When I covered the Baltimore Orioles’ improbable run to the top of the AL East standings at the midway point of the season, I’ll admit that I was still pretty pessimistic. The Orioles hadn’t won the AL East since 1997, and in recent years had ways of blowing it in tremendous fashion. The most spectacular of these was in 2002, when the O’s went on a summer surge that got them to .500 at 63-63, raising the hopes of many fans like myself that had been suffering since that last division title. The Orioles proceeded to win four (four!) games from that point on, finishing the season 67-95. Also, when you play in a division that includes two teams (the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox) that always seem to pull miraculous finishes out of nowhere, you treat everything with a certain level of skepticism. But as the season went on, the Birds’ lead widened and widened and… widened, until they finally clinched the division title with time to spare.
My team obliterated my preseason prediction of 83 wins, even exceeding the win total of 94 from their breakout 2012 season. They also took the path of least resistance to the playoffs, not having to win a wild card game to get into the AL Division Series. So the only question remains: How will they do in said Division Series? Their opponents will be a fellow division champ, the Detroit Tigers from the AL Central. So without further ado, let’s break down the matchup.
These Tigers have enjoyed an extended renaissance ever since the early aughts, when they posted some of the worst seasons in their history. The 2014 Tigers are still a force to be reckoned with on offense. They are ranked either first or second in MLB in runs, on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage, and batting average. Predictably, the straws that stir the Tigers’ drink on offense are designated hitter Victor Martinez and first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Both boast an OBP over .370 and at least 25 homers. But this lineup is dangerous all around. JD Martinez was a revelation in left field this year, batting .315 with 23 home runs of his own. Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter can still swing the bat as well, with OBP’s over .300 and some power, too. They’ve even got some speed with Rajai Davis and his 36 stolen bases (though he’s listed as day-to-day with a nagging injury).
The main takeaway from all this is there are very few gaps in this lineup. Almost every hitter will be dangerous in some way, and the O’s won’t be able to pitch around anyone. But don’t count out Baltimore just yet. Their pitching improvement from earlier in the season has continued. I’ve said for years that if they could just have a competent pitching staff, they’d be a strong contender for a title. Well, that’s exactly what the Orioles have: a competent pitching staff. Their starters all cluster around 10-16 wins with earned run averages (ERA) around 3. They don’t have a knockout ace, but they go four deep, which few teams can claim. Chris Tillman was once again the star of our starters, with 13 wins, a 3.34 ERA, making him worth 2.4 wins above replacement (WAR).
As good as the O’s starters have been, their bullpen truly has been elite this year. Just look at the ERAs of the staff: 1.35 (Andrew Miller), 1.65 (closer Zach Britton), 1.70 (Darren O’Day), and 2.97 (Tommy Hunter). Again, the key here is depth. If you find yourself in a hole against Baltimore in the late innings, it’s going to be very difficult to come back.
This may sound odd to those who have followed the Tigers on their recent run of success, but pitching might actually be their weakness this year. Starter Justin Verlander tailed off a bit after a great start to his career, and it may be a sign that Father Time is starting to catch up with him. While Game 1 starter Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA, 10.29 K/9 innings) is better than any starter the O’s have, I’m not convinced the rest of Detroit’s starting staff is all that great. Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43) is a solid #2, but after that the staff kinda drops off. None of the remaining pitchers have a WAR mark greater than Tillman’s 2.4. The O’s will need to watch out for David Price (4-4, 3.59 since joining the Tigers), as he’s shown in the past that he’s fully capable of flipping the switch when the playoffs roll around. Los Tigres also have a decent closer in Joe Nathan (35 saves), but his 4.81 ERA is awfully high for a closer, which shows that you can get to him if you try hard enough. Nathan will probably largely be set up by Al Albuquerque (2.51 ERA), Joba Chamberlain (3.57), and Phil Coke (3.88).
This is something the Orioles could exploit. Their lineup has been devastated by injuries (Matt Wieters, Manny Machado) and suspensions (Chris Davis, who could come back for ALCS), but they’ve maintained a “next man up” mentality that keeps them chugging along. It helps to have a DH who has the most home runs in all of baseball (Nelson Cruz, 40) and a few other unexpected sources of power (Steve Pearce, 21 homers and Jonathan Schoop, 16 homers, of which many came in key situations). Centerfielder Adam Jones had a solid all-around season as usual (.281 average, 29 homers). There’s two main caveats here though. First, the Orioles’ offense lives and dies by the home run, which often portends regular season success but can result in a drop-off in the playoffs, when teams face far better pitching staffs. The younger players I cited above could also see a drop-off in production in their first playoff experiences. So while the Orioles have a solid lineup, the injuries could result in them being overextended in the playoffs.
The Orioles, once again, are a superb defensive team, ranking second in baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced stat that takes several factors into account to determine a team’s overall fielding proficiency. They have a 54.8 rating. The Tigers, on the other hand, rank third to last with a -48.1 UZR. Similar stats tell a similar story… one team has a very clear edge in this aspect of the game.
I think Baltimore also has a slight edge in the dugout as well. While Brad Ausmus has managed the Tigers perfectly well since taking over for Jim Leyland, O’s manager Buck Showalter has a 16-year record of turning previously moribund teams around and helping them succeed. That said, though, he’s not the greatest playoff manager, as two of his previous teams (the Yankees and Diamondbacks) famously won the World Series the year after replacing him as manager. But there’s no denying that he laid the foundation for those championships, and is in the upper echelon of managers.
The more I examine this matchup, the more I think that Baltimore has the horses to advance. These two teams come into this matchup headed in opposite directions, with the O’s ascending and the Tigers descending. The key matchup here will be the Tigers’ pitchers against the Orioles’ bats. If the Tigers can get them to stop hitting home runs, they’ll win. If the O’s learn to manufacture runs a little more and not rely as heavily on homers, they’ll win. I like the Orioles to win in four games.
Looking at the rest of the league, I don’t think there are many teams that are clearly better than Baltimore. While the playoffs are always a meat grinder, I think the O’s have as good a chance as anyone of making the World Series. The Royals are untested at this level (then again, so are most of the O’s) and while the Angels are a good team, the O’s won the season series against them 4-2, so they’ll definitely have a shot if they face them. What I’m really pulling for is a Beltway Series, in which the Orioles face off against the rival Washington Nationals. I think the Nats have the best chance to come out of the NL, though the Dodgers and Cardinals are dangerous teams too. It would be very sweet for Baltimore to win their first series since 1983 against the team that muscled its way onto their turf after relocating from Montreal. But let’s not get too carried away. Gotta beat those Tigers first.