Charm City Season
September 20, 2012 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
The 2012 baseball season has been one characterized by old faces and new players to the stage alike. Recent contenders like the Yankees, White Sox, Rangers, Giants, and Cardinals have factored heavily in the pennant races and projected playoff positions. Meanwhile, a group of teams with various levels of expectation and familiarity by the casual fan have some to the fore, such as the A's, Nationals, Reds, and Orioles.
The teams in this latter group have achieved their records in a variety of ways. Oakland, Washington and Cincinnati have all been paced by exemplary pitching, ranking in the top five in baseball in team ERA. Each team has also had a phenomenal second half of the season, with post mid-July winning percentages hovering around the two-thirds mark. The traditional October adage is that pitching rules all, so it wouldn't be too surprising to see any of the three in the World Series.
If the Orioles were to play into late October, it would represent a most shocking postseason run.
Of course, when you look at the Orioles record and their record alone, nothing jumps out as especially weak for a playoff team. At 84-64 after Tuesday night's 18-inning win against Seattle, Baltimore is tied with the mighty, higher-payroll Yankees in the AL East, baseball's premier division over the past decade-and-a-half. The victor of the division will probably end up winning 90-95 games, by no means the division's strongest year at the top, but also not indicative of a division where every team hovers around the .500 mark or below.
Rather, one unbelievable part of the Orioles' run is that they have, for the whole season of baseball, given up more runs than they have scored.
In a season of 162 games, where the cream is always supposed to rise to the top and statistical outliers are to be eradicated, it should be nearly impossible for a team to win so many games while not having actually scored more than its opponents.
There are a lot of casual fans of baseball who become turned off by advanced statistics in baseball. I've tried to explain the principles behind stats like BABIP and FIP to people without any sort of statistical background, and they give me a look as if I was trying to explain the complexities of the tax code.
However, there are some very intuitive stats in sports. In my basketball work for this site, I always like to use points per possession because it's an easily explained stat that strips away biases that are associated with traditional stats and varying styles of play. Across several sports, though, a very useful stat is Pythagorean winning percentage, which sounds a lot like that thing you should have learned in high school geometry, but didn't. The basic premise is that the total number of runs/points scored by a team versus how many it gives up should be a decent predictor of its record.
After having given up 662 runs to scoring 650, the Orioles' projected record is 72-76. In other words, the Orioles should be closer to Kansas City's record of 66-81 than to New York's of 83-63.
The difference in games between a team's actual record and its projected record is sometimes referred to as its "Luck" over the course of a season. Baltimore's luck score is currently at 11. That's not unheard of in the wild card era. In the past 10 years, there have been teams projected to win about 90 games that instead got to the 100-win plateau like the 2004 Yankees and the 2008 Angels. But perhaps the best comparisons to the 2012 Orioles are the 2007 Diamondbacks and 1997 Giants, who each scored less runs than they allowed and made the playoffs. Both were ultimately swept out of the playoffs before the World Series.
So then, how have the Orioles achieved such a stellar mark despite everything else indicating another mediocre season in Baltimore?
The answer lies in extra-inning games and one-run games.
By now, you probably know that the Orioles have an unbelievable extra-innings win streak going, extended by that 18-inning Tuesday win in Seattle. It now stands at 14 games, the second longest in baseball history.
However, Baltimore's record in one-run games may be more impressive. In 2012, the Orioles have played 35 one-run games. They have won over three-quarters of them, for a 27-8 mark. No team has more than 27 one-run wins, and no other team has less than 10 one-run losses this season. Such records in the tightest of games are unheard of. Only one team in baseball history, the 1981 Orioles (in a strike-shortened season), won 75 percent of their one-run games.
The one-run and extra-inning records lead one to believe that the Orioles are masters of clutch hitting, which they are. But even more important for Baltimore has been its bullpen, which just doesn't let teams score in tight games. One key is that all of the Orioles' top relievers are strong. Closer Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, and Darren O'Day all have ERAs under 3 and have thrown more than 60 innings. When Troy Patton returns from injury in the coming days, that gives Buck Showalter yet another solid option in relief.
Conventional wisdom says the Orioles don't have the horses in the batting order to keep up in October, and that the below average starting rotation will get hammered by the all-star laden lineups of Texas or New York. Conventional wisdom hasn't been following the Orioles in 2012.