O's, Cards defy the numbers

What a simple theory says about St. Louis, Baltimore and playoff success

Updated: August 21, 2012, 2:13 PM ET
By Dan Szymborski | Baseball Think Factory
Matt HollidayDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesBased on the numbers, it's baffling Matt Holliday and the Cardinals haven't won more games.

A month from the end of the season, the Baltimore Orioles stand at 66-56, right in the thick of the American League wild-card race and likely to finish above .500 for the first time since we were all a lot younger and thinner (1997 to be exact). This despite being comfortably outscored by their opponents. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals are leading the league in scoring and are fifth in the league in ERA, yet the defending World Series champions are fighting for a one-game play-in, just as the O's are.

Confounded by these events is one of the simplest tools in sabermetrics: the Pythagorean theorem.

Pythagoras of Samos was a Renaissance man 2,000 years before the Renaissance, a Greek philosopher, mathematician, scientist, politician, so on and so forth. One thing Pythagoras never heard of was baseball, with the Greeks preferring the ancient Olympic games, less known for home runs, sliders and on-base percentage than for good ol' fashioned naked athletics and general debauchery. Yet Pythagoras has become the best known ancient Greek in baseball circles, thanks to the father of sabermetrics, Bill James, pilfering the original Pythagorean theorem -- the triangle thing you learned in middle school -- to describe how runs scored and runs allowed lead to wins in baseball.

At its simplest, the new Pythagorean theorem states the winning percentage of a baseball team can be approximated by using a team's runs scored and runs allowed.

Using the Pythagorean theorem to estimate team winning percentage, two of the teams with the largest difference between actual and estimated team winning percentage are the Orioles and Cardinals. Based on Baltimore's win differential, it should have about 10 fewer wins than it does. And those 10 "extra" wins are by far the most in baseball. In fact, they are twice the number of extra wins than the next-best team, the Cleveland Indians with five. On the flip side, the Cardinals have a shortfall of six wins, the largest in baseball. So, just what does this mean for the pennant race?