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Gross Anatomy
2004-06-24 23:25
by Mike Carminati

[Our old friend Gregi Gross, with whom I discussed baseball in Germany in a three-part series entitled "Eine Kleine Chin Music" (parts I, II, and III) some time ago, has conducted a study on what it takes to be a winner in baseball. I am proud to present it here. Enjoy.]

Heading into the 2002 season, so says Michael Lewis in Moneyball, then Oakland As assistant GM Paul DePodesta faced a serious task. With Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon the team was going to lose three core players to free agency, and Athletics GM Billy Beane wanted DePodesta to determine exactly what influence those three players had on the 102 wins the team had compiled in 2001. The idea was to offset these losses by signing other players with different skill sets that together would bring to the table what free agency had robbed the team.

Paul DePodesta decided to start by judging how many wins a team would need to make it to the play-offs.

"There arent a lot of teams that win ninety-five games and dont make it to the play-offs," he said. "If we win ninety-five games and dont make the play-offs, were fine with that."
According to Michael Lewis, he then calculated how many more runs the As would need to score than they allowed in order to win those 95 games. By using Bill James Pythagorean Theorem, he came up with a run differential of 135. Using the As players past performance, DePodesta then made reasoned arguments about how many runs the team would score and allow, but lets leave him here since we already know what happened.

I wanted to find out if Paul DePodesta assumptions were right. Is 95 the magic number of games a teams needs to win to safely enter the postseason? And which run differential had historical teams brought into the play-offs?

Since for the last ten years we have enjoyed the wildcard, I first looked at the seasons from 1995 until today. Looking at each division individually, I prorated all seasons to 162 games where needed (in 1995 the season was shortened, for instance). Since some teams in some years clearly had franchise seasons (like the 1995 Indians, the 1998 Yankees or the 2001 Mariners) or in some years an entire division struggled, I decided to also include averages without those peaks:

AL East

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*97890785105
19969287178784
199798812681131
1998114965656309
199998900731169
20008787181457
20019580471391
2002103897697200
2003101877716161
Average98876731145
Av. wout. best Record96865741125
Av. wout. worst Record100877721156
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.98864730134

AL Central

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*113945683262
199699952769183
19978686881553
19988985077971
1999971009860149
200095978839139
20019189782176
20029476871256
20039080175843
Average95896782115
Av. wout. best Record9389079496
Av. wout. worst Record96900778122
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.94894791102

AL West

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*8989679799
199690928799129
19979092583392
19988894087169
19999594585986
200091947813134
2001116927627300
2002103800654146
200396768643125
Average95897766131
Av. wout. best Record93894784110
Av. wout. worst Record96892753139
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.93887771116

AL Wildcard

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*8984377469
19968894990346
199796891688203
199892876729147
199994836718118
200091907780127
2001102884645239
200299851644207
200395961809152
Average94889743145
Av. wout. best Record93889756134
Av. wout. worst Record95881723158
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.94881735146

And for the National League we get this picture:

NL East

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*101726608118
199696773648125
1997101791581210
1998106826581245
1999103840661179
20009581071496
20018872964386
2002101708565143
2003101907740167
Average99790638152
Av. wout. best Record98786645141
Av. wout. worst Record101798637160
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.100794645148

NL Central

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*96840701139
19968875970653
199784777660117
1998102874620254
199997823675148
200095887771116
20019384776978
200297787648139
20038872468341
Average93813693121
Av. wout. best Record92806702104
Av. wout. worst Record95818697121
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.93812701111

NL West

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*8871368528
19969177168289
199790784793-9
199898749635114
1999100908676232
200097925747178
200192818677141
200298819674145
2003100755638117
Average95805690115
Av. wout. best Record94792691100
Av. wout. worst Record96816690126
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.95803692111

NL Wildcard

WinsRuns ScoredRuns againstRun diff.
1995*878838812
19969070365251
19979274066971
19989083179239
199997853711142
20009480773869
200193814684130
200295783616167
20039175169259
Average9279671581
Av. wout. best Record9278971674
Av. wout. worst Record9378569491
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.9277669284

For Paul DePodesta's team, the Oakland Athletics, the average number of wins needed to win their division was 95. It was 93 if you discount the 2001 Seattle Mariners and their 116 win campaign. If the As would face serious competition in their division, they could also qualify via the wildcard. There they would need 94 wins on average, and only 93 if you discount their own 2001 campaign, when they trailed the Mariners but took the wildcard with 102 wins (still the most wins for a wildcard team in its short history).

