You can be forgiven if, as a fan of another team, you are captivated by the Baltimore Orioles' hot start and you start believing in their playoff chances. If you are a fan of the Orioles, you have no such excuse.
That's the first place to start when analyzing the first-place Orioles: They've done this before. The Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997, but over the last 14 years they've lured fans in with one false spring after another. As you'll see, over the last decade the Orioles have been a bigger tease than Danica Patrick's GoDaddy ads.
Last year, the Orioles won six of their first eight games, and as late as June 10 were a respectable 30-31. They finished 69-93.
In 2009, the Orioles began 6-2 on the way to a 64-98 season.
In 2008, the Orioles started 6-1 and played .500 ball for the next three months — they were 45-41 after winning on the 4th of July, moving into 3rd place in the crucible that is the AL East. Six weeks later they were still 62-65. The Orioles then lost 28 of their last 33 games to finish 68-93. It wasn't their worst finish of the decade.
In 2007, the Orioles opened with an 11-7 record before falling into a slow slide back under .500. On August 21, they beat the Rangers to improve their record to 58-65. The next day, the Orioles trailed 5-3 after five innings in the first game of a doubleheader — and then gave up 25 (!) runs in the last four innings, losing 30-3 and earning the ignominious record of having surrendered the most runs in a single game in American League history.1 That loss began a nine-game losing streak and an 11-28 finish to a 69-93 season.
The 2006 Orioles started 11-7 before finishing 70-92.
The 2005 Orioles won 17 of their first 24 games, and on the morning of May 27 they were 30-16 and leading the AL East by 4.5 games. They were 42-28 on June 22 and still led the division by two games. They were knocked out of first place three days later, and eventually lost 60 of their last 92 games to finish 74-88.
In 2004, the Orioles started 10-5 and briefly held first place in mid-April. They were 24-23 on June 1, the last day they'd be over .500. They finished 78-84.
In 2003, the Orioles started 16-13. They were 28-27 on June 3, the last day they'd be over .500. They finished 71-91.
In 2002, the Orioles hung around .500 for most of the season; on August 24 they were 63-63. They then proceeded to lose 32 of their last 36 games — one of the worst finishes in major league history — for a final record of 67-95.
In 2001, the Orioles managed to stay at .500 through May 28, when they were 24-24. They finished 63-98.
In 2000, the Orioles started 11-5. They finished 74-88.
The Orioles have had a losing record every year this century — and yet incredibly, they have played .500 or better baseball for an extended period of time to open every single season except one. Only in 2010, when they lost 16 of their first 18 games, did the Orioles play true to form from Opening Day.
Another way of looking at this is simply to list the Orioles' record by month, from 2000 to 2011:2
April: 146-149 (.495)
May: 148-180 (.451)
June: 133-187 (.416)
July: 127-187 (.404)
August: 145-197 (.424)
September: 134-209 (.391)
With the exception of a dead-cat bounce in August, the Orioles have consistently played worse with every successive month. If the season extended through December they'd be giving wins back.
Maybe it was false hope, but for a team that has lost more than 90 games in nine of the last 12 years, the Orioles have certainly provided their fans with several glimmers of hope.
And now they're doing it again.
It's easy to dismiss what the Orioles have done this year by pointing out that they've done this almost every year. Six good weeks of baseball can't change the facts on the ground: that they play in the AL East, at a time when the AL East is the most competitive division in the history of baseball, if not all sports. That they have lost 92 or more games for six straight years, and no other team in baseball can make that claim. That owner Peter Angelos is considered such a negative force to work for — he meddles more than the Scooby-Doo gang — that when the Orioles' general manager job opened this winter, multiple candidates refused to interview for the position. The Orioles were forced to go so far down their list that they wound up with Dan Duquette, who hadn't worked in organized baseball since the Red Sox fired him in 2002, and who was last seen presiding over the Israel Baseball League in its single year of existence.
But when you look at how this year's Orioles are winning, their record is surprisingly robust. Their 22-14 record is not the result of a cushy early-season schedule — they're 12-7 against their AL East brethren, and they've played teams with winning records in 23 of their 36 games. This isn't a case of getting to play the Twins or Royals every week.
