A simple rule of sports is that when you get to the postseason, your flaws are going to be exposed. No team is perfect, so whomever wins the World Series will survive in spite of it. But things that could be covered up in the regular season come to light in the heat of postseason competition. It’s true in every sport and it’s what is finally doing in the Baltimore Orioles in this American League Championship Series.
The Orioles were the betting line favorites in their ALCS matchup with the Kansas City Royals and now trail 3-0 in games. All invocations of the 2004 Boston Red Soxaside, this series is over. Boston had its home fans to rally behind for Games 4 & 5 that year. Baltimore does not. Whether it’s this afternoon or tomorrow night, the good people of Kansas City (and I mean that compliment sincerely) are going to celebrate a pennant.
But in spite of public perception, in spite of the pre-series betting lines, and in spite of Baltimore’s 96 regular season wins, the second-most in major league baseball, this Oriole team should be perceived as an underdog. The injuries and suspensions have simply taken too big a toll on this lineup and it’s finally coming home to roost.
It’s been so long since catcher Matt Wieters was injured that it’s barely registered in the public consciousness anymore, but Wieters is a significantly better hitter than either Nick Hundley or Caleb Joseph. To say injured third baseman Manny Machado is a better hitter than Ryan Flaherty is like saying Eddie Murray could hit better than I could. And while Flaherty is a good defender, Machado is an extraordinary defender.
Then there’s Chris Davis. The first baseman was having a bad year at the plate as it was, though he still hit 22 home runs and drew a lot of walks. He was suspended for PED use. I realize this is not a “bad break” in the sense that Davis has no one to blame but himself. But it is a bad break for his teammates and manager (to say nothing of the fan base) who were not at fault.
Officially, Steve Pearce replaced Davis at first base, but in practice, Pearce was already in the lineup in left field. In reality, the replacement is Alejandro de Aza, a nice leftfielder, but no Chris Davis—even Davis on a bad year.
To sum it up—the Baltimore lineup lost Wieters, Machado and Davis, and replaced with a Hundley/Joseph platoon, Ryan Flaherty and Alejandro de Aza.
Buck Showalter is one of the top two managers in baseball (rivaled only by Cleveland’s Terry Francona) and over the long season, his managerial skill, along with the real effort put forth by the substitutes who had to take on outsized roles, were able to cover up the huge production loss that injuries/bad years took.
But now it’s the postseason, we’re down to the last four teams left in baseball and the loss of the Wieters/Machado/Davis trio is being felt. We’ve had three straight games where one significant hit could have the Orioles being the team ahead 3-0 in games. By comparison, the Royals have everyone healthy.
Are you telling me that if Kansas City lost Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Norichika Aoki, while Baltimore had its three players available, that this series would still be the same? No sane person really believes that.
This should take nothing away from an achievement that the long-suffering Royals fans have been craving. Injuries are a part of sports. They’ve been deciding championships forever and will continue to do so. What I write here is not about demeaning KC—they’ve had a year where everything has come together at the right time and they’re taking advantage of it—but about making sure that Baltimore’s season is kept in proper perspective.
If anyone is asking what’s wrong with the Orioles in this ALCS, they should change the question. They should look at the huge talent loss that’s been, for the most part, there all season long. They should note the 96-66 record, and the victory over the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series.
The question should be how on earth this Oriole team achieved all that they did. And to salute the manager and the role players who stepped up and made it possible. If public perception was different prior to the ALCS, then it’s that perception which was misguided, not the play of this team.
The Baltimore Oriolesare really up against it tonight when the American League Championship Series resumes tonight in Kansas City. The Orioles are down 0-2 in games, which is serious enough, but those two losses have come at home. The number of teams that have rallied in such a circumstance to win a pennant? Zero.
The verdict of LCS history is bleak for Baltimore. So if you’re an Orioles fan where do you go from here? I think the answer is to turn some bad news into a positive.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the teams that got out to a 2-0 series lead on the road were able to finish the job in the middle three games at their home park, which suggests that Kansas City will wrap it up at some point between now and the early evening on Wednesday when Game 5 would end. There’s only one case where a team dug out of the hole to at least come back home, and that’s the 1993 Chicago White Sox, who eventually succumbed to the Toronto Blue Jays.
