The Baltimore Orioles started the season 19-9, and have been at least two games above .500 since the second game of the season. They’ve fallen as far as 10 games behind the Yankees in what’s generally considered to be baseball’s toughest division, but have never been more than a handful of games out of the races for the two wildcard spots.
It took an 18-9 August (and a 2-1 start to September), though, and a crawling back to within a game of the Yankees in the East, for people to really take notice and start taking the O’s seriously.
Part of that, of course, is because they’re the Baltimore Orioles, the team that still needs to go at least 7-21 to secure its first winning season since 1997, and needs to go 15-13 for its second 90-win season since 1982. But another part is that it’s really hard to analyze this team in any way (other than one that begins and ends with the won-loss record) and conclude that it’s anything more than an average team.The Orioles’ second-best position player (by rWAR and WARP; he’s third in fWAR) is J.J. Hardy, who has played excellent defense at short, but has hit .231/.276/.384 (73 wRC+). The team’s best position player, Adam Jones, is 38th in the A.L. in rWAR (the systems disagree quite a bit on his defense). By OPS+, their starters have been within a few points of league average at catcher, first base, third base and DH, closer to 15 points above league average in center field and right, and substantially below league average at second, short, and left. No one who has collected even 70 plate appearances, by either wRC+ or OPS+, has been as much as 30% above average, so it’s not as though they’ve been carried by a star or two. Collectively, entering Monday, they were third from the bottom in team OPS+ (ahead of only Toronto and Seattle), and fifth from the bottom in runs scored.
The pitching isn’t much more exciting. Jason Hammel was brilliant in his 18 starts, but hasn’t pitched since July 13, and is just starting a minor league rehab stint. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen has been pretty good, as has Chris Tillman (and Miguel Gonzalez, if you’re not troubled by the ugly FIP). Thanks to a good bullpen, the Orioles have an ERA+ a tick above league average, and are sixth in the AL in runs allowed.
In all, the Orioles have scored 569 runs, but allowed 600. Through Sunday, the team’s Pythagorean projected record (an old saber standby that’s quickly becoming passé) was 63-70, a whopping eleven games worse than its real-life record, though it’d still be a better winning percentage, at .474, than they’ve had since 2004.
What’s happening? One thing they’re certainly doing is hitting well in clutch situations, meaning not only with runners on base but with the game on the line. In what Baseball Reference defines as high-leverage situations (which is complicated, and explained here), the Orioles entered Monday with a .768 OPS, compared to a combined .709 in medium and low-leverage situations; the current A.L. averages are .735, .742 and .723, high to low. Certainly, then, the Orioles have been getting the job done in part by doing their best hitting in the situations in which they’ve got the most to gain. That’s something that we know (see this and this and this) isn’t a thing that’s likely to be an innate ability the team has (especially a team that, essentially unchanged, saw only a .016 boost in its high-leverage from its overall OPS), and not a thing that you can expect to continue through the rest of the season, or even through the game tonight. In essence, it’s probably luck.
Their high-leverage performance on the other side of the ball, though, is a different question. Baltimore pitchers have allowed opponents to put up a .729 OPS on the year — exactly the American League average — but have held them to .653 in high-leverage situations, more than eighty points below the league’s average for those situations. Maybe a lot of that is luck too, but the highest-leverage situations tend to come later in the game, and the pitchers late in the game tend to be relievers, and the Orioles’ relievers happen to have been legitimately great. Darren O’Day, Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, and Troy Patton each have ERAs under 3.00 and FIPs under 3.40, and they’ve combined for 7.9 rWAR, more than the sum total of every pitcher who has started a game for the team this year (6.6).
So a lot of it might be luck. Some of it is hitting well in the most important situations, whether that’s repeatable or not, and a lot of it is pitching well in the most important situations. Some of it might be great management or coaching, some might be desire or chemistry or playing as a team or whatever. Who knows?
At this point, I’m not sure it matters. Baseball Prospectus still sees them as unlikely to make the playoffs, giving them a 26.3% shot. Which makes sense (though coolstandings.com paints a more hopeful picture). If they can’t overtake the Yankees for the division, then the Orioles have to hold off all but one of the Rays, Tigers, A’s and Angels, all of whom are within 3.5 games of them, and all of whom, no matter how you analyze what’s happened so far, are probably quite a bit better than they are.
But one in four is a pretty good shot, certainly a better one than the Baltimore Orioles or anybody else thought the Baltimore Orioles would have right now. They’re likely to have to get to 90 wins or so — 15-13 the rest of the way — and that certainly seems doable, with twelve games against the Rays, Yankees and A’s, but sixteen against the Mariners, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. The Orioles are really here, and they might really do this, however the hell they’re doing it.