What else can we see? Judging by the number of wins needed to win a division, the weakest division in baseball is the NL Central, followed by the AL Central and the AL West. The best division then would be the NL East, followed by the AL East. Then again, both eastern divisions probably feature very good and very bad teams, so the division winners run up high win totals against weak competition. And in the NL Central there is tough competition among almost equal teams, so their win totals stay low.

So overall the average of the average (of the average...) for all of MLB looks like this:

WinsRRARun diff.W%
Average958457201260,586
Av. wout. best Record948397291110,58
Av. wout. worst Record978467121340,599
Av. wout. wor.+ be. Rec.958397201190,586

So yes, Paul DePodesta hits the nail right on the spot. With 95 wins you stand a good chance to enter the postseason. On average, your team needed close to +130 run differential to win that many games. But what about before? When there was no wildcard? Or even before that, when there were no divisions? Lets have a look at divisional play dating back to 1969:

American League

YearLeagueDivisionTeamPror. WinsPror. RSPror. RAPror. RD
1969ALEBAL109779517262
1969ALWMIN97790618172
1970ALEBAL108792574218
1970ALWMIN98744605139
1971ALEBAL104761543218
1971ALWOAK102695568127
1972ALEDET8957953445
1972ALWOAK97631478153
1973ALEBAL97754561193
1973ALWOAK94758615143
1974ALEBAL9165961247
1974ALWOAK90689551138
1975ALEBOS9680671888
1975ALWOAK98758606152
1976ALWKCA90713611102
1976ALENYA99744586158
1977ALWKCA102822651171
1977ALENYA100831651180
1978ALWKCA92743634109
1978ALENYA99730578152
1979ALEBAL104771593178
1979ALWCAL8886676898
1980ALWKCA97809694115
1980ALENYA103820662158
1981ALWKCA79624637-13
1981ALEML49273368251
1981ALENYA89637519118
1981ALWOAK9568159982
1982ALWCAL93814670144
1982ALEML494886713173
1983ALEBAL98799652147
1983ALWCHA99800650150
1984ALEDET104829643186
1984ALWKCA84673686-13
1985ALWKCA9168763948
1985ALETOR100764592172
1986ALEBOS9679970099
1986ALWCAL92786684102
1987ALEDET98896735161
1987ALWMIN85786806-20
1988ALEBOS89813689124
1988ALWOAK104800620180
1989ALWOAK99712576136
1989ALETOR8973165180
1990ALEBOS8869966435
1990ALWOAK103733570163
1991ALWMIN95776652124
1991ALETOR9168462262
1992ALWOAK9674567273
1992ALETOR9678068298
1993ALWCHA94776664112
1993ALETOR95847742105

National League

YearLeagueDivisionTeamPror. WinsPror. RSPror. RAPror. RD
1969NLWATL9369163160
1969NLENYN10063254191
1970NLWCIN10277568194
1970NLEPIT8972966465
1971NLEPIT97788599189
1971NLWSFN9070664462
1972NLWCIN100744586158
1972NLEPIT100722535187
1973NLWCIN99741621120
1973NLENYN8361259220
1974NLWLAN102798561237
1974NLEPIT8875165794
1975NLWCIN108840586254
1975NLEPIT93716569147
1976NLWCIN102857633224
1976NLEPHI101770557213
1977NLWLAN98769582187
1977NLEPHI101847668179
1978NLWLAN95727573154
1978NLEPHI90708586122
1979NLWCIN9173664888
1979NLEPIT97770639131
1980NLWHOU9263358548
1980NLEPHI9172863989
1981NLWHOU9058048793
1981NLWLAN93663524139
1981NLEMON9066559174
1981NLEPHI8974371528
1982NLWATL8973970237
1982NLESLN9268560976
1983NLWLAN9065060545
1983NLEPHI8969263161
1984NLECHN97767662105
1984NLWSDN9268663452
1985NLWLAN95682579103
1985NLESLN101747572175
1986NLWHOU9665456985
1986NLENYN108783578205
1987NLWSFN90783669114
1987NLESLN95798693105
1988NLWLAN9462854484
1988NLENYN101712539173
1989NLECHN9370262379
1989NLWSFN9269960099
1990NLWCIN9169359796
1990NLEPIT95733619114
1991NLWATL94749644105
1991NLEPIT98768632136
1992NLWATL98682569113
1992NLEPIT9669359598
1993NLWATL104767559208
1993NLEPHI97877740137

