If you told me in March that the Red Sox would be bringing up the rear in the AL East, the Yankees would be having a Weight-Watchers-esque struggle with .500, and that Baltimore would be leading the division on Memorial Day Saturday, I’d have thought “Well, anything can happen in the first couple months…except that.”
I’m not surprised that the Yankees and Red Sox are doing poorly. They’re old and getting older. Neither made any significant improvements in the off-season. In fact, quite the opposite. The Yankees dealt away a future middle-of-the-order bat in Jesus Montero for a young pitcher with a year of success under his belt. That might sound like a win trade for New York, but the truth is good young pitchers are commonplace and players who project as middle-of-the-order bats are not. Seattle could trade Pineda because of such an abundance in their system–Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton.
The Red Sox, after last year’s chicken grease meltdown spent the offseason adding guys like Cody Ross and Mike Aviles. Fine if you’re the Pirates and are just fielding a team now until you’re ready to win in a couple years, but not so much if you’re dealing with the kind of entitlement-ridden fans who feel that the postseason is their birthright despite only one division title since the first Clinton term. This is a team that has stuck itself with Fan Favorites and too many expensive veterans, to the point where they now have to manipulate the lineup to give their second-best hitter (Will Middlebrooks) at bats.
I am surprised that the Orioles are in first, though. Very surprised. In the first iteration of this blog (RIP) I wrote a bit called “The Most Hated Team In Sports.” I argued then, as I’d argue today, that the amount of ire and bile people have for the Yankees should be directed at the Baltimore Orioles. If there’s a franchise in baseball worth people universally despising, my vote is for the Orioles.
The Orioles in the early to mid 1990s had it all. Success on the field, success at the gate, the first of the brand new ballparks providing an infusion of revenue that other non-enormous-market clubs were having trouble matching, and a very high payroll. They squandered it all. They drafted poorly, and when they did draft well they developed the player poorly, especially pitchers. Brian Matusz and Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta have not come close to their ceilings. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters took a long time to begin producing at a non-frustrating level in MLB and it’s still uncertain if they will maintain their short-term success. A lot of people will out-of-hand semi-dismiss the success the Tampa Bay Rays have had in the past four seasons, citing the number of very high draft picks the Rays had in the recent past. The Rays have certainly had some high picks, but their draft-order fortune has not been that much better than Baltimore’s.
2006: Orioles take Billy Rowell #9. Players taken after the Orioles pick, in order: Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Kasey Kiker, Tyler Colvin, Travis Snider.
2007: Orioles take Matt Weiters #5. Players taken among the next 10 picks after Weiters: Madison Bumgarner, Jason Heyward. Heyward has more WAR than Weiters in 100 fewer games. Bumgarner is closing in on Weiters because, well, Madison Bumgarner is awesome and Matt Weiters is….something. Either the guy who is hitting well now or the guy who didn’t hit well for his first 2 seasons. We’ll see.
2008: Orioles take Brian Matusz #4. Buster Posey went next. Buster Posey has produced 9 times the WAR Brian Matusz has despite missing almost a whole year with a broken leg.
2009: Orioles take Matthew Hobgood #5. Then the Giants took Zach Wheeler. Then the Braves got Mike Minor. Next the Reds got Mike Leake. Then the Tigers took Jacob Turner, and the Nationals got Drew Storen, then the Rockies blew their pick on Tyler Matzek and after a few more picks Shelby Miller and Mike Trout went off the board.
In 2010 the Orioles took Machado third, and then in 2011 they grabbed Dylan Bundy fourth. These are two of the most-hyped prospects in baseball, especially Bundy. But if you asked me today to bet on whether Bundy is better than Archie Bradley or Bubba Starling or Francisco Lindor long-term, I’d take not-Bundy. Ditto Machado against Christian Colon or Drew Pomeranz.
In those instances, I wouldn’t be betting against the player, I’d be betting against the Orioles development team, who have yet to take a high draft pick and turn him into a meets- or exceeds-expectations star at the MLB level. It’s not that Tampa had better draft position than Baltimore. It’s that Tampa drafted kids who exceeded expectations while Baltimore’s universally failed to simply meet them.
While their young guys were underperforming the Orioles were wasting money on decidedly non-impact players like Kevin Millwood ($12 million to pitch at replacement level in 2010, a year the Orioles had no hopes of even being .500). Aubrey Huff as an Oriole was paid $4 million in 2007 to take Baltimore from 69 wins to 69 wins; $8 million in 2009 to take Baltimore from 64 wins to 68 wins; $8 million in 2009 to take Baltimore from 65 to 64 wins. Neutral one year, worse one year, a meaningless increase another. A squandering of twenty million dollars.
So I suppose a big part of me wants to dismiss the Orioles as a team that is sure to fade away because I think they’re a horrible organization that lost it’s way sometime well over a decade ago. A franchise that is on the mend and getting a little better with a new manager and a newer GM, but still is not there yet. Beyond my anti-Orioles bias, though, there’s plenty to back up the case that they will fade.
Baltimore is outperforming its Pythagorean W-L: The Orioles stand at 29-18, but their Pythagorean W-L is only 25-22. That hints at four wins of luck that should regress. Baltimore has a dynamite bullpen, led by Jim Johnson, which helps them win close games and outperform their Pythag, but four wins in only 47 games is as much or more luck than a solid relief corps.
They don’t draw walks: Only 8 teams in MLB have lower walk rates than Baltimore’s 7.9%. Half of them are NL teams, for whom pitchers hit. The teams who walk less are a combined 15 games under .500, and those 8 teams include three teams who are in last place in their division and one team that is only not in last place (Kansas City) because Minnesota is busy trying to overtake Baltimore for the title of Quickest Descent From Really Good To Awful.
They do strike out: At 21.5%, only four teams strike out more often than Baltimore hitters. This isn’t a team that generates a lot of BABIP luck, at only .284 on the year. If you’re going to be that team that doesn’t test the defense very often because you do strike out a lot, you really don’t want to hang your hopes on a crop of players who can’t generate good BABIP fortune a la Young Jeter or Young Ichiro or Mike Trout via speed.
In the field and on the mound, they are not good: The Orioles are 3rd in baseball in ERA minus FIP at -0.48, showing a good deal of luck. Their pitchers are toward the bottom in strikeout percentage at 18.6%, but stingy with the walks, allowing a 7th-best 7.5%. The pitching staff is average in generating ground balls, and their defense rates just into the negative on the whole per UZR, and just barely better than zero per DRS. Or, there is nothing spectacular about Baltimore’s pitching or defense. That shows in their Runs Allowed, with only 10 teams (only 2 of those 10 are above .500) allowing more runs than Baltimore. A team whose pitchers are showing a too-low ERA, and whose defense is about neutral efficiency-wise, is due for regression.
Baltimore’s a lot better than I thought they would be. Credit where it’s due, Adam Jones is playing great, Weiters looks very good, Jason Hammel has made some adjustments to his arsenal and his early results look very real. But are they the best team in baseball’s toughest division? I tend to strongly doubt it. Check back with me in October, when frankly, I’ll be surprised if they have finished the year above .500.