MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Does run differential tell the whole story?

Does run differential tell the whole story?

Run differential, as we all know, is a terrific analytical tool. Except when it isn't.

OK, in 2016, run differential would have correctly predicted five out of six division champions. And it would have given us the best team in baseball, the Cubs, who had baseball's best run differential, a magnificent plus-252.

2016 standings vs. run differential
AL East record   Run diff
Boston 93-69 Boston +184
Baltimore 89-73 Toronto +93
Toronto 89-72 Baltimore +29
New York 84-78 New York -22
Tampa Bay 68-94 Tampa Bay -41
AL Central record   Run diff
Cleveland 94-67 Cleveland +101
Detroit 86-75 Detroit +29
Kansas City 81-81 Chicago -29
Chicago 78-84 Kansas City -37
Minnesota 59-103 Minnesota -167
AL West record   Run diff
Texas 95-67 Seattle +61
Seattle 86-76 Houston +23
Houston 84-78 Texas +8
Los Angeles 74-88 Los Angeles -10
Oakland 69-93 Oakland -108
NL East record   Run diff
Washington 95-67 Washington +151
New York 87-75 New York +54
Miami 79-82 Miami -27
Philadelphia 71-91 Atlanta -130
Atlanta 68-93 Philadelphia -186
NL Central record   Run diff
Chicago 103-58 Chicago +252
St. Louis 86-76 St. Louis +67
Pittsburgh 78-83 Pittsburgh -29
Milwaukee 73-89 Milwaukee -62
Cincinnati 68-94 Cincinnati -138
NL West record   Run diff
Los Angeles 91-71 Los Angeles +87
San Francisco 87-75 San Francisco +84
Colorado 75-87 Colorado -15
Arizona 69-93 Arizona -84
San Diego 68-93 San Diego -138
Run-differential data per Baseball-Reference.com

But run differential didn't help us much with the Texas Rangers. Here was the club with the American League's best record (95-67). And yet, the Rangers ranked merely 14th in the Majors in run differential with a measly, barely-break-even of plus-8.

The Rangers defied the run differential rules by doing very well in one-run games. But those count, too, even though in the Kingdom of Run Differential those outcomes are looked upon largely as matters of mere chance.

At the bottom of the heap, run differential didn't tell you exactly which team was worst, either. Run differential's worst team, by a landslide, was the Phillies at minus-184.

But there were seven clubs that had worse records than the Phillies' 71-91. The club with the worst record --- the Twins at 59-103 -- had the second-worst run differential, minus-167.

There has also been an argument that run differential is a better predictor of postseason success than a team's actual record. This year? A tie, a draw, a 50-50 season.

The Cubs, kings of run differential, were supposed to win the World Series, and they did. But the Red Sox, the team with the second-best differential, and the best in the American League at plus-184, were supposed to win the AL pennant.

The Red Sox, however, did not win a postseason game, being swept in a Division Series by the Indians, the eventual AL champs.

So run differential as a predictor of success continued on a path of being very useful much of the time, but occasionally, badly, missing the mark. For a statistic, run differential thus sometimes seems very human.

Here are the division standings, compared and contrasted with the run-differential standings, with the run differential data per Baseball-Reference.com.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.