How the Baltimore Orioles Beat the Odds in 2014

Adam Jones has lead his team to the playoffs and the AL East crown and hopes to lead them to the Series.

17 years ago, the Baltimore Orioles clinched the AL East title and carried that momentum to the ALCS, losing to the Indians. The organization and franchise probably didn’t think they’d struggle to sniff the playoffs again until 2012, or not win the division title until this season. But here we are.

Coming into the season, the Orioles were definitely not the team everyone was focused on in the AL East. The Red Sox were riding high with their newly-shaved faces after their World Series win in 2013. The Yankees spent the offseason buying veterans to make up for their lack of a farm system. The Rays were getting praise for their pitching and ability to make a run with their low payroll. The Blue Jays were trying to figure out why they couldn’t win in 2013 with big names like Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista.

The Orioles’ major storylines entering the year were the fact that they didn’t resign Jim Johnson or acquire Grant Balfour, and many wondered what would happen with Nelson Cruz in his return from the PED suspension.

Baltimore moved past all of this, and everyone else for that matter. Boston played terribly, New York bogged down by injuries, Tampa Bay traded away their ace as playoff hopes began to disappear and Toronto started hot, but faded through the season.

Now the Orioles are riding high, with seven games left in the regular season, they're in a good position. The club shouldn’t pump the breaks yet because they still have a chance to take home the best record in the AL, but they definitely have less to worry about now that they are locked in as division winners.

What led to Baltimore’s success when everyone thought they were going to be on the outside looking in? Our algorithm’s projected a 79.19-82.84 record, which wouldn’t put them in the Wild Card hunt. Like Dan Weigel said in his season preview:

“That 80-win figure seems to imply that Chris Davis will regress, Tommy Hunter will fail as the closer, the bad Ubaldo will show up…”

Pretty good call on his part. Davis batted .196 and hit less than half of the bombs he hit in 2013. Hunter blew three saves before he went to the DL in late May, and hasn’t converted a save opportunity in three tries since them. Ubaldo Jimenez is the real-life, modern-day, baseball version of Jekyll and Hyde. You never know what you’re getting on a given day and his numbers support that.

Even with those issues, the O’s powered through. So let’s look at how they did that, and what’s going on with the orange-birds going into October.

The Ultimate Power

The offense leads all teams in home runs by 23, led by Cruz, who tops the MLB with 39. Looking at the everyday starters for the O’s, six have double-digit home runs on the season, with J.J. Hardy and Caleb Joseph smacking out nine a piece as well. Joseph’s contribution has come over 76 games, as opposed to Hardy’s 134, giving him a better at bats per home run rate that Hardy, Jonathan Schoop and Nick Markakis.

Two of the significant long ball contributors were Davis and Manny Machado. Davis won’t be hitting any more home runs in 2014 unless the O’s can go deep into the playoffs, thanks to his 25-game suspension for testing positive of amphetamines. Machado suffered another terrible injury and had season ending surgery.

However, Steve Pearce has emerged as a great option at first and the outfield, being the lone bench player hitting over 10 home runs (20), while hitting .297 with 25 doubles over 97 games. He has the best weighted on-base average (.404), on-base percentage (.375) slugging percentage (.560) and on-base plus slugging (.936) of anyone who has playing in 15 or more games. You can’t really ask for more out of a 31 year-old journeyman that’s finally figuring it out.

Adam “No, Not Pacman” Jones

Adam Jones is the best player on the second-best team in the AL. Even with Davis’ ridiculous 2013, it’s clear that the Orioles' center fielder has been the man in Baltimore since 2011. Having been an All-Star for the past three seasons, including this one, Jones has given his team a perennial player at one of the more important defensive positions.

Jones is one of 10 guys in the league to hit at least 30 doubles and 25 home runs on the season. Among that select group, he and four others have hit .280 or better to this point in the year, with those other four being Mike Trout, Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton, who are all MVP candidates. He also ranks 8th in the AL in WAR at 5.5, 13th overall in the bigs.

Jones has to be in consideration for MVP this year, especially given the Orioles success and that he is a Gold Glove outfielder. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) statistic, Jones is a top-flight defensive outfielder. UZR factors in a players range, arm and errors in his performance to recognize how many runs above average a player saves. Jones is fifth in this category among all outfielders, and ranks fourth when just looking at outfielders arms, trailed closely by Markakis.