On average you get these figures:

Pror. WinsPror. RSPror. RAPror. RD
Acc.9923771446459712547
AVG95742621121

Even before the Wildcard, your team needed 95 wins to enter the play-offs. However, from 1969 to 1993, the run differential of all the play-off teams was a bit smaller. On average, the teams accumulated +121 runs more than they allowed. So, judging purely from wins and run differential, the wild card made things difficult for teams, but not by much.

And before that? Here are the prorated stats:

YearLeagueTeamPror. WinsPror. RSPror. RAPror. RD
1871NAPH112221751539636
1872NABS11321758797961
1873NABS111619951242753
1874NABS11191677947730
1875NABS11401642678964
1876NLCHN1281532631901
1877NLBSN1121113698415
1878NLBSN111805651154
1879NLPRO1121166677489
1880NLCHN1261013597416
1881NLCHN1081061731330
1882AACN2111990543447
1882NLCHN1061165681484
1883AAPH41091190904286
1883NLBSN1041106754352
1884AANY41081062612450
1884NLPRO119945551394
1884UASLU1341260610650
1885AASL4114979667312
1885NLCHN1251196674522
1886AASL41081100690410
1886NLCHN1161157714443
1887AASL41121328893435
1887NLDTN1011236911325
1888AASL4109933592341
1888NLNY199774562212
1889AABR31081151817334
1889NLNY11031156876280
1890AALS2105976700276
1890NLBRO1081110779331
1890PLBSP1011236956280
1891AABS21081198787411
1891NLBSN101980761219
1892NLBSN109919692227
1893NLBSN1061247983264
1894NLBLN11214711029442
1895NLBLN1071238793445
1896NLBLN1101221812409
1897NLBSN1121230798432
1898NLBSN109929654275
1899NLBRO109963711252
1900NLBRO94931824107
1901ALCHA98968746222
1901NLPIT104898618280
1902ALPHA98916752164
1902NLPIT118884502382
1903ALBOS105813579234
1903NLPIT105911704207
1904ALBOS98627481146
1904NLNY1109763488275
1905ALPHA98664524140
1905NLNY1110815528287
1906ALCHA98600484116
1906NLCHN121737398339
1907ALDET97735563172
1907NLCHN112600408192
1908ALDET95681575106
1908NLCHN102640473167
1909ALDET100683505178
1909NLPIT116735470265
1910ALPHA107703461242
1910NLCHN109749525224
1911ALPHA108918641277
1911NLNY1104795570225
1912ALBOS110841572269
1912NLNY1108866601265
1913ALPHA102841627214
1913NLNY1105710535175
1914ALPHA102768542226
1914FLIND91786642144
1914NLBSN96674562112
1915ALBOS106699522177
1915FLCHF90669562107
1915NLPHI95624490134
1916ALBOS9557149873
1916NLBRO98608489119
1917ALCHA104681482199
1917NLNY1100651469182
1918ALBOS96609489120
1918NLCHN104665486179
1919ALCHA102772618154
1919NLCIN111668464204
1920ALCLE103902675227
1920NLBRO97690552138
1921ALNYA1041004750254
1921NLNY1100889674215
1922ALNYA99797650147
1922NLNY197885683202
1923ALNYA104877663214
1923NLNY1101904719185
1924ALWS196784637147
1924NLNY198902674228
1925ALWS1102884714170
1925NLPIT101966757209
1926ALNYA95885745140
1926NLSLN92848704144
1927ALNYA1151019626393
1927NLPIT98848684164
1928ALNYA106940721219
1928NLSLN100849669180
1929ALPHA112967660307
1929NLCHN1021020787233
1930ALPHA1071000790210
1930NLSLN971056825231
1931ALPHA113908663245
1931NLSLN106857646211
1932ALNYA1111041752289
1932NLCHN9575766691
1933ALWS1105900704196
1933NLNY195660535125
1934ALDET1061008745263
1934NLSLN100841690151
1935ALDET99979709270
1935NLCHN105891628263
1936ALNYA1071113764349
1936NLNY197781653128
1937ALNYA1051010692318
1937NLNY1101780642138
1938ALNYA102997733264
1938NLCHN94750629121
1939ALNYA1131031593438
1939NLCIN101797618179
1940ALDET94928749179
1940NLCIN105739552187
1941ALNYA105862655207
1941NLBRO103825600225
1942ALNYA108843533310
1942NLSLN110784501283
1943ALNYA102699566133
1943NLSLN108701490211
1944ALSLA94720617103
1944NLSLN108797506291
1945ALDET9266259171
1945NLCHN102768556212
1946ALBOS108822617205
1946NLSLN102739566173
1947ALNYA101830594236
1947NLBRO98809698111
1948ALCLE101872590282
1948NLBSN96777614163
1949ALNYA101866666200
1949NLBRO101913676237
1950ALNYA102955722233
1950NLPHI94745644101
1951ALNYA103839653186
1951NLNY1101806661145
1952ALNYA100765586179
1952NLBRO100810630180
1953ALNYA106859587272
1953NLBRO110998720278
1954ALCLE115775523252
1954NLNY1102770579191
1955ALNYA101802599203
1955NLBRO103902684218
1956ALNYA102902664238
1956NLBRO98757632125
1957ALNYA103761562199
1957NLML199807641166
1958ALNYA96793603190
1958NLML197710569141
1959ALCHA9869561184
1959NLLAN9173269636
1960ALNYA101780655125
1960NLPIT99767620147
1961ALNYA108822608214
1961NLCIN9874768760
1962ALNYA96817680137
1962NLSFN101862677185
1963ALNYA105718550168
1963NLLAN9863654789
1964ALNYA98721570151
1964NLSLN9371565263
1965ALMIN102774600174
1965NLLAN9760852187
1966ALBAL98764609155
1966NLLAN95606490116
1967ALBOS92722614108
1967NLSLN102699560139
1968ALDET102663486177
1968NLSLN97583472111

