Well, the Orioles Are Doing it Again

The other day, I wrote that the Yankees have so far been the best team in baseball. I stand by that, in that nothing has changed in the limited time since, but there’s one measure where the Yankees are no longer on top. It’s the simplest and also most meaningful of all measures — win-loss record. The Yankees are an excellent 21-10. The Orioles are a slightly more excellent 22-10. Powered by a six-game winning streak, now it’s the Orioles who have baseball’s best record, and, well, to get into this, we’re going to need to get into some background.

For many of you, this is going to be an unnecessary review, but for the past several years, the Orioles and the numbers haven’t exactly gotten along. There are a few ways I can demonstrate this. For one, here’s a plot of the difference between actual team wins and preseason projected team wins, from between 2012 and 2016.

That particular time window is arbitrary, I know. It makes the Orioles look the most extreme. In 2011, 2010, and 2009, the Orioles dramatically under-performed the preseason projections. But, things change, and regardless of how arbitrary the time window might be, this is pretty huge. The Orioles have beat their projections by 58 wins. The team in second place is at +35. Good for the Pirates! Good for the Royals and Cardinals! But the Orioles have gone absolutely insane. This isn’t a secret; this is part of the narrative. This might be the *foundation* of the narrative. The projections don’t understand the Orioles. Whether that’s actually true, I can’t say, but there’s evidence, is the point.

It’s not just that some Orioles have done better than expected. It’s also been a matter of timing. This, again, is probably review. But there’s over-performing, and there’s over-performing even your own team statistics. We keep track of a team’s BaseRuns record, which is an attempt to assign an expected record based on team performance, independent of sequencing of events. That sentence isn’t a fun one to read or write. Let’s just look at a second plot.

The Orioles aren’t the most extreme, but they’ve still stood out from most of the pack. They’ve exceeded their own statistics, on the team level, joining popular number-defiers Kansas City and Texas. As one more way to show similar data, here is a simple plot of team winning percentage against team OPS differential. The Orioles are in orange.

Over the five years, the Orioles ranked fourth in baseball in winning percentage. They ranked 14th in baseball in OPS differential. You wouldn’t think the two would be so far apart. Hence, how the Orioles and how Orioles fans have regarded the advanced statistics. Who could blame them?

That seems like enough background. What’s been going on in 2017? I’ll construct the same plot with updated numbers, and — oh. I see.

For the most part, things look normal. Even over a small sample of the season, most teams are hanging around the best-fit line. And then there’s the Orioles, who are laughably exceptional. By winning percentage, the Orioles rank first. Nobody better. By OPS differential, which almost couldn’t be simpler, the Orioles rank 15th. 14 teams better, including the A’s and the Rays. If you just looked at the Orioles on paper, you wouldn’t see a team worth talking about. The team’s winning. BaseRuns has noticed.

The Orioles’ BaseRuns record gives them an equal number of wins and losses. They’ve exceeded that by six wins, which is three wins more than any other team. Forget what this would put the Orioles on pace for; obviously, that couldn’t sustain. That doesn’t mean this isn’t crazy. And, oh, by the way, even that .503 BaseRuns winning percentage — on opening day, the Orioles were projected for a .492 winning percentage. So they’ve kind of over-performed while they’ve over-performed.

This has very little to do with the offense. The hitters have collectively been normal, basically, and their timing has been all right. Between 2012 – 2016, Orioles pitchers had baseball’s best timing. Overall, they ranked 20th in baseball in OPS allowed. However, they ranked fourth in OPS allowed in high-leverage situations. This season, they rank 11th in OPS allowed, and seventh in OPS allowed in high-leverage situations. Maybe more importantly, they rank 27th in OPS allowed in low-leverage situations. When the Orioles have given up runs, they haven’t mattered much, relatively speaking. As the stakes have gotten higher, the Orioles have gotten better.

It’s more of the same. This is the Orioles’ recipe, and it has ever so much to do with Buck Showalter and how he handles their bullpen. The Orioles bullpen has been by far the biggest reason why the team has so dramatically over-performed in the last half-decade. What makes things extra funny is that the Orioles bullpen is presently without the injured Zach Britton, who’s one of the most valuable relievers in the sport. Darren O’Day has an ERA north of 5. Things haven’t gone quite as the Orioles wanted, but the bullpen is still No. 3 in baseball in Win Probability Added. It was No. 1 over the previous five years combined. Throw in some unexpected quality work from the rotation and you’ve got a 22-10 record.

This is the part where I follow the template. Extreme data points can’t continue, regression is inevitable, wins are already in the bank, etc. It’s all pretty much true, and it’s all perfectly boring, and you already understand it perfectly well. I’m not sitting here attempting to call out the Orioles or anything. It’s more just a declaration of amazement. It would be interesting if it were any team starting how the Orioles have started. The fact that it’s them, specifically them — even if it is just random chance, what were the chances it would be Baltimore who’d sprint out like this? This is why Orioles people don’t put too much stock in what analysts have to say about their ballclub. It’s perfectly natural for analysts to be defensive in response, but, who could blame either behavior? From a statistical perspective, the Orioles have been uniquely bizarre. They’re doing it again. You have to be able to appreciate this.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Similar to their 96-win squad in 2014, what’s especially interesting about the 2017 Orioles is how little they’ve gotten from the best players on the team so far. Manny Machado and Chris Davis are hitting like average players, not superstars, Mark Trumbo only has 3 HR, Zach Britton is hurt, Kevin Gausman is bad and Chris Tillman (the staff’s putative “ace”) has barely pitched at all.

Not only are they beating expectations, they’re beating expectations in a very improbable way.

7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

That is a great point. If you had told me before the year that Baltimore was starting 22-10, I would have assumed Davis hitting like it’s 2013 &/or Machado turning into Mike Trout &/or a Trumbo 1st half 2016 repeat.

& when those guys start playing better (& they get Britton back), it will offset some of the regression they are likely to see in the high leverage pitching #’s.

7 years ago
Reply to  PC1970

Alternately: If those guys don’t start playing better, they will regress. I don’t know if I believe that will happen, but it is a possibility. Of course, saying that means you’ll wind up on the “haters quote board” somewhere in the O’s clubhouse.

7 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No, it is possible. Let’s say Britton’s arm keeps bothering this season; then we’ve lost one of the best closers in the game. Brach is good, but he’s no Britton.
And there’s always the possibility that Bundy (or Tillman) get hurt again. Who do they have in their farm system to take their place? Nobody. (Unless you think Wright or Wilson are major league caliber players, which IMO they aren’t.)
They’re always a worst case scenario for every team, and the Orioles are no exception—though I hope as an O’s fan it doesn’t happen because time is running out for this team to stay a playoff caliber team.

7 years ago
Reply to  snowybeard

They have already employed 2 late-spring additions that have leapfrogged the mediocre “W” Brothers. Introduce yourselves to Gabriel Ynoa and Alec Asher, castoffs from the ‘pitching-rich’ Mets and and Phillies, respectively. I watched their spot starts while things were going pear-shaped with Tillman and Gausman. Far above and beyond all my modest expectations!
Once again, Trader Dan shows his very unkempt version of Class.

baltic wolfmember
7 years ago
Reply to  McPontiff

Have Asher and Ynoa looked good so far? I can’t tell because we don’t have cable anymore and the guy at mlb.tv misinformed me when he said I could watch the O’s (and the Nats) on the road, so I cancelled my subscription.

7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Agreed. Meanwhile just about everyone on the Yankees is outperforming expectations. This is like the NBA or NFL game where in the first half one team seems to be playing out of its mind, you look up, and see that they are only up by a few points at the half. Normally the second half is their comeuppance.