What the What?!

Most of the time, when my favorite teams surprise me, it’s a bad surprise.  Like when the Virginia baseball team loaded the bases with no outs and somehow failed to score any runs in the College World Series a few years back, allowing South Carolina to beat them and advance.  That’s the drawback of not being a fan of one of those “evil empire” teams like the New York Yankees, Alabama Crimson Tide, or others that can seemingly buy whatever players they want to ensure their team perpetually stays in contention (on the plus side, though, you can sleep at night).  But the Baltimore Orioles have given me a good surprise so far in this MLB season.  Take a look at the most current AL East standings:

AL East StandingsYep, there’s my Orioles at the top, on a 94-win pace and a full three games ahead of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, two teams that had a much better reputation than the O’s heading into this season.  Let’s take another look at my preseason observations of this team and see if they can explain what’s going on here.

First, I said that the Orioles’ lineup was stacked with power hitters, relying on a feast-or-famine strategy.  Well, they lead the majors with 129 home runs, and are second in doubles and slugging percentage.  I think it’s safe to say that prediction came true.  But it came true in a much greater magnitude than we expected.  Rightfield newcomer Mark Trumbo already has more homers (24) than he did all of last year, good for a 50-homer pace.  Chris Davis and Manny Machado are also swinging away as usual, with 21 and 19 respectively.  Machado remains the team’s best player, sporting a team-leading .378 on-base percentage to go with all that power.  I’d also expected Jonathan Schoop to take another step toward being a solid all-around player, and I’d say that is true too.  He ranks fourth on the team with a .332 on-base percentage, and has contributed 2 Wins Above Replacement.  Heck, Hyun-Soo Kim has even chipped in a .336 batting average in limited plate appearances.  Simply put, everything that could go right for Baltimore on offense pretty much has.  If they need to simply drown opponents in a deluge of home runs, they’ve shown they can do that.

Second, I said that the Orioles’ bullpen was solid and loaded with the kind of power arms that could shorten games.  Check!  Brad Brach and Zach Britton have somehow gotten even better, with ERAs under 1!  Darren O’Day would probably be right there with them if not for a hamstring injury that currently has him on the 15-day DL.  Mychal Givens and Odrisamer Despaigne have been mostly competent filling in for O’Day.

Finally, I exposed their biggest weakness: an inconsistent rotation that would require a return to form from Chris Tillman and an improvement from Kevin Gausman in order to help the team win.  Tillman has definitely looked more like his 2013-14 self than last year, with an 11-2 record and 3.55 ERA.  He is helped by the fact that he is frequently pitching with a lead, getting 4.78 runs of support per game.  While not the best number in baseball, it’s certainly not bad.  One wonders if it is sustainable though.  Gausman has also looked serviceable, showing an ability to miss bats, as his 8.5 strikeouts per nine leads the rotation.  I’d like to see him shave half a run or more off that 4.15 ERA though, before I start buying into the “Wow, what a prospect!” hype that followed him into the majors.

The rest of the rotation looks shaky, though.  Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo’s ERAs have ballooned, and the Mike Wright/Tyler Wilson platoon in the fifth rotation spot doesn’t look much better.  They’ve had to shoulder even more of the load as Gallardo rehabbed from an injury.  I have a feeling Gallardo’s numbers will improve some, but it’s not clear the others will.

So I think we’ve hit on what is happening here.  The O’s rotation is doing juuuust enough to keep the team competitive, while the lights-out bullpen and tear-the-cover-off-the-ball offense are doing most of the heavy lifting.  As in the preseason, I’m concerned that they may not be able to keep this up for the rest of the season.  Baltimore is batting .316 on balls in play, which leads me to believe they’ve been the beneficiaries of at least some luck on offense.  Relying on luck to the extent that they do has rarely been a winning formula, but I think they’ll be able to at least lock down a wild-card spot in the playoffs.  While I’m not expecting them to make a deep run, they got to the ALCS two years ago with a team that is not terribly unlike this one, so stranger things have happened.  I’m just happy that they refuse to let others’ expectations (even their fans’) deter them.

Mark Trumbo has been a veritable launching pad for the Orioles this season.
Mark Trumbo has been a veritable launching pad for the Orioles this season.
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