What Can We Learn About the Baltimore Orioles From Their Hot Start?
In a moment of talk radio hilarity, a caller asked New York sports personality Mike Francesa if a Major League Baseball could ever go 162-0.
The premise is ridiculous, but the ensuing conversation was golden.
This season, the Baltimore Orioles were Nick from New Jersey’s last hope to reach his lofty goal, but after starting the season 7-0, they fell to the Red Sox on Wednesday.
Obviously, the concept of a baseball going undefeated is absurd, as is the idea we should put much stock into an eight-game sample.
Despite their strong start, Baltimore remains the American League East's most unlikely champion according to our playoff odds, which give the Orioles just an 8.1% chance to win the division and a 21.1% chance to make the playoffs.
Still, games in April count just as much as those in August and September, and Baltimore does have seven wins banked. How did they do it, and is there anything we can learn about them from their first week of play?
Sequencing and Ball-In-Play Luck
On both offense and defense, the Orioles have most of the trappings of a sample-size fluke. Baltimore’s hitters are running a .335 BABIP, while their pitchers are tied for the fifth-highest strand rate in the big leagues (77.9%) and the fourth-largest gap between their overall Win Probability Added and Context Neutral WPA, per FanGraphs.
They have also allowed the 11th-lowest home run per fly ball rate, which is probably unsustainable and has helped suppress their staff’s FIP (3.27, 7th in MLB).
The Orioles do boast the Majors’ fourth-highest run differential, but much of this can be chalked up to the high strand rate and BABIP.
From one situation to the other, their strikeout rate minus walk K-BB% rate actually declines from 20.1% to 13.8%. The improved results are actually just the product of BABIP, which is .377 with the bases empty but just .207 with men on.
Baltimore is currently sixth in the Majors in runs allowed per game (3.3), but these underlying numbers reinforce what you probably assumed anyway: this will not continue.
Offensively, the Orioles have mashed regardless of the situation, running a .382 wOBA with the bases empty and a .360 wOBA with men one. Again, regression is coming, especially in light of the elevated BABIP.
BABIP is actually the biggest factor separating the 2015 Orioles offense from this year’s squad. Last season, Baltimore’s non-pitchers tied for 19th in MLB in wRC+ (96), despite the fourth-highest Isolated Power Rate (ISO). They were sunk thanks to their .291 BABIP (26th), 7.0% walk rate (25th) and 22.1% strikeout rate (28th).
This season, Baltimore’s non-pitchers are third in terms of ISO, but also tied for 12th in terms of walk rate and 19th in strikeout rate.
ISO, walk rate and strikeout rate tend to stabilize before other stats, so while it is still too early to say, perhaps the Baltimore hitters have made some real improvements in terms of the latter two areas. Still, unless a third of the balls they put into play keep falling for hits (don’t count on it), this offense will presumably fall back towards the middle of the pack.
Pitching That Hasn’t Stunk
Though, as mentioned, much of Baltimore’s early run prevention can be chalked to fortuitous sequencing, they have actually gotten some good pitching performances.
The Orioles are 9th in xFIP- (91) and have the seventh-best K-BB rate (17.5%) in the Majors, implying this success goes beyond sequencing, BABIP and HR/FB variation.
Baltimore’s starting rotation was below average last year, finishing 18th in fWAR with a 110 ERA- and 105 xFIP-.
Last year’s team WAR leader Wei-Yin Chen is now in Miami, but Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished second on the team with 2.7 fWAR, has gotten off to a strong start this year. Jimenez owns a 19.6% K-BB rate and a 65 xFIP-, and his ERA (3.75) would be lower if not for a .406 BABIP.
After posting an ERA of nearly 5.00 last year, Chris Tillman has been the Orioles’ best hurler through two starts this year, thanks to a staggering 32.0% K-BB% rate and a 56 xFIP- (unlike Jimenez, he also has a 1.26 ERA to show for it).
Again, it’s way too early to make much of this, but the solid strikeout and walk rates have a much better chance of being “real” than the strand and BABIP rates.
At this point, an Orioles' division title seems unlikely, but it is sports, and anything can happen.
Just ask Nick from New Jersey.