Last year’s Baltimore Orioles were one of the biggest surprises- no, the biggest surprise- of the 2012 MLB season. After fourteen straight losing seasons, the Orioles finished an astounding 93-69 and fought the hated New York Yankees to the bitter end for the division title. After winning a wild-card playoff game against the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers, the Orioles took the Yankees to the brink of elimination before falling in the AL Division Series. What was perhaps most surprising about their season is they had all those impressive accomplishments with much the same roster as the previous year, when they finished with a mere 69 wins.
So what were the keys to Baltimore’s success? First, the Orioles won one-run games at a historic rate, going 29-9 in these games, the best winning percentage in such games since 1890. No, that’s not a typo, I meant 1890. The Orioles also went 10-1 in extra- inning games decided by more than one run. Much of the Orioles’ success in these games had to do with home runs. The 2012 Orioles hit 214 home runs, second best in the majors, and 17 of their one-run wins were decided by a home run. Another driver of the Orioles’ success in close games was their bullpen, which posted an impressive 3.00 ERA, fifth-best in the majors. No doubt their relievers helped keep them in games they otherwise would’ve lost.
But other than those standouts, the Orioles were… kind of a pedestrian team. They only had a .311 on-base percentage (OBP) as a team, 26th in MLB, and only scored 7 more runs than their opponents (and had a negative run differential for much of the season). In contrast to their impressive bullpen ERA, their starting pitchers posted an ugly 4.42 ERA. Say what you want about pitching wins not being much of an indicator of effectiveness, but a staff where no starter wins more than 12 games is not elite.
So what does that mean for the 2013 Orioles? Well, let’s take a look at each unit.
Despite the O’s less-than-stellar team hitting stats, they had some impressive offensive performances in 2012. Centerfielder Adam Jones had a career year with a .282 average, 32 home runs, but only 82 RBIs. This indicates to me that the top of the lineup wasn’t setting the table terribly well for their cleanup hitter. Having leadoff hitter Nate McLouth for a full season may help, as he batted a solid-but-unspectacular .268, though his .342 OBP isn’t bad. I’d like our second hitter, JJ Hardy, to raise his .238 average and .282 OBP so Jones has more opportunities to drive in runs. Other hitters to watch include rightfielder Nick Markakis, and catcher Matt Wieters, who many labeled as the top prospect in MLB not too long ago and whom the Orioles are now waiting to enter his prime.
Wieters provided shades of greatness last year, with 23 home runs and a .765 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Also, phenom shortstop Manny Machado will have a full season to display his talents, which should boost the offense some as he hit 7 home runs in only 51 games last year. His presence should help make up for the loss of Mark Reynolds, who had lots of power but has also struck out more times than any other hitter in the last four years.
The Orioles have had a relatively steady offense for some time, but starting pitching has been our Achilles heel in recent years. The return of Jason Hammel from injury, who posted a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, should give us at least one more double-digit game winner. Wei-Yin Chen, a recruit from the Japanese leagues, was a Rookie of the Year candidate early but faded some in the last few months of the season, but given that he is more experienced than most rookie starting pitchers, I expect his stats to improve as he adjusts to MLB hitters. The rest of the staff is full of once-promising players who the team is still waiting to live up to their potential, like Zach Britton (5-3, 5.07 ERA), Jake Arrieta (3-9, 6.20), and Brian Matusz (6-10, 4.87).
The Orioles are hoping hotshot prospect Dylan Bundy doesn’t become one of those cases. Bundy made his way to Double-A in just his first year of professional baseball. He posted a solid 2.84 ERA and .916 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) among all his minor-league teams last year. He will likely start the season with Triple-A Norfolk, but don’t be surprised if he is in the Orioles’ rotation by midseason. They’ll need him. I just hope Baltimore doesn’t make the mistake that so many teams make and overuse his young arm early in his career. Many promising pitchers’ careers have been ruined (Mark Prior and Fausto Carmona come readily to mind) because their innings total took a major jump from their first to their second years in the majors. As tempting as it may be to throw Bundy into the fire, the Orioles need to bring him along gradually, or they may never get more than one or two good years out of him.
The aforementioned strong bullpen is paced by Jim Johnson’s 51 (!) saves. An astounding four relievers posted ERAs under 3.00, including Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day, and Troy Patton, and all of them are back. It stands to reason that at least some of them will drop off next year, it’s just a question of who and how far.
The Orioles were 9th in MLB in Defensive Efficiency ratio last year, so they were taking advantage of balls put in play and turning them into outs. Hopefully that trend can continue next year.
Okay, Buck Showalter. I believe in you now. Ever since he took over as manager, the Orioles have played with a scrappiness that you have to admire. Showalter’s second full season with a team usually results in a large turnaround from the previous year, and the Orioles were no different. Coach Showalter’s greatest skills are his ability to motivate and get his teams to believe in themselves. It’s how he had the Diamondbacks winning in just their second year of existence. Though his biggest criticism is that for all his winning, he’s never taken a team to the World Series. Hopefully, Baltimore will break that trend. We’re due for a championship anyway, having been shut out of the Fall Classic longer than I’ve been alive.
As much as I don’t want to believe it, this Orioles team is unlikely to win 93 games again. But they no doubt got a boost of confidence from last year’s results, and I think that alone will be worth a few more wins. I also don’t think this team will lose 90 games either. Sports Illustrated has projected them to finish 82-80 this year, and I think that’s about right. I’ll add a little more optimism and put the over-under at 85 wins for us this year. The AL East is more wide-open than it’s been in years, with the Yankees and Red Sox weakened. I think the O’s will finish third in the AL East, with the Rays winning the division and the Blue Jays finishing second. We’ll likely miss the playoffs this year, but I think it won’t be too long before we’re back. As far as the rest of MLB, I agree with the popular wisdom that has the Washington Nationals prevailing in the World Series, and I like the Detroit Tigers to win the AL.