Maybe I’m just a little more sensitive to the matter since I’m a Cardinal enthusiast (the Cardinals have a run differential that would make most any team cut-yourself-jealous), but it’s getting a little bit annoying to see the Orioles continue to reel off one-run wins despite a negative run differential. In fact, the Orioles are just one game out of the AL East lead, and they’re currently in the driver’s seat for a wild card position. How is it even possible for a team to ride a negative run differential to contention in what is likely baseball’s most competitive division?
To be fair, the Orioles have a positive run differential since the All-Star break and have managed to improve as the season has aged. To be increasingly fair, there are still multiple teams in the division with better rosters and worse luck. The whole Oriole thing got me thinking about teams with negative run differential making the playoffs. How often does that even happen? If the O’s finish with a run differential around their current mark of -21 and win their division, is that like a record or something? I mean they’re 16 games over .500 while being outscored. That simply can’t be a regular occurrence.
I decided it was high time to visit the annals of Baseball Reference in search of answers. After all, the Cardinals have fared much better against their opponents (+97!) and their results have been less enticing (11 games over). The last team to get outscored by their collective opponents and grab a playoff spot was the 2007 Diamondbacks, a squad that finished 18 games over .500 despite a -20 run differential. They outplayed their Pythagorean record by an astounding 11 games, and they narrowly beat an unfortunate Rockies squad that finished the season outscoring their opponents by a margin of +103. In fact, the Padres (+73) and Dodgers (+8) actually also beat the D-Backs in the NL West when it came to actually playing well against the opposition.
Prior the Arizona playoff scourge of ’07, the Padres also managed to take the NL West with a negative run differential two years earlier. The 2005 Padres were outscored by 42 runs and won the division, but let it be known that they also only finished a mere two games over .500. They actually were the best team in their division in 2005, their division just happened to be filled with awful teams. The second place Diamondbacks were actually just eight games over .500 despite a -160 run differential, and yes you read that correctly. Other than the Arizona and San Diego teams I just mentioned, no other clubs have earned playoff spots in the past 10 years by being outscored.
So what does that tell us? Well, the 2012 Orioles, second half heroics aside, are getting incredibly lucky. Recent solid play aside, there is no way anyone could tell me the 2012 version of the Orioles is a more deserving playoff squad than the comparatively solid Yankees (+85) and Rays (+79). It’s extremely possible that the Orioles could play themselves out of an actual playoff berth, but if the organization manages to get in for the first time in 15 years should we all be celebrating their cause and anointing them a team to watch in the future?
No, no we shouldn’t. The Orioles have plenty of interesting pieces in the farm system that will make them a contender in the future if the right holes are filled going forward. Names like Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy could become names of the household variety as soon as 2013 or 2014, but this is a team that needs to focus on building for the future instead of thinking in the here and now. The Orioles haven’t necessarily done anything wrong at this point, but a playoff spot might make the front office tempted to go for the gold right away as soon as next season. The correct approach is to wait it out and earn contention the right way. While the team may have stumbled onto a pot of gold out of nowhere this season, that doesn’t mean that “win now” mode is a reality. Wait this thing out and build around the internal talent that happens to be waiting in the wings.
The Pirates are in the same boat. I get wanting a playoff spot right here and right now, but when you’ve worked hard to build up the farm system the rewards are going to pay off much more handsomely by taking the intelligent, patient route. Don’t make deadline deals and don’t sign silly free agents who will only bolster the roster for the next two seasons. What matters is the great beyond, as the key to building a winning baseball team in 2012 without a massive payroll is developing from within. The Orioles have done a nice job of focusing on this approach in the draft the last few years, and I’d hate to see it all undone by a playoff run that happened largely be sheer accident. I’m not trying to be cynical here, I’m just saying that playoff berth or not, the Orioles should sit tight and wait for the true wave of competence to come in its natural form. It’s not going to take that long, and at that point a free agent signing or two will make all the sense in the world.