Redemption at the End of the World
I am not a conspiracy theorist. There are no secret organizations controlling the world, Oswald killed Kennedy, 9/11 was NOT an inside job and the Freemasons are little more than a group of middle-aged guys drinking beer in a fancy basement. The world is random, and humans don’t handle random well. We don’t its a fact. In his book Freakonomics economist Stephen Levitt talks about the Kansas City Royals. the Royals were in the middle of a 19-game losing streak and he decided to explain how, mathematically, these things happen because of the random nature of sports.
His experiment – Try to imagine 100 coin flips, you might try to make it as random as possible, but you can’t make it truly random because our brains are trained to look for patterns in the world. If you do it in real life you will most likely find long strings of heads, or tails, longer than you would think. Do that 100 times and you will see that every so often there are very long strings. Levitt used this to explain that long strings of losses like the ones the Royals went through in 2002 happens about once a decade through the sheer math of it.
The Orioles have had 14 straight losing seasons. Math would seem to dictate that they would eventually have broken that soon enough. Something would go right, the freaky nature of baseball would eventually break for them. It hasn’t happened. In 2005 everyone thought that it had finally come. Even after the playoff hopes went away the team was at .500 in August at least we would have broken that streak. Of course, it didn’t work out like that. Bad offense, pitching and a host of injuries and off-the-field issues sabotaged the Orioles in 2005. The collapse was so epic that the Orioles are still feeling the after-effects.
Now we are in the middle of a 2012 season that has exceeded all expectations and the collective brain of Orioles fans is trying to find reason behind it, and because brains look for patterns a lot of people are trying to find why the inevitable collapse will come – I’m here to tell you why it won’t.Let’s go through all the reasons for the on-coming apocalypse and refute them one by one.
Reason 1 – The Orioles are winning a bunch of one-run games and extra-inning games. The Orioles will revert to the mean.
Yes the Orioles are 11-5 in one-run games and 9-2 in extra-inning games. These are facts that many people point to as evidence of the on-coming apocalypse. They say that the Orioles will “revert to the mean” but I don’t think they know what that means. Referring back to the coinflip experiment; an average team has roughly a 50/50 chance of winning these close games and so far the Orioles have beaten that perceived average – so even if the Orioles did “revert to the mean” that means the Orioles would go roughly .500 in these games for the rest of the year. Reverting to the mean does not mean that the Orioles will suddenly start losing a bunch of these games and return their overall record to .500.
The fact that the Orioles have won a bunch of these games already has no bearing on how well they will do in these situations in the future. Essentially they are playing with house money. Moreover, the Orioles are still over .500 in regular old nine-inning games and it is how they will do in those games that has a far greater bearing on the immediate future on this team.Bottom line is this shouldn’t be a real worry going forward. The fact that the Orioles are playing in so many close games is a very good thing that shows how competitive this team has been with one of the harder schedules in baseball.
Reason 2 – The team is still not getting on base enough.
The Orioles currently have one of the lowest team OBPs in the league, this is true and it is disturbing but let’s break that down a little more. The biggest culprits for the team’s current low OBP are Robert Andino (.293), JJ Hardy (.289), Wilson Betemit (.309), Endy Chavez (.193) and Nick Johnson (.304). With Brian Roberts coming back the Orioles should see Andino’s OBP replaced by a guy who should be near his career average of .352. But let’s say he fails to make it back that far and replace Andino with a league average OBP .320. Nick Markakis should be coming back soon meaning that Betemit will be getting less time in the field. Endy Chavez is currently on the DL and when he comes back he will definitely be seeing less playing time. The only “key” piece to the offense that is currently struggling badly is Hardy. Hardy is in the middle of a bad slump so far this June. He had a slow April, but bounced back to his normal “Hardy-ness” in May but has been slumping badly over the last two weeks.
Meanwhile Wieters, Davis, Jones and Markakis have all been getting on base at an above league average clip. As players come back from injury it stands to reckon that the Orioles on OBP should improve over time. Mark reynolds’ will be getting more playing time and his solid OBP will help out a lot as well.
Bottom line, look for the Orioles to improve in this regard as the summer goes forward.
Reason 3 – The bullpen is too good, and will begin to struggle.
Again with this reverting to the mean stuff. There are two things to consider when it comes to the pen; One, the innings pitched and two, the immense success so far. First the innings. Yes it is true that the Orioles pen has pitched the third most innings in the American League at 222 innings. But that is not as much a function of the starters, which are going an average of six innings a game, as it is the three (plus) extra games the Orioles have played due to extra innings. That is something that is likely to correct itself going forward, especially if the team continues to get solid performances from the starting rotation like it has the last week or so.