Baltimore has their MVP-caliber centerpiece with Jones roaming the outfield, and will rely on him when the playoffs roll around.

Ace-Less, Yet Effective Staff

The major critique of the birds has been their lack of a go-to guy on the mound. While Chris Tillman has been their, “ace,” this year, it’s a little difficult to call to refer to him that way, given the nature of the title.

Tillman’s ERA and WHIP are good at 3.26 and 1.21, respectively, proving he’s a solid starter. However, his FIP is 4.11. Tillman is almost averaging a home run per nine innings, but the bigger issue is that he is walking about three batters and only striking out a little more than six every nine innings. Tillman has been a horse, and just passed the 200-inning mark for the second straight year, but the O’s will need more out him when he squares up against true aces, like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Felix Hernandez.

Miguel Gonzalez has been absolutely nasty since the start of July. He’s had a 2.22 ERA and an even more impressive 1.07 WHIP over 81 innings. In his first start of the month, Gonzalez tossed a shutout against the Reds, striking out eight and walking only one. His was only the second complete game-shutout this year for the club, with Tillman tossing the other one in May.

There’s something about Bud Norris that makes him seem like he’s ready for the playoffs. It might be because he was an Astro for so long, or maybe because he’s only let up runs in one of his four September starts. Over his last two starts, he’s thrown 12.1 innings, given up five hits and struck out 14. He did walk five Blue Jays in his last outing, but looking at his track record, it was just an off day. It’ll be interesting to see what Norris can do in the playoffs, something he hasn’t experienced in his six-year career.

Wei-Yin Chen has turned a corner this season and now has the best win-loss percentage in the AL and is tied for second overall, trailing only Clayton Kershaw. In his last seven starts, Chen has gone 4-0, with the team losing in two of his no decisions.

He only allowed four home runs in the seven-game time frame, which is a huge improvement for him this season. Over the span his HR/9 was 0.81, whereas the 22 games prior to, he had a 1.32 HR/9. That’s also kept his ERA down to an impressive 2.64. Chen is figuring his stuff out at the best time and needs to continue his progress in order to be a solid option for the staff.

From the looks of it, Jimenez will not be the mix of starters for the playoffs, with Kevin Gausman proving himself more reliable. Jimenez wasn’t a bad gamble to take on the season, but Buck Showalter and the organization are lucky that they did get the good Ubaldo on some days, even if it that only came once in a blue moon.

No Balfour, Subtract Johnson…Genius

Johnson as released by the A’s, and signed by the tigers to a minor league deal. He’s continued to struggle after getting called back up.

Balfour’s rage couldn’t stop him from having two games where he let up five runs. The Australian had an ERA over 3.00 for the first time since 2009, and should finish with an ERA over 5.00 since 2007.

Enter Zach Britton. After taking the reigns from Tommy Hunter, Britton has been a dynamite closer, converting 35 of his 39 opportunities. The lefty has a 1.72 ERA and 0.90 WHIP, while also only allowing four dingers in 73.1 innings of work. Britton has proven his great worth as the closer, and shown that not signing Johnson and Balfour was brilliant decisions for 2014.

All Hail Nelson Cruz

Flat out, Cruz has been an animal this year. His career high and MLB leading 39 long balls came as a nice surprise and have been his major contribution to the lineup, on top of his other career-high 105 RBI. His .269 batting average is acceptable - given he's a career .268 hitter - and his power numbers were better this year than his average. And even though his .365 wOBA is on the lower side of the top-25 hitters, it’s almost considered “great” on FanGraphs' scale.

On top of his numbers, Cruz has provided great protection for Jones and has a tough out for any pitcher this season.

How Far Will They Go?

Although they're seventh as a team nERD at 0.55, they have the fourth-best chance to win the World Series according to our algorithms. The Orioles have a rock-solid lineup from top to bottom; the starting pitching is the only concern. If Tillman can lead his staff against the aces of other clubs, which is looking to be the Tigers in the first round, then the Orioles will go deep in the playoffs. It’s hard to say that they’d win the World Series, especially the way the Los Angeles teams are playing, but they should win in the division series.