Warm-Up Tosses: Well this is awkward. Why, you might ask, would I be cranking out an Orioles preview just a few short hours before I’m due on the set of The CBS Morning Show? Well – and stop me if this sounds at all familiar to say, the Manti Te’o hoax – very late last evening, I learned that CBS had rescheduled my appearance for next Friday, March 15. Obvious, I’m highly embarrassed as I know a lot of DVRs were set and you can’t undo a Facebook post or a Twitter tweet. (Although thank goodness for DVR’s because there’s no way I could have orchestrated a hoax that would have resulted in cable and DirecTV programming guides listing me as a Friday morning guest.) Other than Jimmy Kimmel constantly bumping Matt Damon to another night, I honestly don’t know if this is a common occurrence. As of now, I hope the revised plan to appear next Friday morning comes to fruition
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What They Did: 93-69, 2nd Place AL East. Lost in ALDS, 3-2
Actual Runs: Scored 712 runs, Allowed 705.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 81.7 (11.3 below actual)
Restated: Scored 710 runs, Allowed 701.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 82.0 (11.0 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Orioles, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 82 games.)
The best way to start the Baltimore Orioles preview is to acknowledge two things:
- There were two teams whose success in 2012 came as a stunning surprise, the Orioles and the A’s. While I may like to tout the fact that my model identified the A’s as no fluke, it never embraced the success of the Orioles.
- While on the surface, the O’s, by virtue of barely outscoring its opponents over the course of the regular season, appear to have been one of the least deserving teams to capture a post-season berth in recent memory, that’s not entirely the case.
To be sure, the Orioles 2012 roadmap to the playoffs is not a repeatable endeavor. Specifically they Orioles went 16-2 in extra-inning games. No team that has played at least 18 extra-inning games in a year – and there have been 272 since 1969 – has ever won a higher percentage of those games than the 89% that Baltimore did. (The 1999 Braves, 17-5 in extra-inning games, were second best at 77%.) In fact, only four teams since division play began in 1969, out of nearly 1,200 team seasons, have won a higher percentage of extra-inning games no matter how few they played. Despite that, overcoming their pedestrian run differential to become a playoff team reveals a little more finesse by the Orioles front office, and less luck, than they have been given credit for.
After 100 games, or roughly at the MLB trading deadline, the Orioles had been outscored by a whopping 58 runs, the third-worst differential in the American League. Despite that, they were in second place in the AL East with a 52-48 record and just 2 games back in the Wild Card race. In an understanding of game theory reminiscent of the brilliant Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril, Baltimore’s front office understood that although they may have had zero business being in position to battle for a post-season berth, they also knew that a) they had banked those wins and would never have to give them back no matter how undeserved and b) they had just shortened the season to 62 games. So they went out and significantly improved the team by acquiring Jim Thome, Nate McLouth, and, via a minor-league promotion, Manny Machado. McLouth and Machado essentially played 4.0 WAR baseball prorated over those last 60 games, matching the production of Orioles’ stars Adam Jones and Matt Wieters.
They did the same thing with the pitching staff acquiring Joe Saunders and promoting Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to the starting rotation. All of those moves paid off handsomely and over the last 62 games of the season the Orioles went a deserved 41-21 considering they outscored their opponents by 65 runs in those games – 2nd best in the American League and 3rd best in all of baseball. That last-third-of-the-season success was masked in the standings by what happened in the first 100 games and it should erase the storyline that the team the Orioles fielded at the time the playoffs began had no business being there. Over the last third of the season, it was a brilliantly executed plan, accompanied by a legitimate playoff-caliber performance.
The question for 2013 is if any of those performances can be repeated? By projecting Baltimore to finish in 5th place in the AL East, my answer is a resounding no.
The problem is pitching. Baltimore’s pitching staff was league average, 7th in the AL in runs allowed. The four starters with the best ERAs are returning this year and the emerging ace Jason Hammel is a solid anchor. Wei-Yin Chen’s 4.02 ERA was just better than the average AL starter and based on his skill sets, that’s a reasonable expectation of 2013 production as well. It’s the next three starters that pose a problem. Chris Tillman (2.93 ERA in 15 starts) and Miguel Gonzalez (3.25 in 15 starts) had All-Star caliber results in the half-season’s worth of games they pitched. The problem with expecting that type of performance in 2013 is that they don’t have All-Star skills. Gonzalez is an extreme flyball pitcher, in a hitter’s park, with a below-average strikeout rate and an above-average walk rate. He is simply a 5.00 ERA waiting to happen. Tillman is also an extreme flyball pitcher with otherwise average skills. While that doesn’t make him a 5.00 ERA candidate, it does mean he’s at least a low 4.00 ERA pitcher and, like Gonzalez, means his ERA should jump at least 1.25 during the year. Add to that big increase in runs allowed form the starting rotation the fact that Jair Jurrjens (another 5.00 ERA candidate with a 6.89 ERA last year in Atlanta) is currently slated to be the fifth starter and you’ve got a substantial increase in runs allowed with little room for suppression improvement elsewhere on the staff or the bullpen.
On offense, there aren’t many changes. Mark Reynolds is gone and while that means his very low batting average (.221) will be easy to replace, his excellent batting eye (9th highest walk rate among MLB regulars) and power (.429 slugging) won’t be. Just about the very best Baltimore can expect is for Wilson Betemit to match those numbers. Otherwise the lineup is very stable. Brian Roberts is the only member of the starting lineup more than 31 years old with Matt Weiters and Adam Jones entering the prime of their careers. Jones is capable of morphing into an MVP candidate this year and Baltimore will need that if they hope to be in a second-half pennant race again. But it doesn’t look like the offense has a higher ceiling than mildly above-average.
They Orioles were masterful at doing everything they had to, on and off the field, to maximize their production last year. It was a fun story and the city of Baltimore enjoyed October baseball for the first time since the 1990s. But with the Red Sox and the Blue Jays – the two teams Baltimore beat up on most in 2012 going 24-12 against them – certain to be better this year, it just doesn’t add up that Baltimore could get the same type of results out of its talent base in 2013.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: While everyone expects Baltimore to regress this year, my outlook is even a little harsher than the oddsmakers’. The Orioles total wins market opened at 77 ½ and even though I’m lower there’s not enough of a difference to recommend making an investment on the under.
76-86 – Fifth in AL East
698 Runs Scored 747 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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