After discussing the AL team with arguably the most talent on its roster, it only seems appropriate that I now discuss the AL team with arguably the least talent on their roster.
The Baltimore Orioles are a team that has been synonymous with losing for the better part of the past three decades. In a way, the Orioles are kind of like Val Kilmer’s acting career–big in the early 80s, then nothing for about a decade before a short-lived resurgence in the mid 90s, and nothing since. Even the greatest TV show to ever be set in Baltimore–”The Wire”–only made ONE reference to the Orioles in its five seasons on air.
Perhaps it was one reference too many.
Adam Jones has blossomed into a superstar as he has carried the otherwise impotent Orioles offense.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite winning 9 of their last 15 games against a schedule that includes playoff contenders Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Oakland, and New York, ESPN gives the Orioles an only 11% chance of making the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Tigers, whom the Orioles currently hold a one game lead over in the wild card race, have a 39% chance of making the playoffs. (And if you’re wondering how ESPN comes up with this percentage, they probably use the same sort of logic that Washington Redskins TE Fred Davis used when he decided to represent himself in a recent civil lawsuit.)
But what can’t be disputed is that, on paper, the Orioles have absolutely no business being in the thick of the AL Wild Card race, and to a lesser extent, having a shot at the AL pennant.
- Offensively, the Orioles are mediocre at best as they sport a .243 team batting average and only the 17th ranked slugging percentage in the MLB.
- Defensively, the Orioles have been an atrocity: they lead the MLB in errors by a relatively wide margin and boast the league’s lowest fielding percentage.
- The Orioles pitching hasn’t quite picked up the slack either as their team ERA of 4.15 ranks 18th in league and their starting pitchers have thrown the 5th fewest quality starts in the league.
Another popular statistic that is commonly pointed out by critics is the Orioles’ current “negative run differential.” According to Jonah Keri of fangraphs.com, “only six teams in major league history have made the playoffs with negative run differentials: the 1981 (-8) and 1984 Royals (-13), the ’87 Twins (-20), the ’97 Giants (-9), the ’05 Padres (-42), and ’07 Diamondbacks (-20).”
After the Orioles’ loss to the Yankees, the Orioles current run differential stands at -60.
But if you’re less of a stat junkie, the Orioles’ major league roster may be more damning than their putrid statistics.
The current Orioles starting rotation currently features only one pitcher who began the year in the starting rotation. That pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen, who was signed by the Orioles this past off-season out of Japan, was a question mark to even make the Orioles’ opening day roster. The three other pitchers who are currently in the rotation (Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Zach Britton), all began the year in the minor leagues.
As for the Orioles’ lineup, their “regulars” include:
- Lew Ford–a 35 year old career minor leaguer whose last MLB appearance came in 2007.
- Omar Quintanilla–a 30 year old utility man with a .228 career MLB batting average, who was claimed off of waivers by the Orioles last month.
- Wilson Betemit–another 30 year old career utility man who hasn’t appeared in over 100 games since 2007.
- Mark Reynolds–whose current .208 batting average and .691 OPS are 2nd and 4th worst respectively amongst active MLB 1st basemen.
So exactly how is it that the Orioles have continued to not only win–but win consistently?
Keep Your Chen Up
As I previously mentioned, Wei-Yin Chen is the proverbial last man standing of the Orioles opening day rotation, but for good reason. After barely earning a spot on the O’s opening day roster, Chen has established himself as a front-of-the-rotation caliber starter by compiling a superb 3.65 ERA and 1.22 WHIP despite playing in the grueling AL East.
And while some analysts previously questioned whether Chen’s early MLB success was merely a byproduct of the league’s unfamiliarity with him, it has become abundantly clear that Chen is very much the real deal. In Chen’s four starts since the All-Star break, he has tallied a 2.49 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, while averaging over a strikeout per inning.
Ultimately, Chen may prove to be the free agent acquisition of the year given that his current contract keeps him under team control until 2015 and only pays him a maximum salary of roughly $15 million dollars. Yu Darvish on the other hand–the Japanese pitcher who was supposed to be the free agent signing of the year and who cost the Texas Rangers just over $111 million dollars for 6 years–has a 4.38 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP.
