The Playoff Race That’s For the Birds — the Ones in Baltimore

The Orioles are a very bad baseball team. In fact, by the available evidence, they’re the majors’ worst, owners of the lowest winning percentage by a narrow margin and the lowest run differential by a country mile. Yet when the book is finally closed on the 2021 season, they will have left a sizable footprint on the American League playoff picture. For as dreadful as they’ve been, they’ve played quite the spoilers — and could continue to do so.

The O’s have already lost more than 100 games for the third time in the past four seasons; obviously, they couldn’t pull that off during last year’s pandemic-shortened campaign, though had it been played to completion, they might have given the century mark a run for its money, as their their record prorated to 68-94. At 47-102 (.315) this year, they’re one game worse than the Diamondbacks (48-101, .322), and on pace to lose 111 games, second only to their 2018 team’s 115 losses in terms of the franchise’s run in Baltimore. Because they’ve surrendered a ghastly 6.00 runs per game, they’ve been outscored by 276 runs, and could become the fifth team of the post-1960 expansion era to be outscored by at least 300 runs.

The Orioles have been even worse within their division (18-52, .257) than outside it (29-50, .367), but while they lost 18 out of 19 games to the Rays — becoming the third team of the division play era to do that, after the 2019 Tigers (1-18 versus Cleveland) and Mariners (1-18 versus the Astros) — they went 8-11 versus the Yankees. Without that difference, the AL East race would be a four-team pileup:

AL East Versus Orioles and Overall
Rays 18-1 .947 92-58 .613 74-57 .565
Red Sox 12-4 .750 86-65 .570 6.5 74-61 .548 2
Blue Jays 11-5 .688 84-65 .564 7.5 73-60 .549 2
Yankees 11-8 .579 83-67 .553 9 72-59 .550 2

Amazing! At this writing, the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Yankees are closely bunched in the AL Wild Card race, with Boston owning the top spot, Toronto just a game behind, and New York 1 1/2 games in back of Toronto and half a game ahead of Oakland. If not for the Rays’ and Yankees’ greatly differing fortunes against the Orioles, the four teams would be separated by two games top to bottom, with the Yankees technically in second place based on winning percentage and still having a shot at the division title. The Red Sox and Blue Jays would have similar shots as well, with Boston’s weak schedule (a weighted opponents’ winning percentage of .485) perhaps giving them the best shot at catching the Rays, whose remaining opponents have a .548 weighted winning percentage. Instead the Rays have a 98.4% chance at bringing home the division title while the Yankees are on the outside looking in, with just a 28.6% chance of making the playoffs.

It’s not as though the Yankees haven’t beaten up on the Orioles this season. They dropped seven or more runs on them eight times, winning seven of those games. They held the Orioles to two or fewer runs eight times, winning all of those. They outscored the Orioles by 39 runs overall, an average of 2.05 per game:

AL East Runs Scored and Allowed vs. Orioles
Team W-L PCT RS RA Pyth W Dif
Rays 18-1 .947 150 71 .818 2.3
Red Sox 12-4 .750 100 58 .740 0.1
Blue Jays 11-5 .688 125 75 .741 -0.6
Yankees 11-8 .579 104 65 .706 -1.4

By their Pythagenpat record, the Yankees should have beaten the Orioles over 70% of the time, and yet they did so less than 58% of the time, falling about 1.4 wins short of expectations. The Rays, meanwhile, exceeded their Pythagenpat record against the Orioles by about 2.3 wins. Where the two teams are about 3.7 wins apart based on runs scored and runs allowed, it has translated to an actual gap of seven wins, separating the Rays from the pack.

What it comes down to for the Yankees is bad timing in close games. While they won six of seven against the Orioles in games decided by five or more runs, they went just 3-5 against them in one-run games, and 0-1 in two-run games. Most of those losses were winnable games.

April 7 in New York: Orioles 4, Yankees 3 in 11 innings

With a chance to sweep an early-season three-game series, Jameson Taillon and John Means squared off; neither made it through five innings but the Orioles carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth, when a two-out single by Gary Sánchez and then a double by Gio Urshela, both off Shawn Armstrong, tied the game. It went to extra innings, where a throwing error by Gleyber Torres on a Pedro Severino grounder allowed Anthony Santander to score. The Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the inning, but the Orioles scored again in the 11th — both extra innings runs came off Chad Green — and Santander gunned down Urshela at the plate trying to score on a DJ LeMahieu line drive to right. Game over. For the Yankees, this was the first of eight losses in a 10-game stretch, the rest of which came against the Blue Jays and Rays.

April 26 in Baltimore: Orioles 4, Yankees 2

Matt Harvey threw six strong innings against the Yankees, departing with a 3-1 lead; it was his first quality start in just over two years. After the Orioles added another run, the Yankees had their chance to get back into the game when Tanner Scott walked the bases loaded with one out in the eighth. Scott struck out Rougned Odor, and while Urshela singled to plate one run, Judge was thrown out at third base, with manager Aaron Boone ejected because the Yankees didn’t get a chance to ask for a review of whether LeMahieu crossed the plate before the tag (it looked as though he did).

April 29 in Baltimore: Orioles 4, Yankees 3 in 10 innings

With the Yankees having rebounded to take two of three in the series, the two teams were tied 2-2 heading into the eighth. The Orioles scored in the bottom of the inning via a Cedric Mullins walk and an Austin Hays double, both off Darren O’Day. The Yankees clawed back to tie it in the ninth via a couple of walks and a Torres ground-rule double off César Valdez. In extras, the Orioles won on a sac fly by Mullins off Jonathan Loáisiga, emerging with a series split.