So where’s the good news if you’re a Baltimore fan? It’s that the issue is not so much winning four games in five tries, a task that seems imposing when you think about it. It’s more about stopping the momentum and not allowing your own spirit to be broken.
If I’m in the Oriole clubhouse, my answer to the verdict of history is simply to focus on winning two of three in Kansas City—a tough task to be sure, but not anything that would be considered a Herculean feat if these teams met in August. And then to point out that there’s very little in the way of historical sample size for series like this that make their way to a Game 6.
Furthermore, homefield advantage in baseball tends not to be an issue…until the back end of a series. This record is very pronounced in the World Series. It’s a little less so in LCS play, but the track record shows that the hardest close-out win to get is the one that comes late in a series and away from home. So for Baltimore, the message is simple—just get the series back to your own fans and your own ballpark and make KC do it that way.
Do I think they’ll do it? Well, that’s where I can’t be the one to provide optimistic thoughts. I predicted the Orioles prior to this series, but I think that was more my regard for Buck Showalter, and not factoring in that managerial skill is much less likely to matter in a short series than it is over the long haul. I suspect historical form holds and Kansas City wraps it up at home.
The last time the Baltimore Orioles clinched an AL East title was 1997 and I was with a friend at old County Stadium in Milwaukee when it happened. The fact that this was pre-Miller Park and when the Brewers were still in the American League tells you how long it’s been. I couldn’t have foreseen at the time that I would eventually live four years in the city of Baltimore and the Orioles couldn’t have foreseen the long dry spell that lay ahead. Is that spell finally coming to an end?
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Baltimore was on Fox’s Saturday night prime-time telecast in a lot of the country when they visited Fenway Park to face the Boston Red Sox. As the commentators, Joe Buck, Tom Verducci and Harold Reynolds discussed the state of the AL East, they seemed to move to a consensus that the Orioles are at least the slight favorite if not the outright team to beat. Let’s take closer look at Buck Showalter’s team and see if they measure up.
The Oriole record coming into Monday night is 48-40, and they are two games up on theToronto Blue Jays. Here’s a basic rundown on the key stats for the Orioles as a team, and then the starting lineup, rotation, and key relievers.
Comment: Baltimore seems to be destined to be the Anti-Moneyball team. The Oakland A’s of 2002 made Hollywood fame and got millions of female movie-goers to see Brad Pitt’s face when they hear the name of Billy Beane, but using the drawing of walks to compensate for a lack of offensive punch. It produced a division title.
Baltimore goes at it the opposite way. They attack aggressively, and don’t have a good OBP, but they can sure hit. The Orioles are second in the AL in batting average and second in home runs.
Normally I would dismiss this and say that they won’t survive the inevitable summer slump that most offenses go through. But the Orioles have produced winning seasons (including a trip to the 2012 playoffs) with this formula, so maybe it just works for them. More likely, the post-PED game is changing to the point where pitchers feel free to challenge more, and don’t give up as many walks—thus shifting the benefit away from selectivity and towards aggressiveness. That’s one theory—the other is that the Orioles will slump in August.
The below save percentage is misleading, at least when it comes to projecting the rest of the season. Tommy Hunter had problems in the ninth inning role, and has been replaced by Zach Britton, who his thriving. Whether any of the relievers continue to thrive is going to depend, at least in part, on the starting pitching providing some help and pickup more of the workload as we move forward.
THE EVERDAY LINEUP
Nelson Cruz (.356 OBP/.582 slugging percentage)
Adam Jones (.334/.504)
Stephen Pearce (.381/.581)
Nick Markakis: .353 OBP
Chris Davis (.319/.386)
Manny Machado (.295/.375)
J.J. Hardy (.317/.365)
NOT LIKELY TO IMPROVE
Caleb Joseph (.254/.310)
Nick Hundley (.286/.404)
Jonathan Schoop (.264/.332)
Comment: Nelson Cruz is having a great year, but the bigger story for this offense is that they’re scoring runs at a respectable rate even while Davis and Machado endure terrible years, and Hardy deals with a modestly disappointing year.
