How poorly can a great team play?

Thursday afternoon, I somehow got into a Twitter discussion with some strangers about the relative probability of the Royals’ run. Then a friend got involved, and at least hinted that the Royals might actually be significantly better than their run differential – and, presumably, the performance underlying their run differential, which was even less impressive this season – right now. Which would help explain this eight-game winning streak.

Anyway, I was intrigued by this tweet:

First, the Royals weren’t outscored this season. They did outscore their opponents by 27 runs. But 27 runs, as you probably know, is not a significant number. And in fact, the Royals’ “third-order” record – their projected winning record, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for the quality of their competition – was just 79-83, ninth best in the American League.

Could a “true” 79-83 team really be the best in the majors?

Ah, but that’s not what Mark was actually suggesting. He was suggesting, I think, that a pretty good team, truly speaking, could somehow be outscored. Which is, I think, manifestly true. It’s probably happened many times. In fact, we’ve got plenty of examples of teams that were outscored one season and then, with much the same roster the next season, played quite well.

Oh, except Mark took it a step further. He actually said a team with a negative run differential might be THE BEST TEAM in the postseason.

In 1987, the Twins were outscored by 20 runs and won the World Series. Were they really the best team in October? Yes, they played the best. But were they the best, fundamentally? Probably not. But they probably were a lot better than their run differential, considering their +87 differential the next season, with largely the same roster. Still, it seems highly unlikely they were 1986’s BEST TEAM IN BASEBALL, considering how good the Tigers and Blue Jays and Cardinals and Mets were.

How about another postseason team? In 1984, my beloved Royals finished first in a lousy American League West despite being outscored by 13 runs. Granted, the Royals did get swept by the Tigers in the ALCS. But this is a tremendous example of a team that was fundamentally better in October than April. When the Royals’ season opened, Willie Wilson was in jail, George Brett was injured again, and veteran hurlers Paul Splittorff and Larry Gura were in the rotation. By September, though, Wilson was back in center field, Brett was playing third base, and Bret Saberhagen and Charlie Leibrandt had replaced Splittorff and Gura (both of whom actually retired during the season). And while the Tigers are remembered for steamrolling the Royals first, then the Padres in the World Series, two of the ALCS games were actually quite close. And just a season later the Royals probably were better than the Tigers. The Royals won the World Series in 1985, after all.

Ah, but of course that cuts both ways. The Royals’ +48 run differential that season wasn’t particularly impressive, but (I think my friend might argue), they were actually quite a lot better than that in October, in part because they acquired Lonnie Smith during the season, and in part because they later brought up reliever Steve Farr, who pitched some big innings to help the Royals beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS.

Okay … except if the Royals were actually so fundamentally good in October, then what happened in 1986? They brought back almost exactly the same team, were reasonably healthy … and were somehow outscored by 19 runs, dropping from 91-71 to 76-86.

Were all these teams fundamentally different? No, not really. Saberhagen pitched more innings in ’85 than in ’84 or ’86, and Brett was healthier in ’85. But this was largely the same team with the same players, displaying quite dramatically the strange things that can happen over the course of three years and 486 games. Oh, plus a few weeks in October.

All I really need to know about the 2014 Kansas City Royals I learned in college.

Postscript: I’m still curious, though … Do you have any candidates for outscored teams that might actually have been the best in their league? Because I’m stumped.