Sunday, September 26, 2021


We were reminded that the 2021 Seattle Mariners are poised to be one of those "backward" teams that occasionally surface out of the smooth surface of common sense, baseball division. With just a handful of games left in the season, the M's were assured a winning record despite scoring fewer runs than their opponents.

And, according to the Pythagorean Won-Loss projection (a tool Bill James developed before he signed on with the Red Sox and slowly deconstructed his toolbox), it's not just one of those wispy, "just over the line" type of things--where they go 82-80 and score ten fewer runs than the opposition. As of the other day, the M's "luck" number (as opposed to their "lucky" number) was 13--according to Pythagoras (last seen with a ball and chain as opposed to a bat and ball) the M's have won 13 more games than they "should" have based on their runs scored/runs allowed ratio.

So we thought it would be of interest to determine just how extreme this divergence actually is. Are the M's in the top fifty of teams who've defied gravity in this manner? Fortunately, the folks at Forman et fils (you know them as Baseball Reference dot com) have continued to compile this data, thus permitting us to refresh our memory.

Which definitely needed refreshing, because as it turns out the M's are close to making baseball history. The chart of the "luckiest" teams (actual wins minus "Pythagorean wins" = "extra wins via luck") shown at left indicates that the M's are #2 in the entire history of the game with respect to "luck." (And stop the presses: the M's 14-1 loss to the Angels last night has currently pushed them ahead of the 1905 Detroit Tigers in this category...if you are willing to believe that wins, whether real or theoretical, can be measured using numerals on the right side of the decimal point.)

If one stops to think about it, you won't be surprised to discover a number of pennant-winning/post-season teams showing up on this list. The 1905 Tigers represent the recessive counter-trend, a bad team lifted into mediocrity via good fortune. But of the twenty-four teams since 1901 whose "luck" has rounded up to a total of at least ten extra wins over a season, a total of nine have been post-season teams--most recently (and most spectacularly) the 2016 Texas Rangers, who won 95 games despite scoring only eight more runs than their opponents that year. 

The M's aren't going to make the post-season this year, but they just might end up with the all-time "lucky" number, which is at least a kind of consolation prize. But another look at the chart reveals that the M's 2018 team also ranks extremely high in this rarified corner of the baseball world: the 2018 team ranks eighth all-time in terms of "luck,", with an LQ ("luck quotient") of 11.56  And the 2000 edition of the M's is in 22nd place at 9.83. Is there something about the weather patterns in that latitude region that clusters these events in such a way that one franchise would reach the top echelon of this list three times within twelve years? Look the list over, and you'll find no other team with more than two appearances on it.

So what is the likeliest reason for this "luck"? Most of the teams here had very good to outstanding records in one-run games. In fact, the 2016 Rangers hold the all-time record for highest WPCT in one-run games (.766, or 36-11). The 2012 Orioles were the former holder of this record (29-9, or .763), breaking a record that had been held for over a hundred years by the 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates (33-12, .733). 

Following up on the teams listed here will provide the baseball wanderer with a series of intriguing reasons why/how these teams managed to overachieve. Sometimes it's a vulturing bullpen, with more wins in relief; sometimes it's an unusually lucky record in extra-inning games. Whatever it is, it's almost never reproducible: the closest we can find in the database are those two D-back teams, each with LQs over 11 within two years of each other.

We'll look at "unluck" sometime during the post-season, and provide an update as to whether the '21 M's set the record for baseball's luckiest team. Stay tuned...