For those of you unfamiliar with the Super NES classic Super Mario World, the Midway Gate was a place about halfway through each level in the game. When you passed the gate, you could then continue from that point, rather than the start of the level, when you lost a life. The Baltimore Orioles find themselves at about the Midway Gate of their season, and the results have been better than projected. As of this morning, the O’s find themselves in first place in the American League East division, with a nice three-game lead on the Toronto Blue Jays.
I had initially predicted back in March that the O’s would probably hover around .500 unless a lot of things went right. Well, as it turns out, a fair amount has gone right for them in the early part of the season. First of all, despite free-agent pickup Ubaldo Jimenez’s struggles, the Orioles’ pitching has gotten better, with a 3.84 staff ERA, down from 4.20 a year ago. That alone has been worth a few wins. The most notable improvements among the starters have come from Bud Norris, who has a 3.96 ERA as compared with his 4.32 career mark, and Kevin Gausman, who is finally starting to realize his potential with a 3.51 ERA (though in only six starts). Former starter Zach Britton has also injected new life into the bullpen since inheriting the closer’s job, with a 1.30 ERA and 15 saves in 41 appearances. Along with Darren O’Day, who leads the team with 9.30 K/9 innings and also has a 1.11 ERA, those two form a powerful 1-2 punch in the late innings.
The Orioles’ offense has also performed as advertised. Their other big free-agent acquisition, DH Nelson Cruz, has raked thus far, batting .285 with 28 homers to go with a .918 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). The latter two statistics rank second and sixth in the AL, respectively. Cruz is supported by another strong season at the plate from Adam Jones, who sports a .303 batting average and an .814 OPS. Those performances have made up for down seasons from Chris Davis (.197 BA, though he does have 14 homers) and Matt Wieters (was batting .308 with 5 homers before being lost for the season with an elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery).
But the biggest revelation of all in the Orioles’ lineup has been the emergence of leftfielder Steve Pearce. Pearce had been released by the O’s twice, in 2012 and then on April 27 of this year, only to be called back up two days later. Since then, he has played in 56 games and leads the team with a .319 average to go along with 11 home runs. According to the advanced stats site Fangraphs, Pearce has been worth an extra 2.5 wins above a replacement-level player, second on the team behind Jones’s 3.5.
Going forward, I think the Orioles have a good shot to win the division. It will be imperative that the pitching staff continues its upward trend, as several of the Orioles’ offensive stars have benefited from a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which indicates that they have had at least a few lucky bounces. Also, the AL East has been much weaker than projected, with the Rays and Red Sox having puzzlingly bad seasons and the Yankees around .500 after a rash of injuries. The streaky Blue Jays are the best challenger for the O’s in the division. The division crown is their easiest path to the playoffs, because the LA Angels (56-37 record), will likely claim the first wild-card spot, leaving Baltimore in a dogfight with the Seattle Mariners (who have almost the same record as them at 51-43) to clinch a spot in the one-game playoff to get into the Division Series. ESPN currently gives them a 56% chance to make the playoffs, and I think that sounds about right.