In 2012, the Orioles — fresh off a losing streak dating back to the Cal Ripken / Mike Mussina / Davey Johnson squad of 1997 — shocked all of baseball by winning 93 games and the American League wild card game. Backed by what seemed like completely unsustainable one-run luck and with the knowledge that the rest of the AL East was still dangerous, most analysts said something along the lines of “that was fun, good luck doing it again.” They didn’t quite get back to the playoffs in 2013, but 85 wins was still something to be proud of, thanks mostly to 53 homers from Chris Davis and the smashing defensive debut of Manny Machado.
Once again, no one thought much of them headed into 2014. The Red Sox had just won the World Series; the Yankees had added Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. The Jays couldn’t possibly be as bad as they’d been in 2013, and the Rays might have been the best team of any of them. In our 2014 predictions, only two writers picked the O’s to win the division.
And why not? Think about all the things that would have needed to go right for the Orioles to make it back in the playoffs. Even with a pair of six-win seasons from Davis and Machado, last year, they had merely a good season, not a great one. They’d need repeats of that and for others to step up. Now, think about how little of that actually happened. Think instead about how much has gone terribly wrong. So much, in fact, that we’re going to lightning-round it with a list of unfortunate calamity — some that seemed obviously bad at the moment, only to turn out much differently, and others that have been a slow train wreck over the course of the season. In rough but not necessarily precise chronological order:
- Jim Johnson, a probably overrated but still effective closer, was dealt to Oakland for a spare part (Jemile Weeks) because the O’s couldn’t afford his arbitration award.
- Grant Balfour, a very good closer who’d agreed to join Baltimore at a very fair price, didn’t have his contract finalized when the O’s team doctors disliked his physical. He signed with AL East rivals Tampa Bay, leading to no shortage of ridicule for the Orioles — especially when the same thing happened with Tyler Colvin.
- Two departed members of the 2013 rotation, Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta, suddenly became among the most-improved pitchers in baseball with the Cubs.
- Matt Wieters played well for a month, then blew out his arm.
- J.J. Hardy, who had hit 77 homers in the last three seasons, didn’t get his first until June 21.
- Machado, when he wasn’t being suspended for bizarrely throwing his bat at people, didn’t make it back from knee surgery until May, then revealed himself to be far more advanced on defense than offense, with a mere 87 wRC+ over the last calendar year, though he’s been very hot recently.
- Davis, who’d put up one of the five best hitting seasons in Baltimore history last year, has been so awful in 2014 that he’s actually been below replacement-level.
- Of the 10 players with the most playing time at each position, three — Davis, Caleb Joseph and David Lough — have batting averages that start with a “1,” and even though batting average isn’t wRC+, that still stands out.
- Oh, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop has been just as bad, giving the team four problem spots in the lineup, and five if you include Hardy.
- Free agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez has been an expensive disaster, with the worst walk percentage in baseball, and just landed on the disabled list with an ankle reportedly sprained while walking through the parking lot near his home.
- The best — best! — FIP among their five primary starters is 4.41, by Wei-Yin Chen, good for 80th in baseball, between Tommy Milone and Kyle Kendrick.
- Lottery ticket Johan Santana tore his Achilles weeks before making it back to the big leagues.
- Last year’s “shockingly effective reliever” version of Brian Matusz has become this year’s “sub-replacement inferno” version of Brian Matusz.
… and so on. Every team has problems, sure, but that’s quite the list, encompassing three of the team’s four most important players on offense (Adam Jones, thus far, has been hitting about the same as he always does), two of 2013’s most important bullpen pieces, and an entire rotation. Had you read this list prior to the season, you’d have likely expected that they’d either be well on the way to a 100-loss season, or have simply folded entirely before the curse got any worse. It would have been hard for the best team in baseball to overcome all that, and few would have suggested the Orioles were the best team in baseball.
They’re not on the way to 100 losses, of course. They’re in first place at the All-Star break, with the fourth-most wins in the American League and the third-largest division lead in the game, and are the overwhelming favorites to stay in first place according to our projections. Just like we all expected, of course. Never change, baseball. You’re the best.
