Mains: Is a team’s record in one-run games and blowouts indicative of quality?

From SABR member Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus on March 12, 2019:

In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles finished second in the American League East with a 93-69 record. It was their best record in 15 years and broke a subsequent streak of 14 straight losing seasons. They did it despite scoring just 712 runs, ninth in the league, while surrendering 705, seventh in the league. Their Pythagorean record of 82-80 ranked eighth in the 14-team league.

Nonetheless, the Orioles topped the Rangers in the Wild Card game, 5-1, and took the Yankees to the distance in the ALDS, dropping the final game, 3-1. The team was sparked in part by 19-year-old late-season call-up Manny Machado, who hit .262/.294/.445 in 51 games.

How did the Orioles succeed despite their pedestrian run differential? Well, the team went 29-9 in one-run games that year, easily the best record in the majors in such contests. Some credited the team’s bullpen, whose 3.00 ERA and .666 OPS allowed each ranked third-best in the league. Others pointed to the hitters’ .772 OPS in plate appearances with a Leverage Index over 1.5 (about 20 percent of all plays). The genius of manager Buck Showalter and the team’s character and clutch ability came up, too.

The sabermetric response: Oh, come on. How a team fares in one-run games is mostly luck. Our Russell A. Carleton demonstrated, during the Orioles’ 2012 run, that one-run records of most teams are not stable, suggesting no replicable skill in winning one-run contests. The team slipped to 85-77 in 2013, with a 20-31 record in one-run games, third-worst in the majors, better only than the tanking Astros and Cubs.

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Originally published: March 14, 2019. Last Updated: March 14, 2019.