The Orioles have benefited from a little luck in close ballgames, but only a little: They are 5-3 in one-run affairs. For the season, they've outscored their opponents by 12 runs, a differential that suggests they should be 19-17, rather than 22-14. They're playing over their heads, but that's true of most teams playing .611 baseball after six weeks. They're not the Rangers; they don't have to be.
A generation ago, the Orioles were one of the game's model franchises under Earl Weaver and his mantra of Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers. The 2012 Orioles have reached into the past with their sartorial choices — the ornithologically inaccurate cartoon bird, last seen in 1989, was restored to the team's baseball caps this season — but when it comes to their formula for success, this year's mantra is more like Relief Pitching, More Relief Pitching, and Solo Home Runs.
Nothing stands out in the performance of this year's Orioles more than their bullpen, and nothing points to this season being a fluke more than their bullpen. Consider that Luis Ayala — who blew out his elbow in 2006, had a 4.25 ERA from 2007 to 2011, and spent all of 2010 in the minors — has a 1.86 ERA in 19 innings.
Then consider that Ayala's ERA is the fifth-best among the Orioles' relievers.
Let's meet the other guys:
Matt Lindstrom (1.29 ERA in 14 innings) throws very hard, and when it comes to an off-speed pitch, the best thing that can be said is that he throws very hard. Coming into the season, he had a career 3.81 ERA; the Orioles got him as a throw-in when they traded starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies this winter.
Darren O'Day (1.56 ERA in 17 innings) wasn't even drafted out of college, because teams tend to be suspicious of guys with funny deliveries and guys who don't throw hard, and O'Day — a sidearmer who tops out at 86 — qualifies on both counts. He was in the majors within two years, but was quickly dumped by both the Angels and Mets. For the Rangers, he had 1.94 and 2.03 ERAs in back-to-back years, but then he struggled with injuries for most of 2011 and the Orioles were able to claim him off waivers after the season.
Pedro Strop (1.35 ERA in 20 innings) is a converted infielder who throws very hard, and until this year he had about as much of an idea where the ball was going when it left his hand as you or I did. The Orioles acquired him from Texas last August for one month of left-handed specialist Mike Gonzalez.
And finally, closer Jim Johnson (0.57 ERA in 16 innings) has served as the Orioles' primary setup man the last four seasons, but he was rarely considered "closer material" because he's a sinkerball pitcher who doesn't miss a ton of bats. Johnson has been perfect in his 11 save opportunities this season.
Add these five pitchers together, and you get a super-reliever with 86 innings, just 55 hits and five home runs allowed, 75 strikeouts, 25 walks, a 1.36 ERA, a 7-2 record, 14 saves, and approximately zero hype. It's a fantastic performance from a collection of unheralded arms, and the Orioles deserve credit for crafting such an effective pen from a bunch of spare parts. But let's be frank: These guys were spare parts for a reason. O'Day and Johnson have a consistent track record for being above-average, albeit not elite, relievers; the other three do not.
The Orioles' bullpen has a 2.28 ERA, second in the majors only to the Rangers, who are so stocked with arms that they could dump O'Day and Strop without even noticing. This can only mean one thing — the regression check is coming due, and soon. Especially since, thanks to a plethora of extra-inning games — six so far, including a 13-inning affair and a 17-inning game in which first baseman Chris Davis earned the win — the Orioles' pen has thrown the second-most innings in baseball.
The other main ingredient to Baltimore's success has been their power. The Orioles lead the majors with 57 home runs in 36 games. As impressive as that achievement is, it's mitigated by the fact that it's the only thing their offense is good at. Weaver preached "three-run homers" to emphasize the fact that home runs are more valuable when there are men on base, but this year the Orioles rank just 10th in the AL in walks and ninth in on-base percentage.
And unlike their bullpen, the Orioles' reliance on power looks like something they can count on all season long. It helps that their two superstars of the future, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, are both playing like superstars of the present.
Jones hit .270/.311/.400 as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008. The next year he hit .277/.335/.457 with 19 homers, made his first All-Star team, and won a Gold Glove in center field. But he improved at a glacial pace in 2010 and 2011, plagued by poor discipline at the plate (a strikeout-to-walk ratio of greater than 4). But youth is a hitter's greatest ally, and at 26, Jones is having his long-awaited breakout, batting .295/.340/.568 and leading the club with 10 home runs.
