Your mission (should you choose to accept it) consists of explaining how in the world the Baltimore Orioles reached mid-September with a statistically plausible chance at making the playoffs. How exactly does a team that ranks 16th in runs scored, 21st in batting average, 23rd in OBP, and 12th in slugging hang with the big bad wolves of the AL East? More importantly, how can someone explain with a straight face that the same team that sits 18th in ERA, 25th in quality starts, 20th in WHIP, and 16th in batting average against also has a tenuous grip on either the 2nd wild card spot or the division lead?
Without a crack team of researchers (or maybe a team researching crack), one might think such a thing impossible. Below average pitching combined with sub-par hitting somehow results in a playoff contender. If a Baseball Urban Dictionary exists somewhere on the interwebs, the Orioles’ team photo must be pictured under the section on “logical incongruity”. Explain the anomalous nature of this Baltimore beast, or be relegated to watching Golden Girls reruns.
The Orioles have exactly 3 players who have accumulated more than 2.0 oWAR – Adam Jones (4.8 oWAR) and Nick Markakis (2.4 oWAR), and Matt Wieters (2.1 oWAR). Moreover, Markakis just went down for the season with a broken left thumb. Of all the players who qualify for MLB’s statistical leader boards, Markakis was the batting average leader for the team at .298. Total number of qualifying players hitting .300+? Zero. After Markakis at .363, the next highest OBP belongs to Adam Jones at .351. Jones happens to have the highest OPS at .848. For perspective, the Rangers have 3 players above that OPS mark.
The Orioles have exactly 1 starting pitcher with 10 wins or more, and that happens to be Wei-Yin Chin at 12-9. The Cardinals have 4 starters at 13 or more wins, and they are struggling to lock down the 2nd wild card position in the NL. So, exactly how can the O’s success be explained? Please rationalize how a team can play 11 games ahead of Pythagorean W/L pace.
- Opportunistic offense: The team has hit .251/.324/.436/.760 with runners in scoring position which translates to 407 runs scored in 994 opportunities. By comparison, the Yankees have hit .253/.350/.424/.775 with runners in scoring position, but the Bombers have only pushed across 452 runs despite having 135 more opportunities than the Orioles.
- Doing just enough: The Orioles lead the majors in winning percentage in games decided by 1 run with a 25-7 record.
- Playing a hard 9….10….11: The Orioles are currently tied with the Nationals for the most wins in extra innings in baseball (12). The Nationals have gone into bonus baseball 19 times and lost 7. The Orioles have gone extras just 14 times and lost only twice. 2. The deuce. That’s 12-2 when the number of innings hits double digits.
- Relief work: Combined ERA for all Baltimore pitchers in relief – 3.15. That group has accounted for 58 “holds” and 46 saves. By comparison, the Rangers have the best record in the AL, and their relievers have combined for a 3.29 ERA, 54 holds, and 37 saves. The difference? The Orioles have relied on the bullpen for 468.0 innings this season. The Rangers have used relievers for just 388.1 innings.
Maybe the Orioles can keep it going by getting just enough offense at the right time. After all, the team has made it 141 games using this not-so-secret formula. Perhaps maintaining a negative run differential while staying 17 games above .500 will prove unsustainable. Just don’t let the Orioles know that. It would be a shame for them to realize how much of an uphill battle they are fighting (and winning).
NOTE: This was written before last night’s walk-off win that pushed the Orioles to 26-7 in games decided by 1 run.