A Marginal Stat Can Make All the Difference

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 11, 2008

If you want to look foolish, few methods have proven better in recent years than predicting baseball in March. The sport has seldom been so wonderfully crazy. However, if you wait until the all-star game approaches, when you have almost 100 games of evidence in hand, you have an excellent chance to discover trends that are hidden in plain sight.

Again this year, few anticipated the biggest stories. As the sport has become more balanced because of revenue sharing, and more pyrotechnic, too, with the accelerated development of young players, the fortunes of teams both rich and poor now change utterly from one season to the next. Then sometimes back again.

Who thought the Colorado Rockies, after reaching the World Series, would not merely regress but collapse completely to the fifth-worst record in baseball? Meanwhile, the eternally last Tampa Bay Rays now have the game's best record despite having its second-lowest payroll.

Even more fun, the Rays probably are about as good as the fallen Yankees, the highest-paid team. Oh, the Rays lost two games at Yankee Stadium this week? Worry if you want, but not too much. Their 55-36 record probably is not a fluke.

By midseason, we have one of baseball's most dependable barometers -- run differential. For a while, a team can get lucky, winning many close games then losing lopsidedly. This almost always masks long-term mediocrity. And a six-month season exposes it.

At the moment, baseball's six best teams all have the kind of decisive run differentials typical of teams that win 93 to 103 games and make the playoffs. Then there is a wide break. No other team looks as if it deserves to win more than 87. The teams most fans might expect to find at the top are there: the Cubs (plus-105 runs) and the Red Sox (91). But the others almost all are underappreciated, especially the White Sox (87) and Phillies (80) as well as the Rays (58) and surprising Athletics (64).

How did the Rockies end up in the World Series last year? They were the only team in the National League with a run differential of more than plus-100, that's how. The only team with more than plus-200? The world champion Red Sox. It's not infallible. But it works.

So take note that the Rays' mark is considerably better than the Yankees' plus-27. Tampa Bay may fade, but there's nothing empirical to indicate it yet. May heaven protect the rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine so that, come October, we can watch the Rays and Alex Rodriguez can spend more time with Madonna.

In March, we often can't predict every trend, like the crash to last place of big spenders such as the Mariners or Cleveland's "model franchise" or the flop to .500 of the supposed playoff-lock Tigers. The problem isn't our stupidity, but rather it's the nature of contemporary baseball. Young players arrive faster and transform poor teams more quickly while old stars on rich clubs, some withdrawing from the steroid era, are a mysterious unstable element. Who'll blow up? And why?

Luckily, insight is easier in July. For example, who's the best team in baseball? On Monday, the Cubs were. On Tuesday, they got better. By trading for Rich Oft-Injured Harden (that's the name on his birth certificate), the Cubs may have completed the incantation that will break their 100-year spell. Or, put another way, if the second-highest-scoring team in baseball, with Lou Piniella as manager and Kerry Wood as chief fireman, can't close this World Series deal with a rotation of Carlos Zambrano (10-3), Harden (2.34 ERA), Ryan Dempster (10-3) and Ted Lilly (9-6), then Wrigley Field may need 41,118 padded cells by the 2108 season.

The only team in the NL that has the run-differential pedigree to beat the Cubs is the often-marginalized Phillies. That is, if the Phils can swing a trade, just one decent deal, for a competent starting pitcher to complement Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick now that it looks as if the arm of Brett Myers (5.84 ERA) is toast.

Philadelphia's bullpen is the NL East's X factor. Behind four relievers with sub-3.00 ERAs stands Brad Lidge. Rejuvenated by a change of scenery, Lidge has a 0.95 ERA and is 20 for 20 in save situations. Most important in the Phils' tiny park, Lidge once again has such overpowering stuff that, on most nights, he could tell his outfielders to sit down -- like the old "King and His Court" softball team -- and still save the game.

The American League also has a semi-secret team that seldom gets its due. Ozzie Guillén's White Sox are back. All-star Carlos Quentin (65 RBI) has paired with Jermaine Dye to take up the slack caused by poor seasons from Jim Thome and Paul Konerko. Also, the rotation has stayed in perfect health, with 91 games from the same five-man Opening Day rotation. Please, don't make Manny Acta cry. Unfortunately, the White Sox, with their deep bullpen, are better suited to a long season than a short playoff, where dominant aces can swing the outcome.

The smart Angels (plus-24) are a joy to watch but not as good as their 55-37 record. The stat-centric A's act as if they don't realize how good their run differential says they are; they look back on the Harden trade and regret becoming sellers so soon. The admirable Twins (plus-16) won't stay in wild-card contention long, not with leading winner Liván Hernández allowing a mind-boggling 173 hits in 120 2/3 innings.

Prophecies such as these, made in spring, are seldom right. But by July, we've got a fighting chance. The notions that please us now aren't merely fantasies. The Rays really do have playoff-level talent. Do they have the poise? The Yanks truly aren't very good. With CC Sabathia and Harden off the table, will they still find a way to buy their way in?

The outlines of this season have taken shape. The Red Sox and Cubs really are on track for a World Series showdown generations in the making. But the White Sox and, with one more arm, the Phillies are much closer than most fans think. The rest? Just World Series long shots -- except for those crazy Rays. Playing in the better league, our friend run differential says Tampa Bay is better than the '07 Rockies. And look how far they went.

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