I’m not sold that Hardy will pick it up, but Davis and Machado have to be considered locks for significantly stronger second halves. Machado, the young third baseman who tore up his knee last September and missed a good chunk of the early schedule, is already gradually gaining steam.
Davis is at least taking his walks—with a .201 batting average, his pattern runs counter to the rest of the offense, and his 13 home runs are respectable. But the O’s desperately need him to start driving the ball in the gaps consistently.
We should also note here that the Baltimore offense got some bad luck when catcher Matt Wieters was lost for the season to an elbow injury. Wieters had a stat line of .339/.500 when he went out, and he has a strong reputation for his ability to call a game behind the plate. The platoon of Joseph and Hundley has not worked, and options for finding catching help are pretty limited.
One player not listed, as he’s not a regular, is Delmon Young, but this is someone who could be an X-factor for the offense down the stretch. Already with respectable numbers (.339/.431), Young could see more playing time and is capable of a hot streak. This possibility helps cancel out legitimate concern that Pearce will come back to earth.
Comment: Jiminez’s struggles have gotten the most attention, after he signed a four-year deal for $50 million in the offseason. Based on the money, that makes the most sense, but I’m personally most disappointed in Tillman. He’s got the stuff to be a true ace, and he’s spent the first half of the season pitching like a viable #4 starter.
I’ll take it a step further and say that Chris Tillman might be the most important person in the AL East—if he starts pitching really well, it will lift the entire Oriole rotation and combined with their offense, would almost certainly push this team into the playoffs as a division champ.
Please note that Norris is just coming off the disabled list after a groin injury and makes his first start since coming back on Tuesday.
Zach Britton (14 saves, 1.36 ERA)
Darren O’Day (1.19 ERA)
Comment: This isn’t quite as deep as the last couple years, but the O’Day-Britton combo is pretty well ensuring that you only have seven innings to beat Baltimore. O’Day looks like an eighth-inning version of what Koji Uehara did in Boston last year—a veteran who had a track record of being pretty good, suddenly reaches a level beyond that and becomes unhittable.
Showalter squeezes as much out of a bullpen as anyone in baseball and he has options prior to the eighth. Hunter and Brian Matusz are a decent righty/lefty combo. And Ryan Webb and Brad Brach are both respectable arms.
This is a town that appreciates defense, going back to the run Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Co., had with the Baltimore Ravens, with a Super Bowl win in 2000 and another in 2012. This year’s Oriole team could be the baseball version of that. Consider the following…
*Using the Range Factor stat, available on ESPN.com, Hardy has the most range of any American League shortstop.
*Schoop has the best range of any AL second baseman.
*Davis ranks third among AL first baseman.
*And this doesn’t even include Machado, who hasn’t played enough to get a ranking this year. But watch this kid one night and tell me if he’s not the best defensive third baseman in the game.
The bottom line? Hit the ball in the air if you want to get a hit on this defense. Ground balls aren’t going through, and the outfield ranks aren’t quite as strong. In particular, Jones has consistently graded out below average in this area for his entire career, a disappointment given his tremendous natural athletic ability.
In any event, Baltimore’s defense is still a clear strength. They get to a lot of balls and they make the plays they’re supposed to make.
I don’t have any doubt about saying this is the team to beat in the AL East. You’re talking about a team that got to first place in spite of nothing from Chris Davis and Manny Machado and with inconsistent pitching. All of those are things a reasonable person could expect improvement on after the All-Star break.
If the improvement happens, Baltimore blows this thing open. If it doesn’t happen…well, they’ve still gotten to first place with the status quo and I don’t see Toronto or New York, the teams in pursuit, as having any more of an upside than the Orioles. Boston and Tampa Bay both do, but they’ve also dug the deepest holes.
Thus, while in no way would I say it’s a lock that Baltimore pulls away and win the division, I’ve shifted the focus in my own mind to asking about their chances at getting to the World Series and winning it. We’ll save discussion of that for another time, but for now I’ll leave you with these numbers: 15-1 and 30-1. Those are the odds Las Vegas gives Buck’s boys of winning the AL pennant and World Series respectively. Both of them look bet-worthy to me.
