Sunday, June 30, 2013

Orioles More Than 1-Run Mirage

Now that we are at the midway point of the baseball season, it is a good time to reflect upon what we have seen and what it might tell us about the future. Granted, the All-Star break is the symbolic half-way point, but sometime this weekend every team will play games 81 and 82 of the season. Now is also the time when fans, no longer distracted by other sports, ,look in for the first time since opening day and see if their team is worth paying attention to. Some will be delighted, others disappointed as they set their sports clocks to football season. For those who love the game there are plenty of stories to read about and consider as teams embark on the second half of the season, fighting through the dog days of summer for a spot in the postseason. Today, I direct your attention to a magical team from last season, the Baltimore Orioles. That magical season paved the way for this season, which should not be as shocking as some imagine.

The 2012 season, like many before it, had its share of surprises. The Oakland A's winning the AL West, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera winning the first triple crown in 45 years. Each had its own appeal, its own ability to pull you in and ask; why, how, is this even possible? Amidst these stories the Orioles marched along and, in an effort only appreciated when it is over, led the league with an unprecedented 29-9 record in one run games. That .763 winning percentage is the highest ever over a season. On the strength of that record, the Orioles snatched a wild card berth and made it to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Early season predictions gave the Orioles only token respect in not forecasting them to take last place in the AL East finish. Across the board the common argument was that 2012's record in 1-run games was unsustainable. Given that it was the highest winning percentage in 1-run games ever, that was more or less a given. It was also short sighted. Overlooked was that among the 3 other teams who played 38 or fewer 1-run games (Cleveland 24-12, LA Angels 18-18, Atlanta 25-13) only the Angels failed to have a winning percentage over .650 in those games. Perhaps there is a small sample problem that doesn't get corrected before 40 games played, maybe the three teams just had competent closers. A little research shows that the Orioles were not quite the outliers you might have been led to believe.

Setting an analysis on one factor also overlooked so many positives that should have indicated the Orioles were not going to fade away so easily. There is the Buck Showalter effect --he finished in the top 5 Managers of the Year voting in the second full season at every stop, four teams and counting. There was also the emergence of Chris Davis who, at 26, produced a .270/.326/.501 slash line with 33 home runs in his first season with over 500 plate appearances. Many players achieve their power peak somewhere between 26-28, somehow an emerging star was overlooked by the majority of pundits. With 28 home runs already this season, it is safe to say he will not be sneaking up on anyone going forward.

Perhaps the most telling factor for continued effect was the defensive core that was formed after the 2012 trade deadline when Manny Machado was called up and Nate McLouth was acquired. Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters all received gold gloves for their defense last year. When the entire middle of a defense (CF, SS, C respectively) earns gold gloves in a season that team's defense is top notch. That does not include McLouth, a former gold glove winner in left, or former recipient Nick Markakis in right. Machado moved from shortstop to third to accommodate Hardy and has showcased the skill, range, and arm to win multiple gold gloves at third or short over his career. McLouth, 31, and Hardy, 30, are the only regular everyday players over 30. With only 25 errors and a .992 fielding percentage the Orioles lead all of baseball at their halfway point.

This is not to say that the Orioles should have been locks to win the AL East or are without faults.I have not mentioned starting pitching for a reason; they are lacking a clear ace, similar to last season.
As great as the bullpen was last season, it is almost impossible to expect a bullpen to repeat as successful a season as 2012 was. Indeed Jim Johnson has blown 5 saves this season after saving 51 games last year.

I have not even mentioned the offense, aside from Davis, but given the relative youth most players had room to grow and improve. I am not sure if anyone foresaw Machado threatening the single season doubles record. That is its own story, a story that we should appreciate today, but wait to reflect upon once the season is over. Pundits overlooked the Orioles based on an impressive statistical anomaly. They refused to look deeper and really see this Orioles squad for what it is: young, hungry, driven, and led by one of the best managers in the game today. They are young enough to not accept limitations or conventional norms. It is time to look beyond the pundits mirage. The Orioles are more than a 1-run record and have been since Machado and McLouth joined the team. At 45-36, they are once again in position for at least a wild card birth, which is not as shocking as you might think.