Rethinking Run Differential

At the risk of providing legitimacy for what I regard as a mostly meaningless statistic, let's consider run differential, an item that has become popular in the past five seasons or so.

We can start with the bright side. Unlike much of sabermetrics, run differential is extremely simple without any complicated formula. It's not difficult to take the number of runs a team scores during the course of the season and subtract the number plated by the opposition. An understanding of positive and negative numbers is required, but that's about it. My apologies for repeating what you already know.

One other positive aspect of this exercise is that teams from any era can be compared to one another. Doesn't matter whether home runs are the soup du jour, as they are today, or whether the stolen base ruled major league baseball as it did in the days of Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock.

The games are played to see which team scores more runs. Therefore, good teams that win a lot of games should have a very favorable run differential. That's not news. What would be unique is if a ballclub that wins, say, 90 games in a season scored fewer runs than the opposition.

The greatest run differential in history belongs to the 1939 New York Yankees, who outscored their opponents by 411 runs en route to a 111-45 record. Joe DiMaggio hit .381 that season, and Lou Gehrig retired after just eight games due to the cruel disease that today bears his name.

The Yanks ended the season 17 games ahead of second-place Boston before sweeping Cincinnati in four games in the World Series. Best team ever? Run differential says it was.

In 1959, the White Sox ended a 40-year drought as far as winning an American League pennant is concerned. We didn't call it run differential, but we were very much aware that the Sox were extremely adept at winning close games.

Compared to the New York group 20 seasons previously, the Sox scored just 81 more runs than their foes, but they still won 94 games in the 154-game schedule. Catcher Sherm Lollar led the team with a modest 22 home runs and 84 RBIs. The more prominent statistics were shortstop Luis Aparicio's 56 stolen bases - he led the league nine consecutive seasons, 1956-64 - and his 98 runs scored, accounting for almost 15 percent of the team's total.

How can a ballclub such as those '59 Sox average only approximately a half-run more per game than the competition and still manage to finish 34 games over .500? Try a 35-15 record in one-run contests. Speed on the bases, an effective bullpen backing up strong starting pitching, and excellent defense were the ingredients.

We never contemplated the total number of runs scored, but we sure knew how many one-run games the Go Go Sox were winning.

Jumping ahead to the present season, the White Sox are raising all kinds of eyebrows after having finished a homestand Sunday winning six of seven games.

Lucas Giolito, easily the worst starting pitcher in baseball last season, has basically overnight become one of the best. In Sunday's 2-0 win over Cleveland, possibly the finest game the Sox have played over the past few seasons, Giolito pitched into the eighth inning without walking a batter - he led all pitchers last season in issuing bases on balls - while giving up just five hits. Giolito now has won his last six starts, limiting the opposition to a .150 batting average while posting an ERA of 1.03. In 43⅔ innings, he has walked eight and struck out 48.

The White Sox now find themselves just a game under .500 at 29-30, good for a tie with Cleveland for second place in the Central Division. If the season had ended Sunday, the Sox would have missed the wild card by a mere two games.

Yet their run differential resides at minus-43, which in no way indicates the strides this team is making. The Oakland A's have the same won-loss record as the White Sox, but their run differential is plus-24.

What, if anything, can one conclude about this anomaly? Only that when the White Sox get beat they often get slaughtered, while the A's have unceremoniously buried a number of opponents. Baseball Reference tracks blowout wins and losses - games decided by five or more runs. So far the Sox have lost 14 such contests while winning just seven, while Oakland has 10 blowout victories against seven embarrassments.

Two series' last month accounted for all of the negative run differential for the White Sox so far this season. The Red Sox pummeled the local Sox 30-5 in three games in early May, and prior to last week the Twins clubbed the South Siders 26-5 in a three-game sweep in Minneapolis. So there you go: six games, a minus-46 run differential. Take those away, and the Sox have played the opposition about straight up, just as their record indicates.

So where to go from here?

Begin with the four starting pitchers behind Giolito. Reynaldo Lopez, Ivan Nova, Dylan Covey and Manny Banuelos simply have to improve. That quartet owns a combined 6.21 ERA, meaning that the ol' run differential is going to balloon higher unless those fellows do a better job of controlling the opposition.

Covey showed a bit of swagger Friday evening in a 6-1 White Sox win. After Francisco Lindor homered on Covey's third pitch of the game, the righthander proceeded to shut out the visitors over six innings. A lone walk was the key as the Indians' eight hits produced only Lindor's tally.

Meanwhile, Cleveland played like, well, the White Sox on too many prior occasions, making four errors and going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.

However, the White Sox also need to tighten up their act, as shown on Saturday when they had Indians' starter Jefry Rodriguez on the ropes in the bottom of the third inning. The Sox had taken a 1-0 lead and had runners at first and second with only one out. Taking his lead at second, Yolmer Sanchez may have had aspirations of stealing third.

Possibly Cleveland stole a sign, or maybe Lindor, no stranger to deception and intrigue, observed a fine opportunity to surprise Yolmer. TV analyst and former pitcher Steve Stone, who frequently displays great prescience, noticed something.

"Any time I see the shortstop take off his glove I worry about a pickoff, and Lindor just took off his," observed Stone, assuming that Lindor was signaling a move to catch Sanchez.

Sure enough, Rodriguez whirred to throw a perfect strike to Lindor, whose stealth allowed him to sneak behind Sanchez, who was a dead duck. To make matters worse, Charlie Tilson, the runner at first, strayed too far away from the bag and became the second out on a weird double play. End of rally. Momentum killer and a precursor to the 5-2 final Cleveland victory.

While Stone made his observation from his perch high above home plate, you wonder why third base coach Nick Capra or first base coach Daryl Boston didn't notice Lindor's treachery. Did anyone from the dugout detect Lindor's behavior? We'll never know because Stone didn't mention it again, nor was the question posed to manager Rick Renteria in his post-game presser.

However, we can thank the Cleveland shortstop for something. Even though the play went against the White Sox, it was far more interesting than contemplating run differential.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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