The Orioles Are Ridiculous, But How Ridiculous Are They?

The way these things – meaning “baseball” – go, the Orioles probably won’t be undefeated for long. Baseball is all about losing. The best teams lose a lot. The worst teams lose a lot a lot. I’m not sure the Orioles are the latter of those things, but even if they’re the first a loss is coming, so we’d better get to this while we can.

Have you seen the standings? Jeff Sullivan examined them a couple days ago here at website Fangraphs dot com and, further, he examined the teams that have improved their chances of making the playoffs the most since the season began.

Now hold that thought because we’re going to come back to it. Remember the preseason? That’s the time we all pretend we know what’s going to happen and make predictions about the upcoming season. These predictions are stupid stupid stupid predictions that will always be wrong because predictions about baseball are always wrong. Anyway, if you examined (lots of examining!) those preseason predictions — specifically the ones concerning the American League Eastern Division — you would find many different permutations. You’d find people who predicted the Red Sox to win the division, others who predicted the Rays, and many others who predicted the Blue Jays. Some even predicted the Yankees. Did anyone pick the Orioles? I didn’t see anyone. The Orioles were the one team it seems nobody thought was going to do squat in the AL East this season. So, of course of course of course they’re 7-0 and in first place. Of course.

Now jump back with me to Jeff’s article. The team that improved its playoff odds the most since the start of the season? The Baltimore Orioles! The Orioles added 14 percentage points to their playoff odds at the time Jeff published his article, and that was before Baltimore beat the Red Sox in Boston (again) yesterday. This hot start deserves mention, so consider it mentioned. Now it’s time to ask the obvious questions: were we wrong about the Orioles? What has made them so good this season? And maybe most importantly: while they’re obviously not going to go 162-0, is what the Orioles are doing sustainable on any sort of long-term level?

The first thing that jumps out at you about the Orioles is their lineup. A lineup that featured Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones has added Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo. That’s some serious power. It’s kinda a shame baseball doesn’t have unlimited DHs because the Orioles could sure use it. Anyway, that’s a lineup that should hit a ton of homers. It’s not a lineup that will walk a lot, though, so you might temper your expectations as far as runs scored goes. And indeed the Orioles, while scoring enough runs, haven’t been bashing their opponents’ temples in. As a team, they’re tied with Houston for third in home runs (with 13) and tied with a bunch of teams for seventh in doubles (with 14). They’re not stealing bases and they’re in the middle of the pack in terms of taking walks. So they’ve been productive but not outrageous.

On an individual level, Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo have been silly with OPSs of 1.227 and 1.214, respectively. Beyond that it’s more of a small-sample-size hot start for the Orioles, with Nolan Reimold, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, and Jonathan Schoop all hitting well, if not to the insane levels of Machado and Trumbo. The only other serious regression candidate is Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard. Is he going to post a .900 OPS on the season? Maybe, but that’s probably going to fall off a bit, if not a lot. Overall, though, there doesn’t seem to be much egregious going on here that a few more weeks of games won’t smooth out. I’d expect the Orioles to score fewer runs going forward, but it’s not like their hot start has been proved up by ridiculous/lucky offensive production.

Fielding-wise, the team has been adequate but not much more than that. Which, based on the personnel, you’d probably expect. Wieters and Machado are outstanding defenders, but after that nobody really stands out. Then there’s the fact that the Orioles are playing Mark Trumbo in the outfield. In the end it probably evens out to a roughly average defensive squad. So far our defensive rankings have the Orioles near the bottom, and by Defensive Efficiency (the ability to turn batted balls into outs), the Orioles are middle of the pack. Quibble with the numbers and rankings all you like: it’s early and these are defensive numbers. The point which I think we can all agree on is that defense is clearly not the driving factor for the Orioles’ start.

Now we come to the pitching and… a-ha! This is where things get interesting. On a team level, the Orioles have conceded only 22 runs. Only the White Sox, Cubs, Nationals, and Royals have given up fewer. The big complaint with the Orioles this season was always their rotation. Baltimore starters have given up 16 runs in 33.2 innings. That’s a 3.74 ERA. So, not league-leading stuff, but adequate. The bullpen though has given up six runs in 29.1 innings. That’s the most innings thrown on a per-game basis in the league. The Orioles bullpen has been (a) fantastic, at least in terms of results, and (b) propping up the rotation.

Let’s look quickly at that rotation. Chris Tillman and Yovani Gallardo have each started twice. Gallardo has been lousy. He’s got a 5.40 ERA and yes he’s been victimized a bit by bad luck, but mostly he’s just not that good a pitcher anymore. Still, if the Orioles can minimize his exposure by pulling him before the third time through the lineup and yank him anytime there is trouble, he can be effective even with a higher ERA.

Chris Tillman has been amazingly good. Why? Well most likely because he’s only thrown seven innings over two starts. His first start was interrupted by rain and he only managed five innings in his second start. His fastball velocity is up a bit (92.1 mph from 91.5) and he’s getting more swings and misses on a percentage basis than he ever has from all his pitches (fastball, changeup, cutter, and sinker). The bizarre result is he’s struck out 40% of the batters he’s faced. That’s incredibly good, better than every pitcher except Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard, and also more than twice what he’s ever posted over any season in his career except 2013 where it’s almost twice. This probably bears more investigation than I can give it here, but considering Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale were the only starters to strike out more than 30% of their batters faced last season, Tillman remaining at 40% seems unlikely. If Tillman is now the AL version of Jake Arrieta, then the Orioles are obviously going to be much better than we all thought, but right now it’s seven strong innings from a middle-of-the-rotation starter. If he keeps this up we’ll surely check back in later on.

And I haven’t even talked in depth about the bullpen yet! In a division with bullpens filled with the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Carson Smith, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman, perhaps the Orioles’ has been a but unsung. Zach Britton and Darren O’Day belong in that class, and the undercard of Brad Brach, Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, , and T.J. McFarland is strong as well. Their pen has been exceedingly strong, though that 90% strand rate isn’t going to last and the middle-of-the-road FIP seems to indicate the team isn’t playing quite as well as their record indicates.

But none of that should really be shocking. We know the undefeated team has luck on their side. No major-league team is so much better than their opponents that they can win every game. It’s fun when it shakes out that way, though. The Orioles are 7-0 because they’re hitting better than we thought they could, and pitching much much much better than we thought they could. In retrospect Baltimore’s pen, is strong — if not this strong — and maybe, just maybe, their rotation isn’t the black hole everyone thought it was. This team is going to score some runs so if the pitching is better than was expected perhaps the Orioles have something here. They’re not going to go undefeated, but considering what they’ve already done, they don’t have to.

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Green Mountain Boy
6 years ago

Keep in mind, they’ve been playing the Red Sox. 9 runs per game should be about average against that staff. And in a battle of managers, Showalter is playing chess, Farrell is playing dead – hoping nobody notices he’s around to be fired on May 15th.

Jack B
6 years ago

They’ve played two games against the Red Sox, one of them started by David Price…the Orioles have yet to face a really below average starter. They’ve done well against Santana, Hughes, Gibson, Archer, Odorizzi, Price, and Buchholz. Two of the best in the AL, and some solid middle/back end guys.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jack B

Your right, Mark trumbo is sustainable.