Moreover Buck Showalter has done a very good job rotating the bullpen and making sure that players get rest. Yes some of the IP are higher than normal, but again that is not so much a function of over-use as it has been the necessity of the extra inning games.
On the second point, why should the pen suddenly begin to struggle? Take a look at the “big four” O’Day, Strop, Ayala and Johnson. Strop and O’Day seem to be having break out seasons but a cursory look at their career stats show that this level of production is not out of the ordinary for them. Anyone who has watched Jim Johnson long enough has seen this type of year coming for a while with him. The only pitcher of that four that is significantly beating career averages is Luis Ayala. Ayala is a guy that looks primed to come back to the pack bit, but I don’t see him completely falling off the table. His 162 game average for IP is 71, Ayala currently has pitched 31 innings this year so he is still on his career pace for IP. In fact all of those pitchers are right around their 162 game average paces for innings pitched so far thie year. Some are a little higher, some a little lower. But Showalter has done a good job in spreading the responsibility around this year keeping everyone fresh.
Reason 4 – This is not a 95 win team.
Well, no, of course not. But what is making this year unique is that a team doesn’t need to win 95 games to compete in this division. The Red Sox are a complete disaster. The Blue Jays have been completely decimated by injuries, and they were under-performing from the beginning of the season. The Rays’ offense is lackluster and it looks like Evan Longoria will miss even more time. That leaves the Yankees and Orioles. The Orioles’ position right now is a direct function of the rest of the AL struggling so far this year. The Yankees are going through their annual “win every game” run but the fact that the Orioles have stayed only 2.5 games back of the surging New Yorkers is a testament to how well this team has been playing.
I said at the beginning of the year that the AL East was going to be a very bunched division this year. The last year a team won the AL East with less than 95 wins was in 2000 the Yankees won it with 87 wins. In that year the top three teams were separated by only four games. That is what I see happening this year as no AL East team is flawless. In 2005 the Red Sox and Yankees each won 95 games, that isn’t happening this year. The Yankees, Sox and Rays have come back to the pack and the Orioles and Jays have stepped up their respective games. What you get when that happens is a much closer division with greater parity than we have seen in awhile.
One more reason we need to forget about 2005 and just love this team:
Comparing the lineups; In 2005 there was only ONE starting lineup player that was under the age of 27 and and half the lineup was over 34. Today there is only one member of the Orioles’ starting nine over the age of 33. This team’s youth should allow the unit to maintain better in the second half.
Moreover, the Orioles 2012 lineup is not doing anything that is remarkably unsustainable. The 2012 team through the first two months of the season has posted a .731 and .763 OPS whereas in 2005 the Orioles offense was riding the wave of a completely unsustainable offense through the first two months of the season. The 2012 O’s has just been playing solid, good baseball and it is showing in the standings.
Now, what COULD derail this team?
The starting pitching. Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have stepped up as the anchors of this staff. The Orioles are 12 games over .500 in games they have pitched, but one game under in all other games. One of the remaining three pitchers in Matusz, Arrieta and Hunter needs to step up and anchor that third rotation spot. The Orioles can get by being at or around .500 from their fourth and fifth rotation spot but this season could get short circuited if they fail to get better than .500 production out of the middle of their rotation. The last two starts from Arrieta and Matusz have been encouraging but both of those pitchers need to find a way to be more reliable.
Hunter seems to be destined for the pen. but who will take his spot? Zach Britton has yet to put together many encouraging starts in the minors like Chris Tillman has recently but even Tillman remains maddeningly inconsistent.
The Cubs are looking to be sellers and Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster are very intriguing names but will the Orioles have enough bodies to make the deal? Dan Duquette will not mortgage the future to make a run at 2012 by trading away too many A-level prospects for the likes of those two arms. Jeremy Guthrie could be brought back for a song but do the Orioles want to go back to that well, even if his numbers away from Coors Field are a bit more Guthrie-like?
The Orioles are playing well, it is not a sign of the Mayan Apocalypse. It is not some massive conspiracy. This team is just playing better baseball all around. Could the Orioles simply stop playing this well? Sure, anything can happen in this game but I don’t see it as likely. We as fans need to stop worrying about 2005, there is only one person on this team that was there – Brian Roberts. This is a new team, a fresh team and a team that is currently surprising everyone. It is time to love it and look forward to the Summer with excitement. They may not keep playing at a playoff level but this team has the best chance to fine bring a winning season home to Baltimore than any team since that awful year, its time to relax and love it.