The Baltimore Orioles didn’t make it back to the playoffs last year after their surprise run to the Division Series in 2012. But the Orioles did win 85 games in baseball’s toughest division and established that the turnaround under manager Buck Showalter is on a firm foundation. How far can that foundation go in the new season? That’s the question our Notebook Nine, the nine key talking points about the Orioles will seek to shed light on…
*One thing I don’t understand is why Las Vegas has been so down on the Orioles. Last season their Over/Under on the win futures was 79—this off a 93-win playoff year. Now, even with two straight winning seasons under their belt, the betting number for Oriole wins is 81—essentially it’s an even question on the Strip of whether the Orioles will even win more than they lose.
*Chris Davis and Manny Machado are the juice on this team at opposite corners of the infield, but there are question marks. Davis might not hit 53 home runs or slug .634 again, but he can be expected to do 33 and .501, the 2012 numbers and that’s sufficient. What Davis did last year was lift his on-base percentage to .370. Is the OBP here to stay? The 21-year-old Machado has to come back from a horrible knee injury at the end of the season. He’ll return on Opening Day or close to it, but the good people of Baltimore need only look an hour south to the Redskins and RG3 to know these things don’t always go smoothly.
*Davis’ model of adding consistent on-base percentage to his power game has to be emulated by several other players in the everyday lineup. Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy can all hit the ball out of the park and into the alleys—all three have averaged at least 25 home runs a year each since 2011—but none of three get on base consistently. That can mean some long droughts when the ball isn’t flying.
*Baltimore needs Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis to have comeback seasons at the plate. Wieters offers great value at catcher regardless of how he hits, but another Oriole who does more with home runs than he does at getting on base, also saw his power dip last season. Markakis, after being steady and consistent in right field from 2007-12, had a bad year. He does have an excuse—an injured wrist that kept him out of the ’12 postseason might not have fully recovered. Markakis needs to establish quickly that it was an injury hangover, not the onset of decline, that caused his 2013 woes.
*Overall, this team just needs another bat in the lineup and it’s underscored by the situation at DH. Nolan Reimold showed some potential in 2011, but injuries have limited him since. He’s slated to be the everyday DH. That just won’t cut in a division where your rivals trot out David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano or even Matt Joyce in Tampa Bay. You can’t tell me the Orioles can’t at least find someone as good as Joyce to take this spot. If Reimold can’t be that guy, I don’t expect Showalter and GM Dan Duquette to sit around too long waiting.
*I really like the Oriole starting pitching. There’s no clear-cut ace, but Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have established themselves as consistent starters with ERAs in the high 3s, and with both still in their twenties, each could have a higher upside. Wei-Yin Chen can be up and down, but he’s a nice #3 or #4 starter. Bud Norris was acquired at last year’s trade deadline and he’s another arm who can, at minimum be a stabilizing back-of-the-rotation arm and he’s young enough to have an upside.
*This steady foundation was strengthened by bringing in free agent Ubaldo Jiminez from Cleveland. We know Jiminez is a steady horse and good for 200 innings, and that alone is something Showalter hasn’t had in Baltimore. After bad years in 2011-12, Jiminez regained his form last year and won 13 games with 3.30 ERA. The Orioles also have possibilities at both ends of the age spectrum—Kevin Gausman showed promise as a top prospect last year and at minimum can start the season in the bullpen. The Orioles also took a flyer on Johan Santana, whose career has pretty much been shot by shoulder problems. But the former Cy Young winner might make it back by June and he’s been effective when physically able to pitch. I wouldn’t suggest Oriole fans count on him, but the structure of the rotation makes it clear they don’t need to.
*Jim Johnson is gone after consecutive 50-save seasons and the closer’s gig is open. Tommy Hunter will get first chance at the opportunity. There are also rumors Norris could be shifted into this role depending on how Hunter does and how things shake out in the rotation. There’s no denying this is a big question mark in spring training.
