Friday, August 29, 2014

Flyover: Baltimore Orioles

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

The Baltimore Orioles are leading the American League East with a 75-56 record. Their six-game lead over the second-place Yankees is the largest in the league. They moved into a tie for first on July 3 and stayed there ever since. As was the case the last time they qualified for the postseason, their record has some lucky indicators--they lead the league in both extra-inning wins (12-5) and one-run wins (25-19), but they also have the fourth-best run differential in the league and the second best record against winning teams. 

How Are They Doing Lately? The Orioles' 17-10 record over the past 30 days gives them the second-most wins in the American League, behind the 21-7 Royals and tied with the 17-9 Mariners and 17-11 Angels. It's allowed them to expand their lead from 2.5 games a month ago to 6.0 today. They've done it with pitching (2.89 ERA, third best in the league), particularly the bullpen (an absurdly good 1.73 ERA, easily the best in the league) and an offense that's been good enough: sixth in runs scored, second in OPS, way more home runs (42) than anybody else (the Astros are second with 32). About the only thing they haven't had--not that they've needed it--is team speed, as they have no triples and just six stolen bases over the past month. The only dark cloud was the loss of third baseman Manny Machado to season-ending knee surgery. He last played on August 11. They're 8-6 in the games since.

What's Going RIght? The starting pitchers have been decent, with a 3.49 ERA over the past month. That's eighth in the league, but way ahead of the ninth-place Tigers at 4.17 and the league average of 3.90. The bullpen, as noted above, has been lights out. The Royals, Mariners, and Orioles haven't blown a save in the past month, and the Orioles relievers have allowed only three homers, tied with the Mariners for fewest in the league. While they've made fewer pitches in the strike zone (46.5%) than any other AL relief corps, they're third with swings induced on 34.7% of pitches outside the strike zone. The relievers have the league's fifth-highest strikeout rate and third-lowest walk rate over the past month. 

On offense, the story has been the power surge. Over the last 30 days, first baseman (and now, with Machado hurt, third baseman) Chris Davis has six homers, tied for fourth-most in the league, and the O's have three players with five (LF-DH Nelson Cruz, catcher Caleb Joseph, 1B-LF Steve Pearce) and four more with four (shortstop J.J. Hardy, CF Adam Jones, RF Nick Markakis, 2B Jonathan Schoop). There are a lot of unlikely sources there. Davis has batted .149 over the month with three singles, four doubles, and six homers. Joseph is a 28-year-old rookie catcher who's playing only because catcher Matt Wieters is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. Pearce has an interesting history: The O's bought him from the Yankees in June 2012, lost him to the Astros on waivers in July 2012, claimed him on waivers in September 2012, released him on April 27 this year, and then re-signed him two days later. Rookie second baseman Schoop has the lowest on base percentage in baseball (.251) among players with 390 or more plate appearances. The team's second-best .433 slugging percentage has outweighed a league-worst .297 on-base percentage.

What's Going Wrong? Obviously, if some of those fly balls stop clearing the fence--the O's have had nearly 15% of their fly balls land in the stands over the past month compared to the league average of 9% and the team's season-long average of less than 11%--that lousy on-base percentage is going to be a problem. They have a middle-of-the-pack .247 batting average but they've walked in just 5.7% of their plate appearances over the past month, well below every team in the league but the White Sox and Royals.

While It's hard to knock the performance of the relievers, the starters gotten batters to swing at only 28% of pitchers outside the strike zone, perhaps indicating that the starters aren't fooling opposing batters. Both the starters (.272) and the relievers (.228!) are sporting batting averages on balls in play well below the league averages of .296 and .286, respectively. Gaps that wide are hard to preserve. 

Who's Hot? The relievers are all hot. In particular, over the past 30 days, Darren O'Day, Brad Brach, and Andrew Miller have combined for a 0.25 ERA, 44 strikeouts, and 24 baserunners in 35 innings. That's allowed closer Zach Britton to go 9-for-9 in saves, even though his 3.27 ERA is the worst over the past month for Orioles relievers with more than one inning pitched. The standout starter has been Chris Tillman (4-0, 1.26 ERA), helped by a .174 batting average on balls in play. 

Among batters with more than 60 plate appearances in the past month, Hardy, Pearce, and Joseph hold the top three positions among Orioles batters in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. I listed all the Orioles hitters with four or more homers over the 30 days above; all but leadoff hitter Markakis has at least 10 RBI, and all but bottom-of-the-order Schoop and Joseph have scored at least 10 runs. 

Who's Not? Ubaldo Jimenez has pitched himself out of the rotation for now after compiling an 8.36 ERA over his last three starts. The club's two biggest sluggers, Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis, have been pretty bad. Davis is batting .149, worst in the league over the past 30 days, has a second-worst .219 on base percentage, and has stuck out in 36.5% of his plate appearances of late, the most among American League hitters. Cruz is batting .200 with a .248 on base percentage, sixth worst in the league. On July 7, Cruz went 3-for-5 with a homer, capping a three-game streak in which he went 11-for-16 with two homers and five runs batted in, raising his batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage to 2.94/.359/.591. Since then, he's hitting .173/.247/.333. And as noted above, outside of the homers, Schoop's bat has been bad.

What's the Outlook? It's a virtual certainty that Baltimore's bullpen won't remain this good nor that its hitters won't continue their torrid home run pace. But it's also unlikely that Davis and Cruz will stay this bad, and there's little to make you think the starting pitchers can't remain solid, particularly with Jimenez now in the bullpen to work out his problems. The Orioles have built up enough of a lead that they're favorites to win the division even if the relievers' ERA and the hitters' percentage of fly balls becoming home runs return to earth. Whether they'll go deep into the postseason is another story. They seem to be the best team in what has surprisingly become a weak division.

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