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To see or not to see the Giants’ run differential

The thesis of this article begins on the 300th word.

Wild Card Game - San Francisco Giants v New York Mets
Because they’re running. Get it?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Giants were outscored by 11 runs last night against a team that’s designed to score a lot of runs. The Giants also didn’t score a single run last night, despite being a team that’s designed to score a lot of runs. 35 games into the season, the Giants have been outscored by 10 runs (141-151), but they’ve still managed to win more games than they’ve lost (19-16).

If you’re a fan of expected wins and losses based on the Pythagorean record — and you should be, because it’s instructive — than you know this isn’t good news for our favorite baseball team. Generally speaking, teams that have better records than they ought to (based on the runs scored vs. runs allowed) are lucky, and due for a major stretch of pain, record-wise, that adjusts the team back into expectations. The Giants could run through June with 3 more wins than losses, but if the differential between runs scored and runs allowed remains the same (or gets worse), that 3 game plus can easily become a 3 game minus, as math intended.

You might argue, “Well, Dickbutt Bryan, the Giants only have that negative differential because of a few blowout losses. Take those away and they’re decent. Dickbutt” and you might have something there about my dickbuttedness, but you’d also be ignoring that that’s the entire point of the expected wins and losses. If they’re capable of losing very badly, then they’re capable of losing a lot. Run prevention is at least as important as runs created.

Okay, sure. Maybe the Giants don’t need to look pretty to accomplish their goal. I think we’d all agree that goal is to somehow make a playoff run. And teams with negative run differentials do make the playoffs from time to time. But in the AT&T Park era, the Giants have never made the playoffs in seasons where they’ve had a negative run differential at this point in the season.

I’m sticking with the AT&T Park era because it just makes the most sense for our purposes. This is about the Giants, not the history of the sport or teams in the Wild Card era. Despite a radically different roster from the beginning of said era, it’s the same management and stadium, which can help us predict moves and results for the rest of the season. Since 2000, the Giants have made the postseason seven times (2000, 2002, 2003, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016). In every instance, they had a positive run differential heading into play on May 8th.

As you can see, I neglected to turn 2005’s -7 red and forgot to scrub that random cursor on the lower left hand corner. I also allow that I made a math mistake somewhere. Maybe even a big one. If you find it, you will be awarded McCovey Chronicles’ No Prize. Or, I guess for copyright purposes, that would be a Kneaux Prize.

Most importantly, you can see the situation is grim. 2001 only looked good because of Bonds, Aurilia’s 37 home runs, and the acquisition of Jason Schmidt, which set up 2002. 2004 was ended by Jim Brower turning to ash, Cody Ransom’s error, and Steve Finley’s grand slam. 2005-2008 were The Bad Years. 2009 was Ryan Spilborghs. 2011 was Buster Posey vs. Scott Cousins. I don’t know what happened in 2013. That was the year they lost Angel Pagan for a long stretch and I met Grant. 2015 and 2017 were the last days of the dynasty. But there was 2016... that last flicker... the year that gave us the idea that this year could be one final run.

But the run differentials tell the story. When the Giants have been good, it’s been positive in their favor. When they’ve been bad, it hasn’t. That’s because when the run differential’s good, your team is probably good, and when it’s bad, your team is probably bad. There are, always, extenuating circumstances, other factors that might contribute to current results or help alter predictions. If you want to find reasons for hope (and reasons to keep on watching games this season), behold:

1-run games and blow outs are a great pairing to wonkify run differential.

  • No Giants team has ever had Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto return midway through a season.
  • This year’s bullpen is improved over the past two seasons, which matters more than how it compares to other bullpens from the AT&T Park era, and if it can hold up despite what will almost certainly be overuse this season, then there’s a good chance they can make it to the postseason. Just, you know, lower expectations for a gassed bullpen if they get there.
  • If I had done this article yesterday, the Giants would’ve been a +1 for the season in run differential and I couldn’t have made as dire an assertion as I’ve made in this article.

With all the injuries and the sheer weight of last year’s flop with a lot of the same players, we already sensed the creeping dread. We knew the Giants were in trouble. Now that the numbers confirm it, we don’t have to wonder or worry anymore; we simply get to choose: be hopeful or be hopeless?