While I’m not as angry about the Baltimore Orioles’ season as Dennis Green is in his famous meltdown, I think his famous phrase “They are what we thought they were!” is pertinent to summing up the Orioles’ season. Like many sports forecasters, I’m usually horribly off track with many of my predictions. But the 2013 Orioles ended up being largely the team I thought they were going to be this season. They finished 85-77, with the exact number of wins I predicted was their over-under this season. They finished tied for third place in the AL East with the New York Yankees, who suffered a similar regression in performance from last year.
First off, I noted that the Orioles had an atypically stellar record in one-run games last year, a number that was bound to regress simply by the law of averages. Indeed, the Orioles were one of the worst teams in one-run games this year, checking in at 20-31. Records in one-run games are often more the result of random chance than any real skill, as the existence of clutch hitting is still in dispute. Baltimore could just as easily come back and have yet another great one-run game performance next year.
Secondly, the Orioles’ offense carried over its production from last year, hitting just two fewer home runs (212 vs. 214, both first in the majors). They ranked highly in many other major offensive categories, including OPS (.744, 4th), batting average (.260, 10th), and runs scored (745, 5th). Curiously, though, they were a mere 19th in on-base percentage (.313), which may indicate that they were a little too reliant on the long ball and less able to “manufacture” runs when their power bats are having an off night. That does mirror the recent trend in baseball, with teams less cautious about striking out and more likely to encourage their players to swing away and go for the big hit. The O’s’ defense was also solid, leading the majors in fewest errors and fielding percentage.
Lastly, like I anticipated, the Orioles’ pitching was not playoff-worthy. They did not rank higher than 20th in any major pitching category, with a 4.20 staff ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and a .259 batting average against. It’s clear what area they need to target in the draft and free agency. They may benefit next year from a full season from their major deadline acquisitions, starters Bud Norris and Scott Feldman and reliever Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez. All three had spotty debuts with the Orioles; all of them saw their ERAs rise once they moved to Baltimore. Though they all switched leagues, and switching from the National to American League is especially hard because pitchers have to adjust for the presence of a DH in each team’s lineup, rather than a light-hitting pitcher. Rodriguez’s stat slippage could also be due to age; he’ll be 32 when next season starts. The Orioles did get some good individual performances from some of their pitchers, including starters Chris Tillman (16-7, 3.71) and Miguel Gonzalez (11-8, 3.78) and relievers Jim Johnson (2.94 ERA, 50 saves) and Darren O’Day (team-leading 2.18 ERA).
There were a few headlines during the season that no one could have predicted, some great and some not so great. First baseman Chris Davis had a historically great season, setting a franchise record for homers in a season with 53. He also ranked first on the team in batting average and on-base, suggesting that he is more than just an all-or-nothing hitter. His power didn’t come completely out of left field, as he hit 37 homers in 2012. Ironically, Davis unlocked his increased power by undoing most things his coaches in Texas taught him to do early in his career, as a story in the August 26 issue of Sports Illustrated details.
On the unfortunate front, whiz kid third baseman Manny Machado injured his knee on September 23 after stepping awkwardly on first base. Luckily, he did not tear his ACL, but rather his medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL). Machado is expected to miss Spring Training and possibly a few games at the start of the season, as this injury typically has a recovery time of about six months. In addition, star pitching prospect Dylan Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow and is expected to miss at least half of next season. This is an unfortunate blow to the Orioles in an area where they really needed reinforcements. Bundy is thought to have Cy Young potential in the rotation, so I’m hoping he can rebound and at least partially live up to the hype, especially given the shaky debut of the team’s other top pitching prospect, Kevin Gausman (3-5, 5.56).
I think Baltimore has several reasons for optimism heading into next season. They were right in the thick of the playoff race until a bad stretch at the end of the season, and should compete for a playoff spot next year. If their pitching improves, they could do some real damage, given that they have several young players that are entering or already in their primes (Tillman, Davis, Machado, outfielder Adam Jones). The biggest hurdle for the O’s will come from their division. The AL East division is the toughest in baseball, and is probably the only division in baseball where every team can be considered a legitimate contender. If the Orioles can fight through the crucible of that division, they should be positioned to do well in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what moves they make in the offseason, now that they have shown the baseball world that 2012 was not a fluke.