Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Fluky Are MLB's Division Leaders?

The surprising Brewers took two of three from the Yankees over the weekend, winning 5-4 on Saturday and 6-5 on Sunday. Those two games ran Milwaukee's record to 8-4 in one-run games.

As of Wednesday morning, the Brewers and every other first-place team sported winning records in one-run games. That group includes the Orioles, who are 9-3 in such contests and sit atop the AL East. In 2012, Baltimore was a surprise playoff contender, largely on the strength of a record-setting 29-9 record in games decided by a single run. Last year, they went 20-31 in one-run games and found themselves outside of the playoff race by the end of August.

Clearly, a fringe contender's record in close games is often the difference between a successful season and an October vacation in the tropics. Moreover, success in one-run games is subject to factors over which teams have limited control. As Rob Neyer wrote last week, "Despite what you might hear on the radio, a team's record in close games is determined largely by luck, along with a small dollop of relief pitching."

So getting back to those division leaders, let's try to figure out which ones are for real, and which ones have benefited most from good fortune in one-run games.

AL East -- Baltimore Orioles
The Fightin' Showalters have a negative run differential and their hitters have trouble getting on base. Then again, only the fourth-place Blue Jays sport a positive run differential among Baltimore's divisional foes, prompting this exchange:

The once-mighty division has indeed fallen.
Outlook: Expect the O's to come back to Earth in one-run games. Then again, many people said the same thing throughout the 2012 season.

AL Central -- Detroit Tigers
The Tigers were heavy preseason favorites to win the Central, and they haven't done anything to change the perception that they'll cruise to the division crown. The punchless Royals and middling White Sox and Indians don't look like they'll put up much of a fight.
Outlook: Detroit could probably lose 75% of its remaining one-run games and still win the division.

AL West -- Oakland A's
Oakland has looked like one of the best outfits in baseball so far. The team's +62 run differential is the best in the game, and the A's trail only the Braves in team ERA.
Outlook: See Tigers Outlook.

NL East -- Atlanta Braves
My goodness, their aforementioned pitching has been tremendous. With that being said, Atlanta's offense has been terrible. Fredi Gonzalez has benched Dan Uggla, who's having another historically atrocious season. The rest of the lineup hasn't been much better, though. The Braves rank ahead of only the Padres in team OPS, and that's a little bit of a problem.
Outlook: Atlanta's offensive woes should make for a lot of low-scoring contests, so a continued solid record in one-run games would go a long way toward the team playing in October.

NL Central -- Milwaukee Brewers
Along with the Orioles, the Brew Crew was one of the main reasons for this post. Milwaukee has won with a strong bullpen, timely hitting (like Mark Reynolds' game-winning single on Sunday), and the welcome return of Ryan Braun to the middle of the lineup.
Outlook: Milwaukee should regress in one-run games, but it has a pretty good head start on the rest of the Central. The Brewers are at least five games ahead of every team in the division, meaning they should be playing meaningful baseball for at least a while. Right now, Fangraphs calculates their playoff odds at better than 50%.

NL West -- San Francisco Giants
The Giants have tended to come alive during even-numbered years, and that's continued this season. However, the West provides stiff competition, with the Rockies clobbering opposing pitchers and the Dodgers poised to make good on high preseason expectations.
Outlook: San Fran's pitching and surprising power should allow the Giants to at least grab a wild-card spot.

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav

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