May 16 in Baltimore: Orioles 10, Yankees 6

The Yankees scored four runs off Adam Plutko in the top of the first, but by the end of three, the score was knotted 5-5, as the Orioles roughed up Jordan Montgomery. They continued to pull away for a 10-6 win.

August 2 in New York: Orioles 7, Yankees 1

While trade deadline acquisitions Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo made obvious sense as additions to the Yankees’ lineup, the case for Andrew Heaney as their patch for the rotation was shakier, even if his peripherals made a slightly stronger case for him (4.84 FIP, 5.27 ERA). After retiring eight of the first nine batters he faced, Heaney proceeded to allow four solo homers in the space of six batters, first to Mullins and Hays in the third, then Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías in the fourth. Even with the Yankees drubbing the Orioles by a combined score of 23-4 over the next two nights, that one stung.

September 4 in New York: Orioles 4, Yankees 3

Making just the third start of his major league career, 28-year-old rookie Chris Ellis held the Yankees hitless* through five innings before turning things over to the bullpen. What had been a 1-0 lead for Baltimore turned into 3-0 when reliever Wandy Peralta gave up two doubles and two singles in a span of five batters before getting the hook. The no-hit bid lasted until one out in the seventh, when a Torres grounder that bounced off the glove of second baseman Jahmai Jones and drove in a run was credited as an infield single, narrowing the Orioles’ lead to 3-1. The Yankees tied it in the eighth via Gallo’s two-run homer off Jorge López, but the Orioles scratched out a run against Aroldis Chapman, capped by a Severino sacrifice fly.

*Retroactively, the official scorer changed a first-inning, 114.9-mph line drive to left center by Aaron Judge from a two-base error on Ryan McKenna into a double.

September 5 in New York: Orioles 8, Yankees 7

Two homers by Sánchez, a grand slam off Keegan Akin in the second and a two-run shot off Marcos Diplán in the sixth helped the Yankees build a 7-4 lead, but the Orioles rallied for four eighth-inning runs against Heaney, who allowed five of six batters to reach, and Peralta. Despite getting Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Rizzo to the plate twice apiece the rest of the way, the Yankees couldn’t even tie the game.

September 16 in Baltimore: Orioles 3, Yankees 2 in 10 innings

A homer by Gallo and an RBI double by Urshela — both off Ellis — gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead that lasted into the sixth, when Mountcastle homered off Montgomery. With the score 2-1 in the ninth, Boone avoided calling upon Chapman, who had worked the previous two days but thrown just 15 pitches while striking out four out of five hitters. Instead he tabbed Clay Holmes, whose two wild pitches led to the tying run scoring. In the 10th, Peralta gave up two singles, the second a walk-off to Hays.

Painful losses in winnable games, nearly all of them, with mistakes cropping up at the worst times. By and large, the Yankees’ starting pitchers did their job against Baltimore, posting a collective 2.63 ERA and 3.35 FIP, with Heaney’s start by far the biggest dud. The bullpen was pretty good on the whole as well, with a 3.66 ERA and 3.10 FIP, though in high leverage situations, they were scorched for a .395 BABIP and a 5.79 ERA despite a 2.16 FIP in that context. Heaney was dreadful in his two appearances against the Orioles (one a start) as were Peralta (7.71 ERA, 6.16 FIP, 4.2 IP) and some of the bullpen’s more interchangeable parts; Green and Chapman were dominant against them aside from the hiccups noted above.

On the other side of the ball, the Yankees’ offense thumped Orioles pitchers at a .259/.340/.443 (115 wRC+) clip, with Judge (190 wRC+), Stanton (189), Urshela (145), LeMahieu (125) and Torres (125) leading the way. The batters who struggled against them — Gallo (94), Brett Gardner (81), Clint Frazier (72), Luke Voit (53), Odor (10) — did so in considerably less playing time than the big bats. It’s not as though one can point to goats who kept getting chances and failed to deliver; the shortcomings were in smaller samples. That’s baseball, Suzyn.

On the Orioles’ side, their starters were predictably pummeled (6.27 ERA, 6.32 FIP) by the Yankees with Means (2.93 ERA), Harvey (2.70 ERA) and Ellis (1.86 ERA) the only ones below a 5.94 ERA, though all three were significantly worse by FIP. Hittable relievers Scott, Valdez, and Dillon Tate came up bigger than expected. The offense’s best hitters were Mancini, Hays, and Mullins, the guys you’d expect, though Jones, a 24-year-old rookie batting .164/.207/.218 in 58 PA overall, hit .375/.375/.625 in eight PA, netting two of his season’s three extra-base hits along the way.

Despite dropping three straight to the Red Sox this past weekend, the Orioles can still continue to wield an outsized influence on the AL playoff picture, as they finish up with three-game sets against the Red Sox in Baltimore and then the Blue Jays in Toronto. Meanwhile, though the Yankees can kick themselves over the lapses that led to some of their losses to the Orioles, the reality is that they’ve also underperformed against both the Blue Jays and Red Sox, going 6-10 against each (and 7-9 against the Rays). Within the past 10 days, they’ve additionally dropped three-game series to the Mets (now 73-77) and Cleveland (73-74) as part of the 7-15 record they’ve compiled since August 27 — the same as that of the Orioles, tied for the AL’s worst. As their season slips away, that’s all too fitting.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

It’s not only the AL wild card race; the Orioles also have a three games series with the Phillies starting tonight.

Smiling Politelymember
2 years ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

This is a bit off-topic, but it does seem like once the Mets fell out of the picture, there was a lot less coverage of a very tight NL East race (at least, as compared to how we were all wrong about TLR leading his team to victory)