Entering play today, the Baltimore Orioles sit two games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays atop the toughest division in baseball with a 27-14 record. Yesterday, they won their ninth straight road game and are now 15-5 away from home, the best of any team in grey unies.
Over in the NL West, the Dodgers dismantled the St. Louis Cardinals last night on the strength of a Clayton Kershaw shutout and are the best team in baseball by record at 27-13.
There’s little question that we here at Getting Blanked have had more fun at the expense of these two franchises than any other in baseball. Their strong financial status, large markets, and storied histories would suggest that they should be perennial contenders, but neither team has had much in the way of success over the last 15 years. Both teams have seemingly incompetent front offices and troublesome owners (although that should be changing for the Dodgers now that Frank McCourt is out).
But this year, whether it’s small sample size or true talent, both teams have been better than any other in baseball. Is it sustainable?
We tend to forget that the Dodgers have actually been doing this for a while now. After a loss to the Washington Nationals on July 22nd of last year, the Dodgers fell to a dismal 43-56 record. From that point on, they went 39-23 for a .629 winning percentage. Only the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Tigers put up a better record in that time. Combined with their ridiculous start The Dodgers have been the best team in baseball for four months.
They continue to win despite the fact that their best player, centerfielder Matt Kemp, was placed on the DL with a hamstring problem last week. They also have a 25-15 Pythagorean record (a record that’s formulated based on run differential) which would suggest that they’ve been playing about as well as their record would suggest.
Outside of Kemp and rightfielder Andre Ethier, the Dodgers have a terrible lineup consisting of the likes of Bobby Abreu, Juan Uribe, and Dee Gordon, yet they still sit fourth in the NL in runs scored and second in on-base percentage.
Catcher A.J. Ellis has been terrific so far this season and although his .333 batting average is unsustainable, he has the third-highest walk-rate in baseball and was walked more than he’s struck out. His .460 on-base percentage is second to only the Mets David Wright in all of baseball. Second baseman Mark Ellis looks to have returned to his old form with a .339 wOBA and .373 on-base percentage and the aforementioned Ethier is putting up a career year so far. Surprising contributions from Juan Rivera, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jerry Hairston Jr. have also helped.
On the pitching side, the Dodgers are obviously led by Kershaw who has a 1.90 ERA in his first nine starts, but Ted Lilly has been equally impressive and Chris Capuano has also been excellent. Even Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang have been respectable so far. Combined with a very solid bullpen, the Dodgers have currently allowed the fewest runs in the National League.
The problem is, the Dodgers have the lowest team BABIP in the NL at just .263 and they also have the highest strand-rate; two stats that will almost assuredly regress going forward. Leading the regression charge will be Chris Capuano whose .233 BABIP and 85.4% strand rate are bound to normalize and his peripherals would suggest the same. Capuano currently has a 3.98 xFIP which is 164 points higher than his ERA. Lilly is a more talented pitcher than Capuano, but he should regress even further; his BABIP is a ridiculous .189 and his xFIP sits a 4.34, more than 250 points higher than his 1.73 ERA.
The Dodgers are not a bad team, but remaining the best team is baseball is highly unlikely given the inevitable regression of the pitching staff and the unsustainable success of players like A.J. Ellis, Mark Ellis and Juan Rivera. Given the relative weakness of the NL West, being mediocre from here on out, could very well be enough for the Dodgers to make the playoffs.
The Orioles, however? Given the strength of their division, a team like the Orioles can’t be simply mediocre and expect to make the playoffs, because it’s unlikely that the other four teams in the division will be equally as bad. But can the Orioles even sustain mediocre?
The Orioles do have a positive run-differential so far this season, but their Pythagorean record is four full games worse than their actual record, suggesting that quite a bit of luck has entered the equation. They’re fourth in the AL in runs scored, which is impressive, but much of that success has come from their propensity to hit the long ball, something they’ve done more often than any other AL team. With hitters like Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, the Orioles are bound to run into their fair share of homeruns, but they also have the highest HR/FB rate in the AL at 16.6%, which suggests that they won’t continue going yard at quite the rate they are now.
The pitching for Baltimore has been the real surprise. Despite being projected to have one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball at the outset of the season, Baltimore has been steadfastly in the middle of the pack in most pitching categories. The outstanding performance thus far by offseason acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen combined with a bullpen that’s putting up downright silly numbers so far has led to the surprising results.
Call me crazy, but I don’t see Hammel keeping up what he’s done thus far. His strikeout rate is nearly double what it was last year and his groundball rate is also significantly higher, and although it’s clear there’s been a change in approach, not many pitchers become this much better than they’ve ever been before at the age of 29.
As for the bullpen, Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day and Matt Lindstrom have all been outstanding with ERAs under 2.00, but something tells me the .242 BABIP, 84.0% strand-rate and 8.1% HR/FB ratio that the ‘pen has put up so far is completely unsustainable.
Are the Orioles better than we all thought they would be? Perhaps, but just comparing this roster to that of the other four teams in the AL East quickly reveals that they are playing well above their heads and an eventual crash is all but inevitable. Unfortunately, a great start doesn’t carry you as far in the AL East as it does in other divisions.
Still, the Dodgers and Orioles have been fun to watch so far and their continued success is great for both fans of those teams and baseball more generally. Just don’t expect it to last.