While Jones was considered a promising young ballplayer as a rookie, Wieters was expected to win an MVP, unlock the secrets of controlled fusion, and defeat Chuck Norris — while he was still in the Eastern League. The hype was such that, when he was merely an average catcher in his first two seasons, some actually ranked him among the most disappointing prospects of all time.
Not so much. Last season, Wieters hit .262/.328/.450 with 22 homers, made the All-Star team, and won a Gold Glove — deservedly. This year, Wieters is hitting .275/.360/.542 while playing stellar defense, and he's beginning to stake his claim as the best all-around catcher in the game.
It's been a basic sabermetric principle for more than 30 years — since Bill James wrote about the topic in one of his early Abstracts — that position players peak at age 27 more than at any other age. But while 27 is the most common age to have a career year, 26 is arguably the most common age for an established but not-yet-elite hitter to have a breakout season that establishes him as a bona fide star. Jones is 26, Wieters turns 26 next week, and it seems their time has come.
The Orioles have assembled a nice supporting cast around Wieters and Jones. Right fielder Nick Markakis is a reminder that some hitters peak a lot earlier than 27 — after hitting .306/.406/.491 as a 24-year-old in 2008, Markakis appeared to be one of the most valuable commodities in baseball. He's never come close to that performance since, but he's settled in as a durable, slightly above-average right fielder, currently hitting .252/.342/.446.
Baltimore stole shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Twins after the 2010 season for a pair of non-prospects — there's a reason why the Twins are the worst team in baseball — and Hardy tied Troy Tulowitzki for the most home runs (30) hit by a shortstop last season. Hardy has already clocked nine homers this year; no other shortstop in the majors has hit more than five. He's only hitting .245 and doesn't walk much, but you'll forgive those flaws in a shortstop who's slugging .483.
At second base is the surprising Robert Andino, who is best known for hitting the walk-off single against Jonathan Papelbon that ended the Red Sox's season last year. He's hitting .285/.333/.407 as an encore in 2012. And the Orioles' new first baseman is Chris Davis, he of titanic power and equally titanic holes in his swing. As a 22-year-old rookie for the Rangers in 2008, Davis hit 17 home runs in just 80 games. The following season, he struck out 150 times in just 113 games, which is why he spent most of 2010 and 2011 in the minors.
But he still raked — last season in Triple-A, he hit 24 homers in 48 games and slugged .824 — and the Orioles managed to pry both Davis and starter Tommy Hunter from the Rangers at last year's trade deadline for middle reliever extraordinare Koji Uehara. Davis is hitting .274/.317/.462, and he also has a nasty sinker, as Adrian Gonzalez can attest.
If there's one take-home lesson from the Orioles' success this year, it's this: When in doubt, find the most talent-laden team in the sport and start begging for its table scraps like a street urchin in Les Misérables. Three key members of Baltimore's resurgence — Davis, Strop, and O'Day (along with Hunter, who has a 5.14 ERA, but at least he's given the Orioles innings in the rotation) — were acquired from Texas in the second half of 2011, either on waivers or for expendable middle relief. It's a testament to how rich with talent the Rangers are that their trash is another team's treasure, but that's another column.
The Orioles have struggled to fill the void in left field after incumbent Nolan Reimold — who hit .313 with five homers in April — landed on the DL with a bulging disk in his neck, but Reimold is expected back in the next few weeks. The Orioles really have only two holes in their lineup, at third base — Mark Reynolds's record-breaking strikeout tendencies3 may be catching up to him, and his defense has always been wretched — and at designated hitter. Baltimore gave the job to Nick Johnson, whose ability to get on base (a career .399 OBP) is exceeded only by his inability to stay healthy. Johnson missed all of 2011 and played only 24 games in 2010; at 33 years old and having barely played in three years, it's possible he simply has nothing left, and Johnson is hitting .167/.286/.354 so far. (He's also played in just 16 games, natch.)
The Orioles may be able to fill one of their holes with Wilson Betemit, whom they signed to a cheap two-year deal this offseason when there was a curious lack of interest in a player who hit .290/.359/.479 between 2010 and 2011 combined. Betemit is a weak defender at third base, but he's hitting .236/.296/.449 in a utility role so far. Between Betemit, Reynolds, and Johnson, the Orioles can probably fake one of the two positions, but trading for one pure hitter would extend their lineup considerably, and it's probably the most aggressive move Duquette should make this early in the season.
