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 the Toronto 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.
Runs Scored: 5th
On-Base Percentage: 9th
Slugging Percentage: 4th
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.
Starters’ ERA: 10th
Starters’ IP: 12th
Save %: 8th
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.
Chris Tillman (7-4, 104 IP, 4.21 ERA)
Ubaldo Jiminez (3-8, 99 IP, 4.52 ERA)
Wei-Yin Chen (8-3, 98 IP, 4.12 ERA)
Miguel Gonzalez (7-4, 81 IP, 4.22 ERA)
Bud Norris (5-7, 87 IP, 3.62 ERA)
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.