Typically, successful baseball teams rely on one of three things:
1) Excellent starting pitching
2) Excellent hitting
3) Some combination of good pitching, good hitting, good fielding, and maybe a little bit of luck.
Many great ride two, or even all three of the above attributes to great seasons.
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are 58-51, 5.5 games out of first place in baseball’s toughest division and .5 games behind the current Wild Card co-leaders. And they have none of those things.
From a simple runs scored and prevented standpoint, the Orioles have been the fourth-worst team in the American League this year. Their -55 run differential is better than only the Indians (-101), Twins (-68) and Royals (-62). Of all teams with winning records, the next-worst team in terms of run differential is Oakland, which has outscored opponents by 24 runs. Based on an even distribution of runs scored and yielded throughout the season, the Orioles “should be” 48-61, 7.5 games behind the Blue Jays, the actual cellar-dwellers in the AL East.
This barely begins to tell the story of how bad the 2012 Orioles are.
According to fangraphs, the Orioles have earned 16.0 WAR this year. That’s not their rotation or their three best players- that’s their entire team. Offense, starters, relievers, fielding. They’ve played 109 games, which means a team of all replacement players would have won about 28 games. By this measure, the Orioles should be 44-65. By this measure, they’re the worst team in the American League. Even the free-falling Indians, who have lost ten in a row and have been outscored by 101 runs, have earned 17.5 WAR.
Orioles fielders, with -8.1 UZR, are the worst in the league. Shortstop JJ Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters are competent fielders, but Nick Markakis and Mark Reynolds rank among the worst fielders at their positions, and team centerpiece Adam Jones has cost the team 5.1 runs, per fangraphs, with his glove.
Orioles hitters, with a wRC+ of 88, have been better than only the offensively challenged Mariners. They’ve hit just .243/.306/.403 as a team. Markakis has wielded a decent bat in limited action, but only Jones, with a 132 wRC+, has hit consistently well, while regulars Hardy, Robert Andino, and Mark Reynolds have batting averages under .230.
Orioles starters are ninth in the AL with a 4.65 ERA and tenth with a 4.49 FIP. Jason Hammel has been excellent when healthy, his 3.54 ERA supported by a 3.22 FIP. Wei-Yin Chen has been a pleasant surprise, leading the team in innings and wins. Chris Tillman has been great since his call-up, but Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA, 4.03 FIP), Brian Matusz (5.24, 5.11 FIP), and Tommy Hunter (5.26 ERA, 5.64 FIP) have wasted way too many starts.
Why, then, have the Orioles kept winning? It’s often said that teams can outperform their pythagorean record by leaning on a great bullpen, a great manager, or great luck.
The bullpen has been a legitimate strength for the Orioles. Their 3.14 ERA and 19-8 W-L record are both tops in the American League. Look a little deeper though, and they’ve been the beneficiaries of more than their share of luck. Their 3.94 FIP ranks tenth of 14 AL bullpens. They’ve struck out the second fewest batters per nine and have basically survived by avoiding walks (2.92 per nine, tied for third in the league), and stranding runners (77.9%, second)- both those they’ve inherited and those they’ve put on the bases themselves. Closer Jim Johnson has struck out just 5.1 batters per nine and has been a mess in the second half. Darren O’Day (2.68 ERA, 2.99 FIP) has been great, but Pedro Strop (1.29 ERA, 3.95 xFIP) has been successful only because fly balls are not leaving the yard against him and Kevin Gregg (4.28 ERA, 4.68 FIP) has been bad by any measure. Still, they’ve certainly won more games than they would have with a lesser bullpen.
Manager Buck Showalter may be due some credit for the Orioles’ record. He’s certainly pulled the right strings to make a decent bullpen seem great, and has somehow eked enough runs out of a sad lineup to win a lot of games. Adam Darowski’s Manager Wins Above Expectancy doesn’t support this case, crediting Showalter with costing his teams 19.6 wins over the course of his career (prior to 2012). This may mean absolutely nothing, but it comes from one of the great minds in the business and I don’t know of many other objective ways to evaluate managers. Common wisdom is that a manager doesn’t add or subtract more than a few wins from any team’s record, so it’s hard to credit Showalter with the team’s 14 phantom wins.
That brings us to luck. Or magic or heart or grit or intangibles. Whatever you call it, it hasn’t stopped propping up the Orioles. Sure, they’re only 31-37 since starting the season 27-14, but my most objective measures, they should have been much worse, and should be buried in the basement in the AL East, selling off usable parts for prospects, rather than trading for Jim Thome in an effort to make a postseason push.
It’s easy to predict that the Orioles will play to their true talent for the remaining 53 games, dropping to last place, even if they do win 80 or 81 games. But I’ve been calling for that all season, and I’m not alone, and it hasn’t happened. Who’s to say the same solid bullpen, savvy management, and timely hitting that has kept the Orioles in contention through the first two thirds of the season won’t carry them into the playoffs over the last third?
And as we’ve seen in recent years, once a team gets to the playoffs, anything can happen. Even the worst team in the American League winning it all.