The average?

Pror. WinsPror. RSPror. RAPror. RD
Acc.1875316101211668544327
AVG104895648247

Now that is interesting: Before divisional play started in 1969, you needed 104 wins to contend. And the earlier you look, the higher the number gets (as you can see in the Prorated Wins graph). In fact, the first play-off team with no more than a 100 prorated wins were the New York Giants in 1891 - and prorated they won 99 games. The first team to win their league or division with less than 95 prorated wins were the 1904 Brooklyn Dodgers. And it's around that time, that as many teams started to pour into the play-offs with fewer than a 100 prorated wins as ones that had more than that figure.

Lets look at some graphs showing the prorated wins and prorated run differentials of all playoff teams in the history of major league baseball:

As Jim Albert and Jay Bennett show in Curveball, there was a wider spread in winning percentages in the early years of baseball. This has as much to do with the many changes in the basic structure of the major leagues given the small number of teams as well as the short schedules. It's easier to win eighty percent of 60 games than it is to win eighty percent of 162 games. And the number of wins needed for contending teams tells us the same. According to the numbers above, there is a difference of nine wins between the average needed for a playoff team before and after 1969. Today, with all the fuss about competitive balance, you need just 95 wins to be a play-off team. 50 years ago that figure was nine wins higher. You had less competitive balance back then, Id say. As Mike points out, that also has a lot to do with the fact that before 1969 you had two playoff spots for 16 teams (12.5 percent) and today you have eight playoff spots for 30 teams (26.6 percent). And you could take this line of thought even further because of expansion and free agency you have a different type of talent distribution today that also influences competitive balance.

