How Run Differential Tells the Truth and Helps Fantasy Managers

Win-loss records can be misleading. Run differential illustrates just how good a team truly is.

Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners walks to the dugout.
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 05: Julio Rodríguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners walks to the dugout before their game against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum on June 5, 2024 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In today’s MLB environment, every team is trying to get the most out of its analytics department.  Here are a few interesting facts about run differential and why we need to start paying attention to it more often. In a year where offense has been down overall, teams are starving for extra runs. Those extra runs could be the difference when it comes to winning your fantasy leagues.

In this piece, I will be focusing in-depth on four different teams and what their run differential tells us. Should we invest our time into buying players from certain teams? Which teams should we stay away from? How about the ones we’re on the fence about?

Let’s start with the basics. Run differential is a cumulative team statistic that combines offensive and defensive scoring. It is calculated by subtracting runs allowed from runs scored.

The best thing about run differential is that it’s the greatest predictor of overachievers and underachievers. A team is in the black (or often green) if they score more runs than they allow. However, if they allow more runs than they’ve scored, they will find themselves in the red.

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If you’re focusing on targeting a specific player, first check to see if he is playing for a productive team.

Run differentials and other stats updated prior to games on June 28.

Weak Squad: Chicago White Sox

The team with the worst run differential in the game is none other than the Chicago White Sox, who currently own a -171 differential, 38 runs lower than the next worst Colorado Rockies. Not even the 2003 Detroit Tigers were that bad in their first 82 games, posting a -136 differential. 

So is it a good idea to target White Sox players in particular?

Take Tommy Pham for example. You probably picked him up off the waiver wire and expected production similar to his 2023 in New York and Arizona.

By now, you know that’s just not the case. The counting stats are almost nonexistent even though he’s been a productive bat for Chicago. Counting stats like RBIs and runs go a long way in fantasy baseball so it’s hard to justify such an addition. 

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Don’t forget that run differential speaks to how awful, average, or fantastic a team’s supporting cast is, hitters and pitchers alike. In other words, even if a player is usually good, doesn’t necessarily mean you should be targeting him if he has no help. Pham is one of these players. 

What about a leading Cy Young candidate in Garret Crochet? He’s been magnificent, but to only own six wins halfway through the season should be a punishable crime. I own Crochet in my dynasty league and have come to accept he’s there for great ratios and elite strikeouts, not wins.

It’s too bad that a team with historically low offensive totals has to go up to the plate and bat for Garrett. Let’s get him shipped at the deadline!

Strong Squad: New York Yankees

A top-five team in all of baseball comes in the form of the big, bad New York Yankees.

At the beginning of the year, it seemed as if every pinstripe fan wanted to forget 2023 and I understand why. A -25 differential was the result of last year’s team and that’s just not going to cut it with one of the highest payrolls year after year. Luckily the momentum has swung the other way this season and the Bronx Bombers have produced a +90 differential. 

Everyone knows the addition of Juan Soto was helpful, but could anyone have hoped for Anthony Volpe’s development to form so quickly?

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If you targeted him as your shortstop, the patience was rewarded with a leadoff spot ahead of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. That’s arguably the best spot to hit in baseball and explains how Volpe has already crossed home plate 55 times and stolen 15 bags in 2024. 

We can’t forget about that pitching staff and the addition of Luis Gil. He has lessened his walk rate while keeping the opponent from scoring many runs at all. The Yankees couldn’t be the top dog in run differential if their opponents were scoring at will, something that’s just not the case with these Yankee hurlers. Gil has been one of the top additions in all fantasy formats. 

In other words, target as many Yankee hitters and pitchers as possible because the numbers support the performance. Even though they have slumped a bit in June, their April and May performance was simply too good.

Plus, this is a win-now team, something that encourages front offices to spend at the deadline and add as much support as possible. This organization is rarely afraid to reach deep into their own pockets. The stronger the lineup support, the better your fantasy chances. 

Confusing Squad: Cleveland Guardians

How about those pesky Cleveland Guardians? Many doubted this Cleveland team for the first half of the season. To be honest, I still don’t know what to believe. We look at the numbers and see they have a +104 run differential, fantastic. But what does that mean in the future?

Is this Cleveland team playing over their head?

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An addition such as David Fry has not only helped Cleveland take control of the AL Central but also assisted fantasy managers in a big way. Fry being eligible at the catcher’s position has aided many fantasy teams. And how about the true emergence of Josh Naylor’s power?

Jose Ramirez finally has a Robin to his Batman.

These are all healthy signs to start but more than just offense goes into run differential and winning in general.

Typically Cleveland is known for producing arms in their pitching factory. Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen, Triston McKenzie, Ben Lively, and Carlos Carrasco make up the current rotation. At first glance you may not think the names are much. It’s because they’re not. 

The numbers don’t back up a lot of what this staff is doing. I give them credit because they’ve done relatively well without Shane Bieber and Gavin Williams.

But take one look at Logan Allen’s Statcast page and it’s not a pretty sight. The same goes for pretty much all of the others with the exception of Bibee. Every other starter in this rotation has an untrustworthy Statcast page filled with low-velocity readings and shady command. 

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While Cleveland’s offense will remain effective, their pitching luck will run out which will eventually result in a lower run differential. This also means fewer marks in the win column. 

Of course I trust making fantasy acquisitions when it comes to the Guardians offense because I believe their offensive metrics show the truth. However, it would be very hard for me to trust their starters come fantasy playoff time. 

Questionable Squad: Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners are leading the AL West because of one reason and one reason alone. They have an elite starting staff, which is probably the best in all of baseball. Yet, their run differential stands at just +11. 

This speaks to the absence of offense – power in particular. But does this also say something about the chances a team has of winning in the postseason? In the past few years, the home run ball has been the difference when it comes to winning a ring. Last year, the Texas Rangers won a championship with a +195 differential. Power was their main weapon.

This season, power is Seattle’s kryptonite. You could also say strikeouts and poor contact rate. It’s true that some teams like to play small ball and have different playing styles but will that work come October? I don’t think so as almost all past champions owned a large positive season total differential.

They’ve been solid in one-run ball games and that speaks to their clutch ability. But that could easily change and swing the other way which puts them in a dangerous spot. Better to be winning by five runs more than continually pulling out close games night after night.

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When it comes to fantasy in particular, trading for a guy like Bryan Woo could be a smart and underrated move. Sure he has an injury history and hasn’t been the healthiest player, but when feeling good there’s elite control and ride on his fastball which few players possess.

On the other hand, trading for anybody on this Mariner offense remains risky. Yes, that even includes Julio Rodríguez, who has been extremely disappointing. Proceed with caution when dealing with these Seattle bats.

Moving Forward

As we are a little more than halfway through the regular season at this point, it’s important to remember: remain flexible. Things always change whether due to injury, over/underachievers, or simply workload management. This means you should always be looking for an edge over the competition; studying run differential can be one of those methods. 

I believe in this statistic because it shows what a team is truly capable of over 9 innings no matter what the score is. Players are trying with their best efforts 100% of the time so even in those blowout wins or losses we see their talent shown by production alone. 

If a squad continues to win by more than five runs while another continues to win one-run, razor-thin games with close margins, which team is truly better?

For me, the answer is an easy one, whoever is crossing the plate more is better! As a result, I know which teams to focus on when it comes to fantasy baseball waiver additions and trade acquisitions. Which teams will you be putting your trust in?

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