Before the Red Sox expect Saber Sultan Bill James to wave his magic Jedi sword and transmogrify the 2012 Sox into the 2013 undefeated, 162-0 Sox, consider the 2012 Orioles.
When James cranked the numbers through his Pythagorean formula, which estimates a team’s expected winning percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed, he forecast the Orioles to be 67-72 today; they should be in third place, but not in Wild Card contention.
Instead Los Birds de Ballmore are 11 games better than the Jamesian formula expected and headed for first their postseason appearance since 1997. And, to reference that old commercial: “They did it the old-fashioned way—they EARNED it!” They earned it by beating the First place Yankees: it’s the first time since 1976 the O’s won three series in the da Bronx.
Taking a page from the Billy Beane script, although being outspent by the Yankees [198 to just 81 million] and the Red Sox [173 to 81 million], the Orioles have defied financial and Saber metrics; James got the Yankees right 78-61 [today 79-61], but was way off with the Orioles, who are 11 games better: instead of being 67-72, they’re 78-61.
Amazingly, Baltimore is in the hunt for AL East title or a wild-card slot, while being outscored 624-605.
Four other teams have made the playoffs with 10 games better than their Pythagorean forecast: 2008 Angels, 2007 Diamondbacks, 2004 Yankees, and the 1997 Giants.
Here’s a clue: Baltimore is 12-2 in extra innings and 47-20 in games decided by one or two runs. In the AL East they have won series over the Red Sox, Jays and Yankees, despite getting outscored.
Since the James’ Pythagorean formula calculates runs squared divided by the square of runs plus the square of runs allowed, teams can beat the system by scoring just enough runs to win most games to counter-balance getting shellacked in other games.
Adding Bill James to the Red Sox “team” will take them into the Sabermetric universe of Billy Beane, but the Orioles have made the case that, although the Sultan of Saber has it “figured out” nearly perfectly, Alan Watts had a point when he noticed:
“The universe is wiggly.”