All or Nothing: How the Baltimore Orioles Found Success
During spring training in 2012, the chances of the Orioles producing a winning season looked slim. Fourteen straight losing seasons and constant talks of “rebuilding” without any apparent progress left the fan base uninterested and without hope. Even the Orioles’ 34-23 record under new manager Buck Showalter at the end of the 2010 season was spoiled by their subsequent 2011 season, in which they finished 69-93, the only losing record in the AL East that year.
When the O's finished 93-69 at the end of the 2012 season, managed an AL Wild Card Spot, and eventually took the Yankees to 5 games in a thrilling ALDS, the baseball world was wondering what had just happened.
Many dismissed the season as happenstance and justified the O’s success as a result of a 29-9 record in one-run games and a 16-2 record in extra-inning games. Most predicted the Orioles would fade into irrelevancy again in 2013, with ESPN The Magazine going as far as to predict that the Orioles would finish last. The 2013 Orioles, while ultimately unable to duplicate their 2012 campaign, managed an 85-77 record, good enough for third in the AL East.
The Birds are 58-46. That translates to first place in the East, three games ahead of the Yankees and Blue Jays. The O’s are projected to go 87-75, with a 66.4% chance to make the playoffs.
How have the Orioles created a three-year resurgence after a 14-year period of obscurity? Earl Weaver, the long-time Orioles Hall of Fame manager, summarized that his 1970's teams were built on “pitching, defense and the three-run homer.” Well, the O’s have maintained a respectable level of relief pitching, led by one of the most underrated relievers, Darren O’Day, but their starting staffs have been among the worst in the American League. The O’s have played excellent defense and seem to get better each year, especially with the inclusion of Manny Machado’s gold glove. But with respect to the three-run home run, the Orioles do this better than anyone (or at least they would be three-run home runs if anyone was ever on base).
Swing for the Fences, and Swing at Everything
This isn’t any kind of offense Billy Beane would assemble, to say the least. Since 2012, the Orioles have hit 551 home runs, the most of any team in baseball, but have managed the second-lowest walk rate in the AL at 7.1%. They've also had the fourth-lowest OBP at .312.
For the new-look Orioles, it’s swing for the fences and swing at everything. Since 2012, not only do the Orioles swing at the third-highest percentage of pitches in the AL at 47.2%, but they also make contact with the third lowest percentage of pitches at which they swing, at 78.9%. For a better understanding of just how swing-happy the Orioles are, let's consider 2014 American League hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. Among these hitters, three of the five with the lowest walk rates are in the Orioles starting lineup: Jonathan Schoop tops the list at 2.2%, Adam Jones is second at 2.9%, and J.J. Hardy is fifth at 3.9%.
The Birds are the epitome of both power and impatience. In the end, what do all the home runs amount to? They amount to a league average offense. There's truly nothing spectacular about the Orioles offense aside from the spectacle the home run provides. Since 2012, the O’s have managed a wRC+ of 99, meaning the offense is essentially average at creating runs. The trade-off has been extreme; they have forsaken any ability to get on base and embraced the home run as their primary method of scoring runs. It’s a dangerous strategy, as patience is something a hitter can adopt at will, while power is something that is eventually lost to almost every hitter.
Since 2012, the O's have managed a wOBA just above the American League average:
|Orioles wOBA||American League wOBA|
Since Manny Machado joined the team late in 2012, the Orioles have shown that they are one of the best defenses in baseball. Since 2012, they have committed the third-fewest errors in the AL at 208 while turning the second-most double plays at 1,064. They’re also tied with the Mariners and Yankees for the highest fielding percentage in the AL at .987, they’re sixth in UZR at 40.2, and fourth in DRS at 30. Much of this is attributed to Machado, whose 2013 DRS of 35 was 11 runs more than the next best fielder in the American League.
While the O's defense in 2012 didn't truly become great until the arrival of Manny Machado, the O's defenders have a UZR/150 well above average in 2013 and 2014:
|Orioles UZR/150||American League UZR/150|
Modest Relief Pitching
Led by Darren O’Day, whose FIPs over the last three seasons have been 2.96, 3.58, and 2.81, the Orioles relief staff has quietly maintained a 3.73 FIP and xFIP since 2012, good enough for eighth and sixth in the AL, respectively. In this time, the O’s relievers have had the fourth-highest left on base percentage at 77.2% with a reasonably normal .286 BABIP, meaning they've been successful at stranding runners on base without receiving much help from luck on batted balls in the field of play.
In the past three years, the Orioles relief FIP has hovered around league average:
|Orioles Relief FIP||American League Relief FIP|
They Have a Starting Pitching Staff
Since 2012, the Orioles starting pitching has had the highest home run rate in baseball at 1.28 home runs per nine innings. Chris Tillman, usually labeled the ace of the staff, managed an All-Star selection in 2013, but had the second-highest HR/9 rate in the AL at 1.44 and a FIP of 4.42. For an organization that supposedly preaches the sinker and encourages the ground ball, the starting staff has had the lowest ground ball rate in the AL at 41.3% while they have the second-highest line-drive rate and fly-ball rate at 21.5% and 37.2%, respectively. Since 2012, O’s starters have the third-highest American League FIP at 4.55 and the 5th highest xFIP at 4.28.
In fact, the Orioles lack of dominant starting pitchers in the last 15 years is pretty shocking. Since 2000, the O’s have had just one starter produce a season with a FIP under 3.50 (Erik Bedard’s 2007 when his FIP was 3.19). The last time an Oriole starter had a season with a FIP under 3.00 was Jim Palmer’s 1975 season when his FIP was 2.96. In the entire history of the franchise, the Orioles have had only one season where a starting pitcher finished a season with a K/9 rate over 9.00 (the only season being Bedard’s 2007 when he struck out 10.93 batters per nine innings). While strikeouts don’t necessarily equate to success, it’s pretty amazing how Orioles pitchers just don’t miss bats. The most positive thing we can say about the Orioles starting pitching is that it does, indeed, exist.
In the past three years, the Orioles starting staff has maintained a FIP much higher than league average:
|Orioles Starter FIP||American League Starter FIP|
Building Something that Lasts
Are the Orioles built for success?
It appears they’re on their way to their way to 86 or 87 wins, their third straight winning season, and maybe even a trip to the postseason. For this, Orioles fans should be grateful. However, most great franchises are built on both power and patience. We’ve seen it with the A’s over the last 10 years, the Rays of the past six years, and even the Red Sox and Yankees teams of years past.
While the great Orioles teams of the 1970's hit the third most home runs (1,398) in the American League during that decade, they also had the highest walk rate (9.6%) in that same period. Should the O’s want to truly create and maintain a legacy, they need to sacrifice their all-or-nothing approach at the plate to get on base more frequently and find and develop at least league average starting pitching that misses more bats and limits home runs allowed.
If the Orioles can do this quickly enough, Buck Showalter may finally reach that World Series that has eluded him in years past.