Quick, name the worst team in baseball right now. The Houston Astros are a good choice, as they have lost at least 100 games in three consecutive seasons and are currently tied for the worst record in baseball. The Chicago Cubs are also a candidate, given that they are tied with the Astros in the win column and just traded away two of their best starting pitchers, weakening their roster going forward. Both teams are deep in rebuilding mode, and they are paying the price on the field each day.
However, I’d like to suggest that 2014’s worst team might not be either of these rebuilding clubs, but instead an organization that entered the year with high hopes of contention.
At 38-52, the Texas Rangers are just a game ahead of the Astros in the AL West standings, so if you were just judging by wins and losses, you wouldn’t put them behind Houston just yet. However, since the difference between a win and a loss can often come down to whether one crucial play gets made or not, a team’s record can be a bit misleading. Teams are more effectively evaluated by removing the context from when events occur, and just looking at the value of positive or negative events a team is involved in without regards to the situation of when those events happen.
At FanGraphs, we measure team performance through a model called BaseRuns, which calculates the number of runs a team would be expected to score and allow based on a normal distribution of events. With these expected run differentials, we can calculate team records based on overall performance without the influences of clutch performance, which is generally random and mostly beyond a team’s control.
And BaseRuns thinks that the Rangers have been baseball’s worst team so far this year, without any reasonable contender even coming all that close to their marks of futility.
Based on their total performance to date, we would have expected the Rangers to have been outscored by 105 runs, or a deficit of more than a full run per game played. The next worst total belongs to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but their expected run differential is only -62 runs. If you translate these expected runs scored and allowed totals into wins, the model would forecast the Rangers for a 34-56 record, four games worse than their actual record. As bad as they’ve played, the Rangers have actually been lucky to not be even worse off in the standings.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.