Determining MLB’s luckiest teams of 2023 and what luck actually means in baseball


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“Luck” is a dirty word in baseball. Wielded often to downplay a team’s accomplishments or to wish away actual flaws, it’s the third rail of a good baseball conversation. But it’s still worth thinking about — how much a team has benefitted from events in the past that might be unsustainable says something about their true quality and how likely they are to continue being good (or bad!) going forward. Even the act of defining luck tells us a little bit about team construction and how today’s front offices think about year-to-year volatility in the teams they’ve put together.

One way to define luck is to think about the ball in play. Sometimes, a well-struck ball ends up in a glove, sometimes it gets grass. MLB Advanced Media takes the exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, sprint speed to determine what each event should have produced (xwOBA), and if we look at what teams actually produced (wOBA), we can get our five luckiest teams on balls in play.

Team wOBA xwOBA wOBA-xwOBA
















Here’s something that’s not in xwOBA: spray angle, or if the ball was pulled or not. In certain parks and situations, that’s huge. Consider the Red Sox, listed here as one of the five luckiest teams on balls in play. They have a big green Monster in left field. They pepper it. Red Sox righties pull the ball more than all but two teams, and Red Sox lefties push the ball more than every team but one. Is that luck? Or is that knowing your home park and fitting your approach accordingly?

The Reds’ lefties pull the ball a ton, ostensibly going for that eight-foot wall 325 feet away down the line. The Nationals’ lefties, maybe because the wall is six feet shorter in left field than right field, push the ball more than two-thirds of the league. You play more games at home than anywhere else, and it’s going to affect your approach even if you don’t think about it consciously. Perhaps there’s a better way the Yankees, Royals, Tigers, Mets and Guardians can play their home parks, or fit their lineup to their park, as they were the five unluckiest teams when it comes to getting the most out of their batted balls.

It’s tempting to follow this train of thought with other measures of luck and to think that teams could strategize their way to good fortune, but it doesn’t always work that way. Here are the teams that have most outproduced their preseason projections.

Team ProjW% Actual W% Diff W%
















When it comes to the Braves, they’re probably just on this list because of the way projections work. They were projected to be the best team in baseball and are the best team in baseball by win percentage, but projections tend to push the edges back toward the middle. You’d never project a team to win 116 games, for example, because that’s only happened once. There’s not much to see here with them.

But when you look at the Orioles and Reds (and even the Rays) on this list you might think that those are young teams, relying on unproven players that were likely projected to be closer to league average just because of their lack of track record. And projections certainly do take a middle-of-the-road approach for prospects, as well, by factoring in players with similar minor-league track records and what they’ve done before.

Could you be better at picking the right young players and game the projections that way? Possibly. It’s certainly interesting that the Mets, with the oldest position player group in baseball, and the Yankees, with the fourth-oldest, have underperformed against their preseason projections. But the Guardians, Pirates, Angels, Tigers and Royals all surround Baltimore as the youngest lineups in baseball. None of those teams are doing much better than expected this year, and they’d probably tell you it’s pretty hard to “pick the right young guys” and that everyone’s trying to do that anyway.

Having a really good bunch of young players doesn’t quite fit a definition of luck, either, not an intuitive one.

A type of luck that people might be more familiar with is scoring luck. If you consistently score more than you allow, you should be a winning team. The Braves have scored a whopping 219 more runs than their opponents through Sunday. They won’t take the record from the 1884 St. Louis Maroons (plus-458), but they have an outside shot at the plus-300 the Mariners put up that year they won 116, which was itself the third-best run differential in the free agency era. The Braves this season are followed by the Rays (plus-174), Rangers (plus-172) and Dodgers (plus-152). Not a bad team in the bunch.

On the other hand, there are some good teams with iffy run differentials. The Marlins (minus-48), Reds (minus-22), Diamondbacks (minus-3) and Giants (minus-2) are the teams that have negative differentials and are above .500. With these numbers, it’s possible to create an expected win-loss percentage using runs scored and runs allowed — called the Pythagorean formula by Bill James and Clay Davenport and improved to Pythagenpat by David Smyth — and then compare the expected and actual records. Baseball-Reference has done this and called the difference between the two “Luck,” which is pretty on the nose. Here are your Luck leaders this year:

Team W pythWL Luck



















The Brewers being here is interesting because they have shown up here before. They have the best record in one-run games in baseball this year and a top-10 bullpen by ERA, and that seems to be part of the plan in Milwaukee. It’s really tempting to say that bullpen strength leads to wins in one-run games, but that’s not exactly what has happened this year (look at the Mariners with a 19-23 record in one-run games and the second-best bullpen in baseball as an example), and there’s no historical link between bullpen strength and one-run records in larger samples, either. As Dan Szymborski shows here, there’s no real connection between bullpen quality and one-run success (and that’s something he found within half-seasons too, so there’s no reason to believe that a team that has been successful in one-run games within a season will continue to do so above and beyond their natural true talent level).

One last type of luck concerns injuries. They’re terribly hard to project, and yet they happen and are devastating. The Angels bought at the deadline, and they are second in baseball in games missed due to injury and are now out of the playoff hunt. The Yankees are third in baseball with injury days missed, and that’s a part of the story of their season. Then again, the Dodgers are the other team with more than 1,500 days missed, and they’ve kept on grooving.

On the lucky side, you have the Orioles and Astros in the bottom three with fewer than 800 days missed and the Diamondbacks and Mariners in the bottom 10 with around 900 days missed. They’ve done OK and health has been part of the picture but the Guardians have once again been the healthiest team in ball and it hasn’t been enough to push their results past their true talent abilities.

We started this looking for the luckiest teams in baseball, and it looks like it’s some combination of the Orioles, Brewers and Reds, perhaps. Maybe their leadership saw some of this and that made them a little bit more conservative at the trade deadline, or maybe not. But it could also be that their past luck is not a huge deal for them and their fans because those wins are banked, and these are (in large part) good, young teams and good, young teams are going to sometimes end up on the right side of projections, stay healthier than you might expect, and win more games than you might expect.

But in fact, the flip side of this thing might be more interesting. The Padres had the worst record in one-run games this season. Relative to their runs scored and allowed, the Padres were the unluckiest team in baseball in terms of wins. Those 10 wins might really have changed the narrative for this season — and for the next. This offseason, they’ll be losing Josh Hader and also want to improve the bullpen, but that’s not the be-all and end-all: The Yankees have the best bullpen ERA in baseball.

And the Guardians and the Yankees may end up being the most interesting teams in this look at luck. The Yankees are old and got hurt a bunch, and it’s easy to blame those factors for their poor season despite strong projections. But the Guardians are young and athletic and have a pretty good bullpen — and still underproduced versus their projections, got unlucky on balls in play, and came up a couple of wins short of their Pythagorean record, too.

Do both of these teams (and the other unlucky teams) need full overhauls, or do they need to do the work of getting better, getting younger where it makes sense, improving the bullpen, and hoping some of these luck indicators flip to the other side next season? See? Discussing luck is not all bad. Sometimes, it can be hopeful.

Here’s a Google Drive with assorted “luck” stats for every team in baseball. 

(Photo of Elly De La Cruz: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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