The Orioles' rotation is hardly a strength, but a pair of additions has kept it from being a huge weakness. Jason Hammel, who came over in the Guthrie trade, has a 2.68 ERA in seven starts and has allowed barely a base runner per inning. But the real prize is Wei-Yin Chen, a free agent who was almost completely unheralded — unless you read Keith Law's evaluation on ESPN Insider — because he hailed from Taiwan. Chen signed a three-year, $11 million contract with Baltimore this winter, which looks like Grand Theft Starting Pitcher right now — he has a 2.43 ERA and solid peripherals. The Orioles got 70 percent of Yu Darvish's talent for about 5 percent of the cost.
Duquette has a long history of being enticed by players on the Pacific Rim, going back to his Red Sox days. While this can get him in trouble — the Orioles are personae non gratae in South Korea right now after they breached protocol and tried to sign a prospect who was still in high school — the decision to go after Chen aggressively is Duquette's greatest contribution to the team so far.
Presiding over this collection of talent is manager Buck Showalter, who has had a reputation for being a detail-oriented perfectionist since the Yankees hired him — at the ripe age of 36 — 20 years ago. The knock on Showalter has always been that while he prepares his teams as well as any manager in the game, his hyper-focused nature can be smothering, and his teams only reach their full potential after he leaves. (The Yankees and Diamondbacks both won the World Series the year after they fired him.) But the job he has done with the Orioles may be his best yet. When he was hired late in the 2010 season, the Orioles were 32-73; they went 34-23 under Showalter, and 2010 is the only season this century in which the Orioles played better at the end of the season than at the beginning. In a season and a half at the helm of the Orioles, Showalter is 125-130. With all the obstacles facing the team when he was hired, a near-.500 record is almost miraculous.
It's way too early to even suggest that the Orioles have a realistic shot of staying in the race all season long. There's too much history to overcome here, and the Orioles still have to prove they can beat teams when their bullpen isn't doing a collective Mariano Rivera impression. Just last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates held on to first place into late July, inspiring columns like this one asking whether they could pull off the impossible.
Well, they couldn't. On July 26, with the Pirates 53-47 and tied for first place, they lost to the Braves in a 19-inning game that ended when umpire Jerry Meals made a call at home plate that was worthy of Enrico Palazzo. In retrospect, Meals might have simply been pronouncing the Pirates' season: Pittsburgh lost 12 of their next 13 and finished 19-43, the worst finish in history by a team that was in first place after 100 games.
So yeah, it's too early. Every thread of history is pulling the Orioles down from their perch in first place.
But while history tells us to be skeptical, the Orioles' talent gives us pause. A team with two burgeoning stars surrounded by a lot of complementary talent, with a strong bullpen but held back by a subpar rotation — that doesn't sound like a playoff team, but it does sound like a .500 team that could give the AL East titans fits. The Orioles' chances of staying in the hunt depend as much on their rivals as on themselves, so it helps that the Red Sox are in complete disarray and the Yankees' no. 3 starter was enjoying retirement with his family three months ago.
The Orioles have two wild cards deep up their sleeve, and I hesitate to bring them up and be accused of giving Baltimore fans false hope. Thanks to their chronic losing, the Orioles selected Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy with top-four picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts, and both rank among the top 10, if not top five, prospects in all of baseball. Both are still 19 years old, and both have a chance to be the rare teenager who can actually contribute at the major league level. Machado, a shortstop whom most expect to move to third base, is hitting .262/.364/.418, a remarkable performance for a player so young at the Double-A level. Bundy, who was considered the most polished high school pitcher to come out of the draft in years, is in low-A ball because apparently the Orioles want to create the most ridiculous stat line of all time. In 25 innings so far, Bundy has allowed four hits and two walks. He has struck out 36 of the 82 batters he has faced. His ERA is 0.00. There are scouts who think he could pitch in the major leagues by September.
Given that the Orioles' primary needs appear to be a third baseman and a starting pitcher, it's worth mentioning that they just might have solutions in-house. Yes, it's crazy to suggest that a pair of 19-year-olds might be the missing ingredients for a playoff run. But it's no more crazy than suggesting that it's the Baltimore Orioles who could make that playoff run.