There are two basic ways a baseball team can have success: score runs and prevent runs.
Usually, the teams that do both effectively win a lot of games. The teams that do both poorly lose a lot of games. In fact, run differential and Pythagorean winning percentage are often better measures of a team’s true talent level than its actual record.
But the beauty of baseball is the unexpected and the teams that defy the odds. We know what should happen, based on historical precedent. We don’t know what will happen in any individual case.
That’s been the story for the nine teams in MLB history that have been outscored, yet still qualified for the postseason. (That number actually overstates how common this is, because four of the nine occurred during shortened seasons).
Here is a look at how these clubs managed that feat, something that might be of interest to a few 2021 contenders in particular. The Mariners (-51 run differential), Mets (-18) and Phillies (-5) lead the pack of teams still in the hunt despite being outscored, and while improving their run differentials would be the best path to October, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
Note: The focus here is only on teams that made the playoffs. That doesn’t include the 1994 Rangers (-84) who somehow were first in the AL West at 52-62 when the strike wiped out the rest of that season. It also leaves out teams such as the 1984 Mets (-24), who won 90 games but missed the playoffs, in the pre-Wild Card era.
2020: Three teams
This season gets its own category, because the conditions were far more conducive to joining this list than in a normal season. First, the COVID-19 pandemic limited the season to 60 games, instead of 162. Second, the playoff field expanded temporarily from 10 teams to 16. Here are the clubs that benefited:
• Marlins (31-29, 2nd in NL East): -41 run differential
• Brewers (29-31, 4th in NL Central): -17 run differential
• Blue Jays (32-28, 3rd in AL East): -10 run differential
That doesn’t even count the 31-29 Reds, who finished with exactly as many runs scored as allowed. But if the playoff field had still been the usual 10, it’s possible none of those teams would have made it. (Cincinnati, Miami and St. Louis could have ended up tied for the second NL Wild Card spot, necessitating tiebreaker games). And none stayed long. Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Toronto all were swept in the best-of-three Wild Card Series, while Miami advanced before being swept in the NL Division Series.
2007 D-backs (-20 run differential)
90-72 record (won NL West)
What a strange year this was. Arizona was coming off three straight losing seasons, having gone 76-86 in 2006, with a -15 run differential. The ‘07 D-backs were outscored by five additional runs, yet not only made the playoffs but finished with the best record in a weak NL field. Manager Bob Melvin’s club went 32-20 in one-run games and 22-12 in games started by ace Brandon Webb, while getting big seasons from relievers such as closer José Valverde (47 saves) and Brandon Lyon. That was enough for the D-backs to win the NL West by one game over the Rockies and Padres, who then met in a memorable tiebreaker for the NL Wild Card. Colorado won that and went on to sweep Arizona in the NLCS.
2005 Padres (-42 run differential)
82-80 record (won NL West)
Excluding shortened seasons, only the 1973 Mets have made the playoffs — much less won their division — with this few victories in the Divisional Era (since 1969). Yet even going 82-80 was a minor miracle for the Padres, who hold the record for the lowest run differential of any postseason qualifier. Take out a fantastic May (22-6, +43), and San Diego went 60-74 and was outscored by 85 runs in the other five months of the season. Yet the Bruce Bochy-managed Friars still won a soft NL West by five games before exiting October via an NLDS sweep at the hands of the Cardinals.
1997 Giants (-9 run differential)
90-72 record (won NL West)
What is it about the NL West that makes for run-differential magic? In any case, this season might have been karmic justice for Dusty Baker’s Giants, who only four years earlier had missed the postseason despite a 103-59 record in the final pre-Wild Card season. The club had tough times from 1994-96, losing 94 games in that third year, before embarking upon a worst-to-first renaissance under first-year GM Brian Sabean. With Jeff Kent joining the Barry Bonds Show and lefty Shawn Estes having a career year (19-5, 3.18 ERA), the Giants finished two games ahead of the Dodgers in the division before being swept by the Marlins in the NLDS. One big key: an 11-3 record in extra-inning games, driven in part by the NL’s top offense in “late and close” situations.
1987 Twins (-20 run differential)
85-77 record (won AL West)
The Twins only had the fifth-best record in the AL, but fortunately for them, the top four teams all were in the East. Minnesota eked out an AL West title by two games over Kansas City, on the strength of an enormous home-field advantage at the Metrodome. Really, the Twins were two different teams. The road version went 29-52 (-83 run differential); the home version went 56-25 (+63). With a lineup featuring Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek and a rotation fronted by Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola, the Twins became the only team on this list to go all the way, pulling out a seven-game World Series triumph over St. Louis.
1984 Royals (-13 run differential)
84-78 record (won AL West)
This was another unbalanced season in the AL, whose top five teams all were in the East. Meanwhile, the Royals won the West by three games over the Angels and Twins, thanks to a late-season surge. After a 61-64 start (-38) left it five games behind Minnesota, Kansas City closed at 23-14 (+25) — only to suffer a three-game ALCS sweep against Detroit. A year later, however, the Royals went all the way.
1981 Royals (-8 run differential)
50-53 record (won AL West in 2nd half)
This season should get an asterisk because of the strike that shortened the schedule and split it into two halves. And it really was a tale of two halves for the Royals. Before the work stoppage, they went 20-30 (-49) and finished in fifth place. After it, they went 30-23 (+41) and finished one game ahead of the A’s, who nonetheless swept them in a three-game ALDS matchup.