs fan coming into the season, it was the World Series or bust. For long-time Cincinnati Reds partisans, it was about how Joey Votto might do and whether or not the kids can pitch. Then there are the other guys; the clubs with middle-of-the-pack expectations that could go either way. That’s where the fun begins.
Even though the Royals were the defending champs, the loss of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist meant the team would need a new brand of magic. Expectations were lower, and at times they were accurate. But overachieving is more than surpassing preseason expectations. Sometimes, you look at stats like run differential (whether the team outscored the opposition) and find playoff contenders with negative numbers.
How have they done it? You can’t discount luck, but if you tell the best baseball players in the world they’re lucky, they’ll laugh in your face. We’re here to save you such embarrassment. Taking the teams that should have a worse record and be outside the playoff mix, we identified a few things they have in common.
1. Kansas City Royals
Starting play on August 26, the Royals were 66-61, four games behind the second wild card, which was a fat five games better than the Pythagorean projection said they ought to be (61-66) based on their -22 run differential. So they’ve been outscored regularly yet have parlayed enough leads into wins; it sounds like the typical Royals magic that begins with the bullpen.
That guess would be mostly accurate. While KC starters have been bad (26th in WAR), the ‘pen features the best ERA in baseball. Even with the injury to Wade Davis and the poor showing from Joakim Soria, the Royals are 20-15 in one-run games. That five-game cushion is exactly the difference between their assumed record and their actual record. We’ll give an assist to the team defense, but it’s the bullpen that has helped Kansas City overachieve.
2. Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers are another mystery when looking at the numbers. If you go by run differential, Texas (+8) would be third in the AL West behind Houston (+43) and Seattle (+43). In fact, there are seven teams in the AL alone that have outscored opponents by a wider margin. Yet the Rangers have the best record in the league (75-53) and a cushy seven-game lead over the Mariners. It will take a meltdown for this team to lose the West.
According to the Pythagorean win-loss record, Texas should be 65-63, a full 10 games worse off than they are heading into September. Colby Lewis has been hurt, Yu Darvish hasn’t contributed much, and the team ranks in the middle of the pack on offense, defense, pitching, and everything else. But then you look at the team’s record in one-run games: 28-8.
Considering the Rangers ‘pen ranks 27th in ERA, you wouldn’t expect the team to draw its strength there, but it does. Texas leads MLB with 31 wins out of the bullpen. Somehow, when the team needed a big pitch or late RBI from the deep lineup, it’s gotten it. This mojo drives statisticians crazy, but it drives Rangers fans into a joyous frenzy.
3. New York Yankees
So Carlos Beltran, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman were traded for young players; Alex Rodriguez was released; Brian McCann became backup catcher behind Gary Sanchez; and Mark Teixeira is a bottom-of-the-lineup mentor for Tyler Austin. How exactly are the Yankees, who sport a -22 run differential, four games over .500 (65-61) and four games from a postseason appearance?
This one is trickier because of the many changes, but the cumulative effect of a spectacular bullpen remains: New York still had MLB’s best WAR for relievers a month after the band got broken up. Joe Girardi rode Dellin Betances, Miller, and Chapman to every win he smelled, and the system worked. The Yankees should be 61-65 according to the stats, but the club is 20-8 in one-run games.
In fact, since the roster shakeup in late July, the Bronx Bombers have actually lived up to their nickname. Since August 1, New York ranks fourth in home runs, many of them due to the star-is-born performance of Gary Sanchez. The group posted a 13-9 record (.591) over that period, too, which is the team’s best mark in 2016.
So will these Baby Bombers nab a playoff spot? We doubt it, but stranger things have happened. Tyler Clippard has done a decent Andrew Miller imitation since coming aboard, and Betances is extremely comfortable in the closer role. If the hits keep coming, they’ll be able to pick off AL East opponents in September and make it interesting.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Forget about the Buck Showalter effect and the home runs for a minute (though they count). Let’s talk about Zach Britton, who has a 0.69 ERA and a perfect 38-for-38 in save opportunities. Think that could help a club overachieve? You bet, and though the Orioles are only four games better (70-57) than their +24 run differential says they should be (66-61), the credit has to go to the bullpen that sports a league-best 27-11 record.
Aside from Britton’s historic year, Brad Brach (7-2, 1.57 ERA) and Mychal Givens (8-1, 3.17 ERA) have been huge winners in late-inning games. Everyone who wonders how the Orioles have not crumbled under the weight of their poor rotation can look here for the answer. When Showalter makes a call to the bullpen, the team’s chances of winning rise immediately. Considering Darren O’Day has been out for about half the season, this group deserves all the credit it can get.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.