Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/7/12

We’ve reached Threat Level Midnight. With last night’s victory over the Yankees, the Orioles are now tied with New York American League East lead. Whatever one makes of the Orioles’ chances, this is surprising for pretty much anyone who made a serious attempt at being objective prior to the season. When is the last time a team coming off of a sub-70-win season that got their old GM fired could turn around and parley (among other things) a couple of good pitchers, a breakout performance from an young outfielder, some “luck” with respect to their run differential, and Joe Saunders into a (potential) divisional championship?

Actually, as you may have guessed already, something very similar happened last year in Arizona.

A brief, and non-exhaustive series of thoughts:

Joe Saunders: Hey, Saunders did start a playoff game for the 2011 Diamondbacks, and he did shut down the Blue Jays last week. OBVIOUSLY JOE SAUNDERS IS THE KEY TO SURPRISING RUNS AT CONTENTION.

Mark Reynolds: This is actually a confusing one — was Reynolds the problem for the Diamondbacks such that trading him prior to 2011, or is he a key player in the Orioles current success? What a conundrum!

Okay, these first two are more curious links meant for semi-humorous fun. In reality, Saunders is a mediocre back-of-the-rotation starter that both teams needed at the time. Trading Reynolds helped Arizona bolster their 2011 bullpen and freed up some payroll, but (this year) he has helped the 2012 Orioles’ offense, especially lately.

But let’s get to more interesting parallels.

“Breakout” Outfielders

I am not a big fan of the the concept of a breakout season, but I guess it usefully conveys a point. I am not sure that Justin Upton‘s 140 wRC+ in 2011 can be called a “breakout” to a new level, since he was almost as good in 2009, at a very young age that would lead you to expect him to continue to improve. However, that great 2009 made his 110 wRC+ in 2010 seem disappointing, and almost immediately after Kevin Towers was hired, trade rumors involving Upton started to fly. Those went away after his mammoth 2011 season during which he was one of the keys to the Diamondbacks’ playoff run.

Although he has a different skill set (particularly with respect to plate approach) than Upton, Adam Jones had also long been seen as a future superstar based on his performances at a young age. While there is disagreement over how good or bad Jones is in center field, it was difficult to deny that, despite good physical tools, his plate approach is lacking. There were even some trade rumors about him during the off-season. Well, while his plate discipline has not changed too much this season. What has changd is that Jones is showing much more power, sporting a career-best 128 WRC+ so far, mostly due to his .222 ISO. That got him a big new contract.

Now, there is some bitter aftertaste for Arizona, as Upton’s power has evaporated this year, and the trade rumors ran wild. Upton just turned 25 last month, so it is not as if he is doomed or his contract looks like an albatross. The expectations have just been dialed back a bit. As for Jones, while his seasonal line is still good, it is worth remembering that his wOBA was over .400 when the extension was signed, and is at .362 now. Jones seems like he is regressing back to his usual self — a good, not great player. Jones is also two years older than Upton. This is not to say that Upton and Jones are bad players or have no upside left. Either would help pretty much any team. But they should not be judged only by the periods of time during which they performed at the top of their games.

New GMs

Remember back in 2010, when the San Diego Padres were actually contending out of nowhere, and former Padres pitcher Jake Peavy said that Kevin Towers, who has been fired after the 2009 season, should get the credit? It’s funny, I can’t seem to find any quotes from Jake Peavy about how Josh Byrnes should have gotten credit for the 2011 Diamondbacks, who were run by… Kevin Towers! Maybe if J. J. Hardy gets traded during the off-season to make room for Manny Machado and we’ll be treated to an outburst about how Any MacPhail should have received credit for Baltimore’s 2012 season.

But seriously, folks… Like many people, I have gotten a kick out of “judging” GMs in the past, and still sort of do. I try to be more cirucmspect about it now, although I’m sure I still say silly things. I am not going to “judge” either Dan Duquette or Kevin Towers now. Obviously, they deserve some credit for moves they made during their teams seasons of contention. Towers really improved the Arizona bullpen for 2011, and Duquette’s acquisitions of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been smashing successes. Those are just two examples.

On the other hand, they did come into situations where pieces were already on the team that could help them. I seriously doubt the Diamondbacks would have gone to the playoffs if Towers had managed to trade Upton prior to 2011. and other key players like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and Paul Goldschmidt were already in the organization. Duquette should get credit for the players he signed, but Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Mark Reynolds were going to be Orioles this year, anyway. Manny Machado (and Dylan Bundy) were also players Duquette did not draft (although that’s more of a sticky note for the future).

This is not meant to say that Towers in 2011 or Duquette in 2012 have not been all that impressive. Nor is it to say that they have been awesome. It is simply a reminder that they came into situations with advantages and disadvantages not of their own making, and thus it is very difficult to judge them based just on one good season their team has had.

That Darn Pythag

Different things have been written here at FanGraphs about the the use and misuse of the Pythagorean Expectation. However, I do not think any of this means that it is “useless” or should be abandonded. It certainly does not mean that we should somehow look at a team’s record in one-run games and assert that it is a skill (or lack thereof) that allows them to “beat” (or fail to meet) their Pythgorean expectation. In 2011, the Diamondbacks outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by six games. That’s nothing compared to the 2012 Orioles, who have their pythag beat by ten games, and have actually scored fewer runs than they have allowed.

Now, as I discussed in a previously-linked post, there is a problematic tendency to link observed run differential with a team’s true talent. Still, observed run differential is usually a better indication of a team’s true talent than its observed wins and losses. But what does that mean?

Well, on the downside, it means that the 2011 Diamondbacks and 2012 Orioles probably played/are playing “over their heads,” and that more likely than not they should not be expected to keep up their winning percentages. That was somewhat borne out by the 2012 Diamondbacks’ flop. So the “lesson” here, if there is any, is not so much about Pythagorean records as about using them as a remind that observed performance and true talent are not the same thing. No matter how good the team’s record or run differential is on one year, the next year’s decisions need to be made based on updated projections (broadly conceived to include both statistical projections and scouting observations) for the next year, not simply from what happened on one season that includes all sorts of random variation.

On the bright side, of course, is the reality that even by outplaying their run differential, or even their true talent, the 2012 Orioles and 2011 Diamondbacks have those “wins in the bank.” Whatever off-season decisions the Orioles need to make after this season, they are in first place right now, and look like they are heading for the playoffs. For the long-term, things get more complicated. In the short-term, they can make decisions like the contender that they are.


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