The Biggest Run Differential Surprises So Far in 2023

Run differential can reveal some pretty cool insights about the standings as we pass the halfway point in season.

Marcus Semien #2 of the Texas Rangers is met a home plate by Corey Seager #5 after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 24: Marcus Semien #2 of the Texas Rangers is met a home plate by Corey Seager #5 after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on May 24, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

With the season halfway done and the trade deadline rapidly approaching, we’ve finally reached the point in the year where the standings really matter. That’s not to say the games in the summer are any more important than the games in the spring, but there’s a big difference between being the worst team in your division at the end of April and the worst team in your division at the All-Star break.

At the same time, 80-something games is still a small sample of the full 162-game season; there’s a reason the MLB calendar is twice the length of the NBA and NHL campaigns. After 80 or so games, there are still talented teams with losing records and less talented clubs making noise in the postseason race. 

For that reason, it’s imperative to look beyond wins and losses when evaluating teams. Indeed, at this point in the year, run differential can be a stronger predictor of a team’s rest-of-season performance than their actual record to date.

With that in mind, I want to take a look at some of the biggest run differential surprises in baseball right now. We’re all familiar with the biggest storylines in the standings (Rangers good! Cardinals bad!), but what can we learn from runs scored and runs allowed?

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The San Diego Padres, +30 Run Differential

SAN DIEGO, CA – FEBRUARY 04: Xander Bogaerts #2 of the San Diego Padres speaks to the crowd during the San Diego Padres Fan Fest at PETCO Park on February 4, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

No one can deny the 2023 Padres have been disappointing. They were preseason favorites to win the NL West (and possibly the World Series), but three months later, their chairman had to make an official proclamation that they wouldn’t be selling at the trade deadline.

However, the Padres’ run differential tells a very different story than their win-loss record. They’ve allowed the fewest runs in the NL West and the second-fewest in the National League. By run differential, they’re outperforming every team in the NL Central and every team except the Braves in the NL East.

Indeed, by this metric, the Padres have been the tenth-best team in baseball. They’re one solid win away from moving up to seventh. In other words, the Dads are playing much better baseball than their 39-46 record would have you believe.

So what’s gone wrong? For one thing, they’re 5-15 in one-run games and 0-7 in extra innings. A bad record in close games can be an indication of an unreliable bullpen, but San Diego’s relievers have the second-lowest ERA in the NL. Therefore, this just seems like a matter of bad timing.

The Padres also have the seventh-best record in the NL against opponents above .500, but the worst record in the league against opponents below .500. Once again, the evidence points to poor timing. That sounds like a lame excuse, but sometimes it’s just the truth.

This team hasn’t been the powerhouse many of us thought it would be. At the same time, the Padres haven’t been nearly as awful as you might think.

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The NL Central

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MAY 05: Cody Bellinger #24 and Matt Mervis #22 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate after the 4-1 win against the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field on May 05, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

The NL Central is the only division in which the run differential leader isn’t in first or second place.

It’s also the only division in which the leader has a negative run differential.

And the only division without a 100-run gap between the best and worst teams.

And the only division where the team with the worst run differential isn’t in last place.

The NL Central is weird.

Here’s how the division shakes out by win-loss record:

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Cincinnati Reds4639.541
Milwaukee Brewers4639.541
Pittsburgh Pirates3945.4646.5
Chicago Cubs3845.4587
St. Louis Cardinals3549.41710.5

And here’s how it shakes out by run differential:

TeamRuns ScoredRuns AllowedDifferential
Chicago Cubs381359+22
Milwaukee Brewers356370-14
Cincinnati Reds421440-19
St. Louis Cardinals387412-25
Pittsburgh Pirates355395-40

The fourth-place Cubs are the only team with a negative run differential. They’re 36 runs ahead of the Brewers and 41 ahead of the Reds. That’s bigger than the gap between the Dodgers and Padres or the Yankees and Red Sox.

According to Pythagorean win-loss expectation, a simple formula that derives a team’s expected winning percentage from their run differential, Chicago should be four games ahead of Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Instead, the Cubs are seven games back and contemplating selling at the deadline. Woof.

The Texas Rangers, +155 Run Differential

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – MAY 13: Ezequiel Duran #20 of the Texas Rangers celebrates with Josh Jung #6 of the Texas Rangers after hitting a two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on May 13, 2023 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Rangers are the real deal.

For two months now, we’ve been waiting for them to come down to earth, and it just hasn’t happened. Instead, they’re winning ballgames by scoring more runs than they allow. It’s the simple trick that dermatologists other baseball teams absolutely hate.

The Texas Rangers have scored 505 runs this season, the most in baseball. They’ve given up 350. That’s a difference of 155 runs, or 1.82 per game. No other team – not the Rays, nor the Braves, nor anyone else – is outscoring their opponents by so much.

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The Rangers’ Pythagorean record (56-29) is even better than their actual record (50-35). This team is playing at a 95-win pace, but their run differential suggests they should be playing at a 106-win pace. That’s ridiculous. Ludicrous. Preposterous. What?

The only team with a bigger gap between their expected record and actual record is the Padres. San Diego is also the only team with a worse record in one-run games. In other words, the Rangers are one of the best teams in baseball, and they might not even be playing up their full potential.

By this point, you probably knew the Rangers were exceeding expectations. You probably knew their playoff odds were rising fast. But unless you were looking at run differential, you probably didn’t know just how dominant the ballclub from Arlington has become.