Every baseball analyst, writer and observer with an ounce of common sense picked the Baltimore Orioles to finish last in the American League East in 2012.
Not only were the Orioles coming off a 69 win season, they had done little to improve the big league roster, would have to play in presumably the toughest division in baseball, and had inexplicably hired Dan Duquette to run baseball operations.
Duquette had been out of the Major Leagues since getting canned from the Red Sox in 2002, and had spent the intervening decade doing things like attempting to start the Israel Baseball League and, according to Wikipedia, appearing in a Western Massachusetts production of Damn Yankees. As Bobby Valentine’s 2012 season has shown, betting on guys who have been away from the big leagues for ten years isn’t always a wise move.
In their 2012 annual, Baseball Prospectus wrote:
If there’s one word that best describes the Orioles’ offseason front office situation, it’s debacle. No, maybe spectacle. Catastrophe?…It’s an understatement to say that Duquette has his work cut out for him. While it would be more than a challenge for any GM to bring a last-place team with a shallow farm back from the abyss, Duquette will be tasked to do so with a manager who likes to have a say in player acquisition and an owner who is protecting the jobs of potential front office liabilities.
Yet…here we are. The Orioles are ascendant at 85-64, 1/2 a game out of first place in the A.L. East and in line for one of the two semi-Wild Card spots. How the fuck did we get here?
All season, we’ve waited for Baltimore to collapse, to regress, to play to its actual level of ability. But it’s September 20, and even if they lose the rest of their games — an incredibly unlikely turn of events — they’ll finish 8 games above .500, a record that was unthinkable six months ago.
Even more unthinkable is the idea of this team in the playoffs. But barring a late charge by the Angels or the like, that’s the brave new world we’re hurtling toward at frightening speed.
The Orioles have been helped by the misfortune of others. Every team in their division has dealt with significant injuries. The seasons of the Blue Jays and Red Sox were decimated by a seemingly endless list of injuries. The Rays lost their best player, Evan Longoria, for half a season. And the Yankees have survived the losses of their closer and presumptive #2 starter for the year, as well as significant injuries to Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.
But Baltimore hasn’t exactly been healthy themselves. Jason Hammel, who has been their best starter, missed almost two months with arthoscopic knee surgery. Nick Markakis, Mark Reynolds, Jim Thome, Zach Britton and others have also spent time on the shelf. Still, the O’s have taken advantage of the depleted A.L. East, going 26-15 combined against Toronto, Boston and Tampa while holding their own at 9-9 against the Yankees — results which seem unthinkable if every team had been at full strength.
The reason for that is that, on paper, the Orioles roster looks miserable, even now with the benefit of knowing their record.
Adam Jones and Matt Weiters would seem to be their two best players, the former a five-tool centerfielder in his prime and the latter a field-and-hit catcher getting better each year. But neither has lived up to the best hopes of scouts and analysts, and Jones has regressed badly since Duquette signed him to an ill-considered $85 million contract extension in late May after the two best months of Jones’s career.
After those two, and unsung shortstop J.J. Hardy (who actually leads the team in Wins Above Replacement*), there’s a steep dropoff. Markakis has been fine when healthy and heralded prospect Manny Machado has been helpful since getting called up in August, but too many guys like Nate McLouth, Nolan Reimold, Robert Andino and Wilson Betemit pepper the roster, adding little value aside from filling uniforms.
*Baseball Reference version
By most advanced metrics, the Orioles have been a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, ranking 8th in the American League in defensive efficiency and 12th in Defensive Runs Saved Above Average.
On the pitching side, the rotation has been inconsistent though much better than it had any right to be entering the season. Wei-Tin Chen has given the Orioles 181 innings (and counting) of slightly above average ball, while Hammel and Miguel Gonzalez have been good in limited time. However, Tommy Hunter and his 1.42 WHIP have gotten 29 starts, and prospects Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Britton have combined for 61 generally subpar starts.
The bullpen, on the other hand, has been fucking insane. Closer Jim Johnson and Luis Ayala, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Troy Patton have all put up ERA+’s of 154 or better (with league average being 100). Relievers are notoriously mercurial from year to year because their reduced innings count doesn’t give much of a sample size, so it’s possible there’s a good deal of luck involved with the Orioles’ killer pen, but it’s also fair to say that it’s a well-constructed group.
Moreover, the bullpen has played a huge rule in what has been the biggest story of the Orioles season — their insane, ridiculous, stupefying, logic-insulting record in one-run games, which is 27-8. It’s a commonly held sabermetric belief that the outcome of one-run games is largely luck-based. Last year, for example, with mostly the same roster, the Orioles went 22-22 in one-run games, so it’s not like Buck Showalter possesses some kind of dark magic that puts holes in the opponents’ bats late in games.
Having a good bullpen has been shown to help one-run records, but not THIS much. The Orioles have also won a slap-me-in-the-face-are-you-kidding-me 15 straight extra inning games, which as Sam Miller points out, would have a 1 in 32,000 chance of happening with all else being equal.
Per ESPN, the Orioles’ expected Won-Loss record based on runs scored and allow is 73-76. By Baseball Prospectus’s second-order win percentage, which breaks runs down into their component parts, the O’s should be 71-78. This shouldn’t be happening. But it is.
With a roster that might generously be called mediocre, in a tough division, while racking up days on the disabled list, Baltimore keeps winning. All year, I waited for the 11-game losing streak…for the universe to course correct. But after extra innings wins over Mariners each of the last two nights, I’ve given up waiting. I’ve given up believing that there’s any rational explanation for what’s happening. Maybe it’s pure luck and incredibly steep odds. Maybe it’s the ghost of Cal Ripken Jr.* But either way, I’m not sure the Orioles are going to lose another game all season.
* Cal Ripken Jr. is not really dead.
The 83-win Cardinals won the World Series in 2006; there’s no reason the 2012 Orioles can’t do the same. Year after year, we watch inferior teams triumph in the playoffs. In the last 10 years, the best team in baseball has won the World Series maybe twice. I can’t wait for Robert Andino to win the World Series MVP. Lew Ford is the new Captain Intangibles.