The Unluckiest* Year of the Millennium

The Oakland A’s lost by four runs on Thursday. Granted, it was a two-run game in the bottom of the eighth. But, still. Four runs. The A’s currently have the worst record in the American League. They’ve lost by at least four runs 11 times. The Royals easily have the best record in the AL. Kansas City has lost by at least four runs 15 times. Four runs is an arbitrary cutoff, but this helps to demonstrate something you’ve probably already heard: The A’s are badly underperforming, and in the weirdest way. By the standings, in the AL, no team has been worse. By other metrics, in the AL, arguably nobody has better.

For a more rich and representative 2015 A’s experience, consider Wednesday. Sure enough, the A’s lost to the New York Yankees — but they lost by one. The game ended with the tying run in scoring position. The Oakland bullpen coughed up four runs; the Oakland defense coughed up the other one. It’s not that the Yankees didn’t do enough to win. It’s that the A’s did, too. Yet they came up short. The market is just waiting for Billy Beane to sell.

It isn’t new that the A’s are underperforming the numbers. It’s already been written about here, there and everywhere. Just in April, the team went 9-14 while outscoring its opponents. Lately, the team has been more successful, despite its recent setbacks. But while you’re probably tired of hearing about Oakland’s misfortune, you might not be aware of the magnitude of what’s happened. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to someone every year.

A quick and probably unnecessary review: first, there are standings, with actual wins and actual losses. Everybody knows the standings. Then there are the Pythagorean standings, but while that name is off-putting, it’s just calculating expected wins and losses by runs scored and runs allowed. There’s also a third level, shown on this site under the header “BaseRuns.” BaseRuns figures out an expected record based on expected runs for and against, based on overall performance. BaseRuns tries to isolate performance, away from context. BaseRuns is a better indicator of team ability than team record, looking ahead.

You know the A’s have undershot their BaseRuns record. You might know they’ve undershot it by a ton. You probably can’t put that in a historical context. I couldn’t, either, off the top of my head. Then I recovered an old file, with BaseRuns standings, going back to 2002. So I’ve got BaseRuns wins and actual wins, which makes it easy to calculate the difference between them. Here are the 10 seasons with the biggest differences, in favor of BaseRuns. You could consider these to be unlucky.


The biggest number belongs to the A’s. The 2015 A’s, who haven’t yet played 90 games. I just realized I’ve introduced two asterisks. The asterisk in the graph is meant to indicate the season is barely half over. Already, the A’s have the biggest gap between BaseRuns wins and actual wins since at least 2002. If everything were to play out normally, over the remainder, the difference would be 0, holding at nearly 13. This isn’t quite Biblical, but that would be within the reach of reasonable exaggeration.

Then there’s the other asterisk — the asterisk in the headline. That deserves an explanation. I don’t like the words “lucky” and “unlucky,” not when talking about stuff like this. I couldn’t think of a better way to put it in a headline, but it’s kind of a lie. It’s not that the A’s have been “unlucky” in a sense; it’s that their outcomes are unsustainable. It’s a team of humans, and those humans have responded — often poorly — to high-leverage situations. In other words, the team has done poorly at the wrong times. One shouldn’t expect that to continue, but we can’t write off what’s taken place. By the numbers, the A’s should be in the hunt, but we can’t excuse bad play at bad moments. Those are important moments.

A primary culprit should come as little surprise: Oakland has sucked in one-run games. History has shown that one-run-game outcomes are mostly random. The A’s are 7-22, for a .241 winning percentage. Only one team has finished with a lower one-run-game winning percentage: the 1935 Boston Braves, at .184. That was the team that had the last couple months of Babe Ruth. Let’s say, for fun, the A’s were instead 14-15 in one-run games. Then instead of 39-49, they’d be 46-42. They’d be in the thick of things, just another team on the bubble looking to add one or two spare parts.

As noted, with BaseRuns, I can get back to 2002. If I settle for runs scored and runs allowed, I can go back much further. For example, a whole century! Based on their run differential, the A’s are already 10 wins short of what one would expect. That ranks them 14th-worst since 1916. Out of a sample of 2,166. It’s possible things could get worse from here. It’s also possible the team will get better. The expectation should be that, moving forward, the A’s play right to their numbers. But I’ll note the biggest negative difference belongs to the 1993 Mets, at -14.4 wins. Instead of going 73-89, that team went 59-103. Bad is bad, but being that bad usually takes some extra help.

There’s nothing to be done about bad timing. It is what it is, and there’s little that can be done to control it. In this case, bad timing has basically sunk the A’s season. They’re not the only team that’s been, shall we say, unclutch. But they’ve been especially so, and it’s too late to reasonably expect a rebound. Even if the A’s played to their BaseRuns record from this point forward, they’d end up at 83 wins. Because of bad timing, the A’s are probably going to sell. Because of good timing, the Twins have already promoted their top prospects. BaseRuns puts the A’s ahead of the Twins by a mile, but that’s little consolation for Oakland, and Minnesota doesn’t care. You can have a plan, and your team can even mostly execute the plan, but a lot of games come down to one or two plays. Oakland has been terrible at those plays.

There are plenty of ways to talk about luck. In a different way, the 2014 Rangers had a spectacularly unlucky season because everyone got injured. It’s a complicated subject, and no one team gets to hoard all of the sympathy. But it’s amazing what some timing might do to Beane’s legacy. Bad timing this year is turning a seemingly good A’s team into a potential cellar-dweller. Last year’s A’s also undershot their BaseRuns record by a bunch. With some more wins, maybe those A’s win the division — or maybe they host the wild-card game. Timing is in large part steering the organization, which has to be frustrating, because timing is that one thing you can’t hope to control. But that’s also kind of the magic of all this. A team that underperforms opens the door for an overachiever. Timing keeps the game feeling random. If you work in the game, you probably hate the reality of randomness. But, on the outside, it’s something of a blessing.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

I would like to quickly note that you, Jeff, are the best writer on this site.

8 years ago
Reply to  Michael

On the Internet, everyone, in an important sense, is a writer. Some of more skillful at writing than others. I don’t need to explain that to you. But it is worth pointing out that one widely recognized aspect of skill in writing is the ability to make a point in fewer, rather than more, words. The point of this comment is that in this aspect — call it “concision” — Jeff Sullivan is perhaps not the best writer on this site.

8 years ago
Reply to  AF

It’s the Cistulli Effect.

But I love every minute of it.

8 years ago
Reply to  AF

That depends on whether you care more about the destination or the journey. Or, put another way, are you reading the text (rather than the numbers) on this site for information, or for enjoyment?

8 years ago
Reply to  AF

I like Jeff’s articles but sometimes I wonder if he gets paid by the word.

8 years ago
Reply to  AF

That took a lot of words.