*Those question marks extend through the rest of the bullpen, where only Darren O’Day can be counted on. Options include Brian Matusz and Ryan Webb, who have shown themselves to be competent. Ultimately though, Showalter has demonstrated himself supremely competent in this area, and I would expect him to figure out the bullpen. The big issue is going to be how long it takes for pitchers to find their roles.
I’ve touched on lot of question marks here, but there’s frankly fewer questions regarding this Oriole team than there was either of the last two seasons. Which is why I’m glad to take the Over 81 on the win futures. My real debate is whether to pick this team to make the playoffs or even win the AL East, given that this is the best Opening Day starting rotation Showalter has had in his tenure in Charm City. I’ll settle on that com March 31 when the season opens. For now, just know that this team is again underrated coming into the year.
The Baltimore Orioles won’t go away in the American League playoff race—in fact not only are they not going away, they’re still holding down the second wild-card berth as they enter the finale of a big weekend series in Detroit today. And not only are they not going away and still holding down a playoff berth, they’ve been getting better in the second half of the season. The biggest reason for this is the bullpen.
Baltimore’s relief pitching is third in the American League this year, only trailing Tampa Bay and Oakland—the latter of which is the other team that keeps hanging in the race in spite of public skepticism. What’s more the Oriole bullpen is deep, so it’s not a case of having to carefully handle one or two pitchers. While some are obviously better than others, manager Buck Showalter has a lot of arms at his disposal.
Jim Johnson is the closer and has been one of the more underrated relief pitchers in the American League for at least five years, starting with his work as a setup man in 2008. Then you mix in Matt Lidstrom, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day and Troy Patton. All have worked about 50 innings this season and all have ERAs below 3. Patton is currently on the disabled list, but is expected back in late August.
A good closer and four reliable setup arms—including one with playoff experience in O’Day, a part of the Texas Rangers’ staff the last two years—is pretty good on its face. But we haven’t yet got to the crown jewel and that’s Pedro Strop. The young righthander has worked 53 innings and posted a dazzling 1.51 ERA.
Baltimore’s starting pitching hasn’t overwhelmed anyone this year, although with Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman pitching well, it’s getting better. The offense ranks in the bottom half of the American League in scoring runs. But the Orioles have a team that, if you don’t beat them the first five innings, are very tough to take out in the second part of a baseball game.
What it adds up to is a team whose record in one-run games is a stunning 23-8. To put that figure in perspective, no one else in the AL East is over .500 and no one else in the American League overall is more than four games over .500. The common statistical interpretation of this is to say its luck, an example of the balls bouncing Baltimore’s way. If this were the middle of May, I’d agree with that and say let’s wait for things to even out. When it’s the middle of August you have to at least be open to the idea that there’s a reason for it—and when the Orioles excel in an area so obviously vital to winning close games, you can’t just casually dismiss it.
So what does this mean for the future, both the next six weeks and the future of this rebuilding organization? In the short term, the Orioles are going to need better starting pitching, or at least for Gonzalez, Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen to continue to pitch well. As the season reaches its finish line the games resemble a postseason series, and in those games its starting pitching that defines success. Bullpens win you games over the long haul. Starting pitching wins in the short haul.
For the future, Showalter can feel good about Strop, Johnson and O’Day as the foundation for his pen, though it is risky to keep counting on a bullpen this deep over time. The team will realistically need to acquire another starter or have Zach Britton fulfill his potential.
But those are concerns for December. For now, it’s time to stop asking why Baltimore is in a playoff race. They’re in it because they have a deep corps of relief pitching and a manager who knows how to maximize its use.
The city of Baltimore loves its Orioles, and in spite of attendance figures that suggest otherwise, my four years of living in Charm City have me convinced that it will take just a small spark to re-ignite the passion and fill Camden Yards. Is 2012 the year the Birds can have their first winning season since the playoff years of 1996-97? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Orioles and evaluates them on the four key areas of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and the bullpen.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The problems with the offense all start right here, as this lineup seems to be the anti-Moneyball. It’s not that there isn’t individual talent here—there is, as we’ll see when we come to the power section. But all the talent has the same weakness, and there are just not good on-base percentages in this lineup. One exception to that is rightfielder Nick Markakis. The 28-year-old hits for average and has the plate discipline to take his walks. This area of the offense has been hurt enormously by the injuries to second baseman Brian Roberts over the last two years. When he was healthy, Roberts made consistent contact, drew walks and drove the ball to the alleys. With back problems afflicting his 34-year-old frame, it’s hard to be optimistic about his attempts to come back.
