How Sustainable is Baltimore’s Start?
No team in the American League comes into Tuesday’s action with more wins or a higher winning percentage than your Baltimore Orioles. That’s even more remarkable when considering that the team has gotten very little from two offensive stalwarts — Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo — while two key pieces of the pitching staff have been sidelined by injury.
Those two are closer Zach Britton and starting pitcher Chris Tillman.
So emotions are bound to be running high in Baltimore as fans gear up for hopefully another stretch run that leads into the playoffs — most likely one that won’t involve facing the woebegone Blue Jays, who are off to one of the worst starts in franchise history.
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But there are some bad words that come out at this time of year that fans don’t want to hear. They aren’t swear words, but are certainly ones met with deaf ears from the most fervent fans of any team. They both start with the same letter: sustainability and sample size.
In short, how sustainable is this red-hot start for the Orioles?
From the outset, it would seem to be not very sustainable. Granted, we’re not exactly reinventing the wheel here. The O’s are playing at a pace of 117 wins over the course of a full season. The 2001 Mariners — who won an MLB-record 116 games — these guys are not. But based on runs scored and runs allowed, we get a better feel for where the O’s might be with a little more even luck; that is, Pythagorean record, which has the Orioles having played at a much more modest level, with a projected record of 10-8. As of right now, that’d put the Orioles third in the division rather than first, behind Boston and the surprising New York Yankees.
What is Pythagorean record, exactly? Well, it’s a formula that the great Bill James developed that basically states that runs scored and runs allowed over the course of a season gives you a pretty good idea of how many games a team ought to win, while finishing above or below that meant good or bad “luck” in terms of sequencing.
Here’s the formula as he has it listed, via BaseballReference.com:
O’s fans from the first go-round when the team became good again a half decade ago will recall this being the formula invoked every time a pundit attempted to downplay Baltimore’s hot start that season, and in turn used it to try predict a second-half swoon that never came. In fact, we’re all still waiting some five years later, right?
But that isn’t the only place where there can be skepticism about this team. As many expected, the raw thump has been there for the offense. Just four teams have hit more home runs than the Orioles heading into Tuesday night’s action. It’s no surprise that the Orioles have stolen just four bases — tied with the Rockies for second-fewest in MLB — so it’s obvious they’ll have to rely on the sticks to bring runs home.
The trouble is, that approach hasn’t really worked. Or at least it has worked, but doesn’t look like it can continue with the offense as presently constructed. The Orioles are 21st in baseball in runs scored this season, and are hitting a collective .240/.297/.428. That’s good for an isolated power (SLG-AVG) of .188 — good for fourth in baseball — but hasn’t really resulted in an robust offense all around (103 wRC+).
The idea that the Orioles weren’t going to walk much was widely accepted heading into the season, and they haven’t. Only the Marlins (6.7 percent) have taken fewer walks per plate appearance than the Orioles, which is why they’re getting on base at just a .297 clip. Even the Royals, who have a team OBP of .261, are walking more than the Orioles (7.2 percent). That seems….sub-optimal.
Now there are signs that are a bit more encouraging on that front. Machado (89 OPS+) isn’t going to hit below the Mendoza line all year and Trumbo will certainly slug over .300. But at the same time, Seth Smith won’t hit like he has, nor will Jonathan Schoop or even Adam Jones. There will obviously be some give and take, with only Welington Castillo and maybe Chris Davis doing — to this point — what we might expect of them.
In short, it can get better, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be mitigated by some regression by other guys in the opposite direction.
Now one place the team has done well is pitching on the whole. Expectations were high from the bullpen and fairly dim — with some glimmer in the forms of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy — from the rotation. With the fourth-best staff ERA in baseball (3.50), we can deduce that at least one or both of the rotation and bullpen are doing their part. Let’s break that down.
At 3.91 and 11th in MLB, the rotation ERA seems fairly stable. The FIP is 4.11 and the xFIP an unsightly 4.43, but even if we don’t feel the number itself is stable, finishing somewhere at or near the middle of the pack makes plenty of sense. Bundy has come as advertised and then some (1.37 ERA), but instead of Gausman picking up the slack, it’s been Wade Miley (1.89), who has looked absolutely brilliant — granted, it’s been just three starts.
Miley wasn’t actually all that bad after coming over from Seattle last season. Well, that’s overstating it just a bit. His 6.17 ERA masked some decent peripherals (9.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 3.79 FIP) that foretold that he could be at least….decent with the Orioles. Can Miley keep going on a hot stretch until Gausman rounds into form? It’s possible; the 30-year-old lefty has picked up some velocity on his four-seamer and has scrapped the changeup in favor of a lot more two-seam fastballs. That has resulted in a healthy groundball rate (48.7 percent) to go with double-digit whiff rates on his slider, curve and changeup. The .162 BABIP is a bit scary, but he’ll play all season in front of a good defense, so if he can sustain any sort of momentum on strikeouts moving forward, he could be a revelation.
In the meantime, Gausman’s start has been extremely disappointing. He’s moved away from the split — perhaps due to command questions — and he’s walking nearly six batters per nine innings so far this season while allowing two baserunners per inning. He’s obviously far too good for that to continue — barring any sort of health issue — so there’ll obviously be some regression (in the positive sense) here in the near future. He’s just too good to not improve.
The bullpen has also been very good, with a 2.82 collective ERA which ranks sixth (3.10 FIP) with a bunch that doesn’t allow homers, induced grounders and strikes out a batter per inning. At the risk of glossing over a key unit on the team, this looks good and looks likely to continue. And perhaps most impressively, has for the most part continued with Britton shelved. That’s a testament to how Buck Showalter runs the ship.
In the end, you’ve got a team fourth in ERA but 11th in strikeout and walk rate on the pitching side. Offensively, you’ve got a team 10th in hits, 11th in runs but second in home runs. The offense might not have to carry the pitching as much in seasons before, but I do think without an uptick in walks or a drastic improvement in batting average, the balance of the team is such that it can’t possibly come close to sustaining this hot start.
I still think it’s an oddly constructed team, but I’ve always thought that. Do I think they can still stay in the thick of things? Sure. But I think it’s going to be a much different path than O’s fans are accustomed to, also.