Perhaps even more unexpected than Chen’s success however has been the inexplicable success of current Orioles starters Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman–both of whom started the year in the minor leagues. Through each of their first five starts, the pair have combined to go 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA, including winning a pair of games against the division-leading Yankees.
If this surprising pair can continue their solid pitching down the stretch, the Orioles could still be in contention when their ace, Jason Hammel, returns from last month’s knee surgery. Of course, there’s probably just as strong a likelihood that both of these pitchers are pitching for the Orioles AAA affiliate by the end of the month instead.
Jonesing for More Offense
But as inconsistent as the Orioles pitching has been, at least the offense has been consistent–consistently bad that is.
Forced to grapple with season-ending injuries to projected starters Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have been mired in a nearly two month-long offensive funk. Thankfully for the Orioles, Adam Jones has continued his assault on AL pitching and has established himself as a budding superstar.
Only 27 years old, Jones is on pace to set career highs in almost every meaningful offensive statistical category and is on pace to hit roughly 35 home runs alongside an almost .300 batting average. For an Orioles team that has the major league’s best winning percentage in one run games, Jones has been an absolute difference-maker.
It is also worth noting that Jones’ defensive metrics, which are well above the league average, put him in an elite category among major league outfielders.
On The Mark(akis)
One of the major league’s perennially most underrated players, Nick Markakis is in the midst of another typically excellent season that will likely end with an average around .300 and an OPS north of 800.
Markakis has been especially invaluable to the Orioles in recent weeks due to his overwhelming success in the leadoff spot of the lineup. After spending the first three months desperately trying to find a modicum of consistency in the top of his lineup, it appears that Buck Showalter has found that and more, with Markakis.
Since being inserted as the Orioles leadoff hitter in the beginning of July, Markakis has hit .368 with an over .400 on base percentage and a 3-to-1 BB/K ratio. And with Markakis leading the way, the Orioles offense has come to life as they have scored nearly 4.5 runs per game over the last 15 games and have gone 9-6 over that time frame.
Strop Talking About Jim Johnson
While the national media fawns over Orioles all star closer Jim Johnson, who is on pace for over 40 saves, he is by no means the most productive member of the Orioles bullpen.
In fact, among the top six pitchers in the Orioles bullpen, Jim Johnson’s 3.63 ERA is the highest of the group and nearly a full run higher than the group’s cumulative ERA of 2.69. Johnson is also the only pitcher in the group without a sub-3 ERA.
Rather, the distinction for most productive member of the Orioles pen likely belongs to Pedro Strop, the Dominican flame thrower who has posted a microscopic 1.34 ERA through his 47 innings. And given that his 2011 ERA was 2.05, there is little reason to think that Strop’s success is a fluke.
While the Orioles likely see Strop as their closer of the future, the future may come sooner rather than later given Jim Johnson’s recent string of 9th-inning implosions, which has brought his ERA, (which was 1.21 going into the All-Star break) all the way up to where it stands now at 3.63.
Bucking the Trend
Whether or not the Orioles can remain a legitimate threat in the AL wild card race, it is worth recognizing the outstanding managerial work being done by Buck Showalter. He has taken a team akin to the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League and, against all odds, molded them into a formidable winner.
That said, there’s only so much that a manager can do to help his team win, and therefore the Orioles’ path to the postseason must be paved by the players themselves.
Because the Orioles’ offense relies so heavily on the top of their lineup for production, it is likely that the Orioles will continue to struggle in that department. As a consequence, it is more important than ever that the Orioles’ rag-tag starting rotation continues to exceed expectations–at least until the Orioles get Jason Hammel back in August or pick up a pitcher before the waiver-trade deadline.
It is also essential that the starting rotation continue to eat innings in order to keep the bullpen fresh throughout the remainder of the regular season as without their elite production, the Orioles would be closer to the AL cellar than the wild card.
So do I think it is legitimately possible? Possible for Wei-Yin Chen to continue pitching at an elite level? Possible for Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to continue notching quality starts? Possible that an Orioles lineup led by Markakis, Jones, Jim Thome, and Chris Davis has enough fire power to keep them in most games? Possible that the Orioles bullpen will continue to be among the league’s best?
It might not exactly be likely, but it’s certainly not a long shot. If the over/under of the Orioles chances to make the playoffs are really at 11%, I’ll take the over. Maybe you should too.