POWER: The Baltimore offense doesn’t have the one dynamic slugger that opposing pitchers will gameplan around or that SportsCenter will build highlight reels off of, but what they do have are several hitters who are consistent at hitting the alleys and pretty good at hitting it out of the park. It starts with catcher Matt Wieters and centerfielder Adam Jones, both entering their fourth full year in the majors. J.J. Hardy found the power stroke he seemed to have left in Milwaukee five years ago and enjoyed a career resurgence. Mark Reynolds bashed 37 home runs. New acquisition Wilson Betemeit, who can play both corner infield spots and DH has consistently slashed the ball to the alleys when he gets consistent playing time. Nolan Reimold has done mostly part-time duty in his career, but he’s consistently hit for power and will likely get the full-time gig in left field for this season. And then there’s Chris Davis, who came over last year in the deal that sent reliever Koji Uehara to Texas. The 25-year-old Davis looked to be on the rise in 2008-09 in Texas, but injuries and the development of Mitch Moreland froze him out the last two seasons. At his best, he hits for power, but, like the rest of this group, needs serious improvement at getting on base consistently.
STARTING PITCHING: If you look at the depth chart and competitors for the Orioles starting rotation, it looks like these tryouts are being used as Buck Showalter’s personal stimulus plan for unemployment. But you can focus on five names—Zach Britton, Wei Yin-Chen, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arretia. These five, all aged 24-26 are the ones who have to contribute. Britton looked like a Cy Young candidate early last year with his nasty slider before he began to struggle and finished with a 4.61 ERA. He’s also the youngest of the group though, so for now I’m prepared to assume it was just normal growing pains. Chen is over from Japan and all we really know is that he was good in the Far East. Whether that translates to the AL East is another question. Arietta has 40 starts over the last three years and has a 4.88 ERA. It’s tough to see him being a high-end starter, but if he nudges the ERA down just a little bit and can do so while getting 30 starts, he can be a valuable #4 or #5 guy—either for this team, or as trade bait in July. Hunter and Matusz are the wild-cards. The former won 13 games with a 3.73 ERA with Texas in 2010 before injuries got him last season and he was traded over with Davis. Matusz posted a solid 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for the Orioles in 2010 before his own injury problems tripped him up. If these two arms get healthy, they’ve each shown their stuff. The only arm beyond the Young Five is Jason Hammel. At 29, Hammel is pretty much settled into being a pitcher who chews up innings, but has a high ERA. As long as he can keep the ERA under 5 and the Orioles don’t rely on him for more than being a fifth starter, he’ll be fine.
RELIEF PITCHING: Last year Kevin Gregg got the closer’s job and there was hope he could stabilize this area. It didn’t work out and Gregg is now one of two veteran options Showalter has in setup, along with Colorado’s Matt Lidstrom, acquired along with Hammel in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie. The O’s should get good work from Lidstrom, and Gregg is a wait-and-see proposition. The closer’s role fell to Jim Johnson, who’s done solid work in setup the last four years and closed all eight of his chances after taking the ninth-inning role from Gregg late last year. Depth in front of this group might come from Darren O’Day, who did a good job for Texas in 2010 before injuries derailed him a year ago and he became available on waives. Brad Bergesen, a one-time promising starter, is relegated to competing for relief work. And Jason Berken, who appeared to emerge as a solid middle reliever in ’10, fell back to earth last year. The lineups of the AL East grind on a pitching staff, so you need a deep group in the pen, meaning at least one of these latter three have to become reliable.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 69.5: I’ve been optimistic about Baltimore’s chances going back at least to 2005, but last year took a lot out of me. If the young pitchers all come together, the Orioles will get into the mid-70s, but even at that, they’ll need better work at getting runners on base to get the elusive winning season. On the flip side, if the starting pitching doesn’t come through, 100 losses is a distinct possibility. The percentage move here is to bet the under.