Yet for the last 35 years or so, Paul DePodesta's assumption was right: By winning 95 games, you almost assure your fans of following your games into October. And history shows that you need a run differential of +120 to do so. So what happened to the 2002 Oakland Athletics? They would score 800 runs and allow 654 of them. Their run differential of +146 would secure them 103 wins, enough for the division crown and four more than the wild card team from Anaheim had. Billy Bean and Paul DePodesta, based on the right assumption, took the necessary steps.

But what about the run differential of +135 needed for 95 wins? If you look at the formula used by Bill James, youll see that the number of runs scored and allowed the number of overall runs in the teams games greatly influences the run differential needed for a certain amount of wins:

RS / (RS + RA)=Exp. W%

To make it more clear, lets have a look at a graph depicting the situation for 95 wins:

During the last ten seasons, the average playoff team scored 845 runs. Looking at the graph, you see the average playoff team then should allow no more than 710 runs for a run differential of exactly +135. But if you, say, allow just 588 runs, you need to score just 700 runs for a run differential of +112 to have an expected W-L record of 95-67. And if your team happens to play in Denver, you better prepare for a better run differential.

Finally just for fun, lets have a look at teams that followed that rule but somehow managed to miss their goal. Throughout baseball history we find teams that missed the play-offs despite accumulating these 95 wins or even more.

• The last team were the 1999 Cincinnati Reds, which won 96 games and had a run differential of +154. Unfortunately for them, the Mets had a slightly smaller run differential (+142), but beat their pythagorean W-L record by two games to finish at 97-66, thus taking the wild card spot.
• The 1993 San Francisco came up empty with 103 wins, trailing division winner Atlanta by one game. Their run differential, carried among others by Barry Bonds and his .336/.458/.677 line, was +172.
•The 1954 New York Yankees also finished with 103 wins. They ended up having exactly the same run differential as the division winning Indians (+242), yet trailed the Tribe by 8 games.
• In 1942, the Brooklyn Dodgers managed to avoid postseason play by winning 104 games. That season, 106 games were needed to take you to the Fall Classic. Appropriately, their run differential of +232 trailed that of the St. Louis Cardinals (+273) by a wide margin.
• Another team had experienced the same fate as the '42 Brooklyn Dodgers, when in 1909 the Chicago Cubs finished the pennant race 6 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their difference in run differential was almost the same as in wins (+245 to +252 for -7).

How far could you take your run differential without danger of entering the play-offs? If we prorate their stats, the 1898 Baltimore Orioles put up a run differential of +326. They would finish safely in second, trailing the Boston Beaneaters by six games. The 1886 Detroit Wolverines scored a +374 (prorated), finishing 3 games behind the Chicago White Stockings. Yet those two teams were not to be compared to the 1872 Philadelphia Athletics. If we prorate their 44 games to a 162-game schedule, they outscored their opponents by a whopping 655 runs. Unfortunately for them, the Boston Red Stockings did better and it wasnt even close. Their prorated run differential came in at +961 and it enabled them to distance the Philadelphia Athletics by 7.5 games.

On the opposite site of the spectrum, we find the 1984 Kansas City Royals. The team was outscored by 13 runs, yet managed to win AL West by 3 games. They were trailed by the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .500 record. Yet the fact that they had a better Pythagorean W-L record than the Royals seems to have made the Twins tick. Because three years later, in 1987, they won 85 games to win the AL West two games ahead of the Royals. To add insult to injury, the Twins let themselves be outscored by 20 runs. By the way, they still beat their Pythagorean W-L record regularly by a few games. As of today, they have won 21 more games since the start of the 2001 season than they should. And of course, this season they own a 32-26 record but have been outscored by 11 runs.

(All stats from Baseball Reference and Sean Lahmans Database)

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