So, which is it going to be? Are they playing wildly over their heads, not unreasonable given all the negatives they’ve had to overcome? Or have we just continued to underestimate Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter and friends? Perhaps not unexpectedly, the answer is a little of both, but less so on offense, which is performing to expectations:
|2014 Orioles, runs/game|
|Batting to Date||Batting Projected ROS|
|Pitching to Date||Pitching Projected ROS|
One might think with so many problems on offense, the Orioles would either be desperate for runs or hitting something like .700 with the few runners in scoring position that they managed to accumulate. Not so, in fact; Baltimore’s non-pitchers have the No. 10 wRC+; they’ve scored the 9th-most runs. That level of run-scoring is in line with what you’d expect from that wRC+, so it’s not luck or sequencing or ballpark. It’s just not happening from the sources you’d expect it to be. Jones, again, is a constant, but in the absence of consistent production from Davis, Machado and Wieters, the Orioles have counted on a most unlikely source of offense.
I’m talking about Steve Pearce, of course. Yes, obviously all anyone wants to talk about is Nelson Cruz, on track to become arguably the best one-year free agent in the history of free agency, and his second-in-MLB 28 homers and top-15, better-than-Miguel Cabrera 150 wRC+ have been both incredible and a huge part of why the Orioles are where they are. (Particularly when you remember that had he not landed in Baltimore in the spring, those plate appearances might have been going to some combination of Lough, Delmon Young and Henry Urrutia.) But it’s the 31-year-old Pearce, who has been property of five teams dating back to 2011, and had been dropped by Baltimore twice in the last two years, who has helped pick up the slack, putting up an only-partially BABIP-fueled 163 wRC+ in 209 plate appearances. As Nick Markakis‘ rebound has been a mild one, better than 2013 but still nowhere near where he was at his best, Pearce and Cruz have been saviors.
It’s the pitching that’s a concern, as you can see above; without a single elite starter, and with the worst (non-Rockies division) pitching FIP in baseball, we’re actually seeing them be outscored over the remainder of the division. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only two teams have a larger negative discrepancy between their ERA and FIP, and it looks like regression is coming.
I’m not going to sugarcoat that for you, really. This rotation isn’t good. Only the Rockies and Twins strike out fewer; only the Rockies walk more. Only five rotations allow more homers. They don’t generate many ground balls, despite the spectacular left-side infield defense behind them. Perhaps there’s hope, though; less Jimenez means more Kevin Gausman, which can only be an upgrade, and Duquette has a few weeks to further improve it. No, this isn’t a landing spot for David Price, though an Ian Kennedy-type might be a fit.
Through foresight, luck, or both, they avoided the horrendous seasons of both Johnson and Balfour, and when Tommy Hunter failed as the closer, Zach Britton stepped in ably, though the bullpen as a whole has been somewhat middle of the pack. All of them are helped by what has become one of the better defenses in baseball, and not just the expected pair of Machado & Hardy; Jones has improved, Joseph has seen high marks, and even Pearce has contributed. If you’ve been following Duquette’s never-ending roster moves closely, he’s been constantly turning over his players to take advantage of options and get a starting pitcher out of the way in between turns to get Showalter another reliever. (Bud Norris, who had made just one start since returning from the DL, was sent to Double-A yesterday to start for the nearby Aberdeen Ironbirds, making an 11:05 a.m. start.)
It helps, of course, that the Rays have collapsed, and the Red Sox have collapsed, and the post-Tanaka Yankees are about to collapse, and the Blue Jays are in the process of collapsing, and maybe that’s the biggest factor. Against their rivals, the Orioles are 26-18, the only team in the division to be more than one game over .500 inside the East. Depending on how you look at it, they either have a very tough remaining schedule, or they don’t. Sometimes, all you have to do is be the team that manages not to implode. That’s probably not good enough to get past the Athletics, Angels and Tigers into the World Series, but anything can happen once you get to October. For the continually confounding Orioles, whether we respect them or not, it sure looks like they’re on their way to doing just that.