Run Difference Shows Need For Salary Cap

Here's a riddle for you: in the span of a baseball season, what is the lowest possible run difference in order for a team to win all 162 games?

It's easy — 162.

What about for 161 games?

This isn't so easy. The theoretical answer: negative infinity.

So that scenario would involve losing one game in a blow out — or, for mathematical purposes, infinity — but winning every other game by a smaller margin. Of course, we all know it's impossible to score infinity runs (unless you are Chuck Norris). So why all this theoretical nonsense?

Because the Arizona Diamondbacks have scored 22 less runs than their opponents, but are 17 games over .500. It hardly seems fair. If this were college football, justice could be done by the BCS. But here, it doesn't matter if you are blown out once, or twice ... or 21 times, if you're the D-Backs. They have lost 21 games by five runs or more.

The Royals, who are 15 games under .500, have also lost 21 games by five runs or more.

So, maybe there is something to being good in close games. Maybe the clutch factor really does have a huge effect. And maybe Barry Bonds' bionic arm doesn't help him a tremendous amount! Okay, let's not get carried away here.

The Diamondbacks are 38-21 in games decided by two runs or less. The Royals are 24-30. That is a 11.5-game difference.

Just to give you an idea of how interesting Arizona's feat is, here's a list of sub-.500 teams that have a better run difference than the D-Backs: San Francisco (59-72), Oakland (65-67), Minnesota (67-63), and Baltimore (58-71).

The D-Backs are 74-57. So, are they good or lucky?

The evidence suggests that it's a little of both. But mostly, they are lucky — and they have four solid pitchers in the bullpen.

One of the best indicators for run difference is team salary. The Yankees, the No. 1 in team salary, have scored 157 more runs than their opponents. Rounding out the top-five richest teams are the Red Sox (+183), Mets (+61), White Sox (-150), and the Angels (+75). In fact, rich teams have to really be bad — and loaded with over-the-hill veterans (see: Sox, White) — to do poorly in run differential.

Of the richer half of MLB, the teams with the worst run differential are the White Sox (-150), Astros (-85), Cardinals (-68), and Giants (-5).

And what about poor teams with good run differential? Of the 10 bottom-feeders, the Rockies (+41), Indians (+59), and Padres (+61) top the list. Not surprisingly, two of those teams — the Rockies and Padres — play in the same division as the D-Backs. The Indians hit a nice little spot where their young players matured, but haven't reached their big contracts yet.

So, what does this tell us? It's easy. Without a salary cap, the poor teams can only win if: a) they get lucky; b) they get put in the ghetto of baseball divisions, like the NL West; or c) their young players mature before their contract years.

The D-Backs hit the jackpot on all three.

Does baseball need a salary cap? I was a longtime believer that it didn't. But Eric Byrnes just signed a four-year extension with the D-Backs worth $10 million a year (which doesn't count against this year's cap number.) That scares me. Scott Boras will ask for $30 million+ for A-Rod. That scares me. Oh, and the Yankees will spend eight times more on salary than the Devil Rays. They are both in the same division. That scares me.

Screw Moneyball. Billy Beane and his A's are only +6 in run differential, but spent almost $80 million. That's right in the middle of the pack. And their run differential reflects that. The team that has done the best with the least amount of money is the Padres. With incredible pitching, the team has fought its way to second place in the NL West. But they don't give out trophies for second place, even if you cry for three hours after that one time you lost the pine tar derby to that jerk friend of yours by just a hair.

Sure, a poor team could get lucky and win 161 games with a negative bajillion run difference. But bajillion isn't a real number. And the Yankees could still win all 162 games — theoretically.

Comments and Conversation

August 28, 2007

Mike Round:

Interesting idea linking run differential with salary but the obvious point is that HR’s and RBI’s are expensive and the usual suspects will be in the market for these commodities whether there’s a cap or not.
The problem with salary cap is that it promotes mediocrity (see NFL) rather than levels the playing field. Despite lacking a cap, MLB has had 7 diffrent WS winners the past 7 seasons - a record the NFL can not equal. Badly run franchises will still be badly run whether there’s a cap or not (see Baltimore Orioles) - the only thing a cap will do is make the owner richer.
Would you have any confidence that the Pirates or Marlins will be anywhere near the cap figure if one were introduced? Personally, I’d rather the players take the tv money than the owners.

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