What They Did: 69-93, 5th Place AL East.
Actual Runs: Scored 708 runs, Allowed 860.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 66.7 (2.3 below actual)
Restated: Scored 697 runs, Allowed 859.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 65.7 (3.3 above actual)
In a number of the prior previews, I’ve made mention of a team’s strength of schedule. Statements such as “Minnesota has the toughest interleague slate of games in their division” and “outside the division Tampa has the toughest schedule of all AL East teams” may have been scattered among the team essays but I never quantified the differences from team-to-team. The Baltimore Orioles present the perfect opportunity to do so.
When I was a kid, the 24-team MLB schedule had an elegant symmetry to it. Within the four, six-team divisions, each team played its 5 division mates 18 times (90 games) and its six other league foes 12 times (72 games). 162 games in easy to bite 3-game series which made it very easy to be a fan as well. Growing up outside Philadelphia, I knew the Pirates would come to town for three, three-game series while the out-of-division Reds would arrive for two such homestands. Since the only way for a team to make the post-season in those days was to win its division, it played exactly the same schedule as the teams it competed with for a post-season berth.
That is far from the case today.
I don’t think some dedicated baseball fans realize just how unbalanced baseball schedules are from team-to-team, even within the same division. Outside the divisions, of course, it’s even worse and when a team is battling for a wild-card with teams from another division, that’s a crucial factor. It’s not just interleague scheduling, where everyone understands how unfair it is that Texas gets to play Houston six times a year, every year, while the Angels have to face the Clayton Kershaw/Matt Kemp-led Dodgers six times. Even within the NL Central, the games are uneven. Milwaukee plays Chicago and Houston 17 times and their other division foes 15. Neither of its primary foes for the division title, Cincinnati or St. Louis, will play Houston more than 15 times. Those examples abound all across baseball, but how much of a difference do different schedules really make?
If every team played a balanced schedule, the weighted average sum of all of its opponents’ wins at the end of the season would equal 81 games. Based on the projected wins of all its opponents, the Baltimore Orioles schedule sums to 84.3 wins, the highest in baseball. Rather than playing teams that balance out to .500 the Orioles effectively play .521 opponents every night. That means that if the Orioles were a perfectly average MLB team, that posted perfectly average production they would only win 77.7 games, instead of the 81 games a perfectly average team should win. (A .500 team plays like a .400 team vs. .600 teams, .450 vs. .550 teams, and .500 vs. other .500 teams etc. – You have to trust me on this, but it may satisfy your doubts to remember that the entire league will form a normal distribution of wins, centered around a mean of 81 wins each year.)
The Washington Nationals do not compete for division titles or post-season berths with the Baltimore Orioles, but they do compete for the marginal revenue associated with the baseball fan from say, Rockville, MD who might drive to one team’s stadium on a summer evening with her boyfriend to take in a game. There is a decent chance that her attendance decision pivots on which team has more wins at that point of the season. The Nationals’ opponents project to average 81.3 wins, meaning if Washington were a perfectly average team, it would win 80.7 wins. That’s 3.0 win difference compared to Baltimore. How big is 3 wins? Teams spend an awful large amount of resources across their entire organization trying to develop 3-win players.
Or, consider it this way: Baltimore’s best player is CF Adam Jones. The Nationals have a gaping hole in CF, and assuming Jayson Werth doesn’t slide over to CF to make way for Bryce Harper in RF, the Nationals will do the same thing they did last year – roll out some combination of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina, two well-below-average, just-above-replacement-level center fielders. Adam Jones projects to post a 2012 Wins Above Replacement, or WAR figure of 3.0 in 2012, right in line with his performance the last two seasons. Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina project to give the Nationals miniscule value above a replacement-level center fielder, or about 0.4 WAR in 2012. That means if the Orioles offered a Jones for Ankiel/Bernadina trade to the Nationals – not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s Baltimore’s best everyday player for Washington’s worst! – with the kicker that Washington had to also swap schedules with the Orioles, the Nationals would be better off rejecting the trade.
If you want one final illustration of how different MLB’s scheduling philosophy is compared to the NFL’s consider this: The team with the easiest projected 2012 schedule in all of MLB, with an opponents’ weighted average win total of 78.03, is the World Champion, St. Louis Cardinals.
I used up more than half of the Baltimore essay talking about schedules because, frankly, there isn’t that much to say about the Orioles. They were a terrible fielding team in 2011. They had, by a comfortable margin, the worst starting pitchers in baseball. As a result they gave up, by far, the most runs in baseball, a full 54 more runs than the next worse team, the Minnesota Twins. The defense is unlikely to improve much; six of the eight starting fielders are back and while Endy Chavez will be an upgrade in left field, any gains may be cancelled out by Chris Davis taking over the duties at first base. To help improve its starting rotation mess, the Orioles have signed two international free agents, Wei-Yin Chen from Taiwan (Yin-sanity, anyone?) and Tsuyoshi Wada from Japan. Their lack of stateside experience makes projections difficult but Clay Davenport, who I rely on for translating obscure league statistics into MLB equivalents, isn’t bullish and predicts an outright disaster for Chen. (This contrasts sharply, incidentally, with his projections for the Rangers’ prize free-agent signing from Japan, Yu Darvish.)
Otherwise the Orioles are simply hoping for improvement from Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz on the mound having given up on Jeremy Guthrie. Over the winter, the O’s acquired Jason Hammel from Colorado for Guthrie and Hammel actually becomes the ace of the staff. This says far more about the Orioles’ pitching deficiency than it says about Hammel’s talents, which are marginal.
Orioles fans really only have one factor they can point to that could save their heroes from a fifth-straight finish in the cellar of the AL East, and that’s that Baltimore is young. But importantly, from the perspective of the aging curve, not too young. As the Red Sox can attest from last September when Baltimore beat Boston five out of seven games down the stretch, the Orioles certainly played with the heart and energy of a young team on the rise.
The Orioles have a roster full of players in their twenties who are now seasoned major leaguers but are still at the stage where they could break-out and make the elusive leap to quality major-league players. In particular, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, extremely highly-regarded prospects before their promotions to “the show”, are 26 this year. Fantasy players know well that an effective strategy is to overdraft players entering their 26-28 age seasons. (Alex Gordon and Matt Kemp stand as last year’s perfect examples.) If Jones and Wieters turn into the All-Stars everyone assumed they’d be by this time, and if the young pitchers could simply be average, you can squint and see a path down which the Orioles could become a .500 team.
Frankly though, that’s quite a long shot. A more realistic goal for the organization would be to finish within single digits, in terms of games back, from fourth place. In the last four seasons the Orioles have finished an average of 15 games out of fourth place, with an 11-game deficit in 2009 standing as their high-water mark.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: No one is fooled about the Orioles’ prospects. They are listed as high as 80-1 to win the division, and while something around a 1% chance is probably right, it’s rare to see odds that high actually posted. (Only the Astros have higher odds among the other divisions.) Its total wins over/under fluctuates from oddsmaker to oddsmaker somewhere around the 69 ½ region which I think is spot on. Other than perhaps watching for overvaluations of Chen and Wada on single games that they start, there just isn’t much to get excited about with the Orioles.
69-93 – Fifth in AL East
690 Runs Scored 818 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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