The Baltimore Orioles put it all together for a 96-win season in 2014 and they won the AL East by 12 games over the New York Yankees. The last time the Orioles won that many games, Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key, and Scott Erickson were in the starting rotation. Considering that the Orioles lost Manny Machado for the season in mid-August and Chris Davis ran headfirst into a brick wall of regression, their performance was one of the most impressive in baseball. It’s the first time that the Orioles have posted three straight winning seasons since they had 18 straight winning seasons from 1968-85.
Even though we are in the age of quantifying everything related to baseball, it’s unclear exactly how much a manager helps a team. Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus talked to some industry people and the average response was around three wins. Jon Shepherd at Camden Depot, a blog dedicated to the Baltimore Orioles, did some research into Buck Showalter and found that he has been one of the best over the last few seasons. Many have tried and failed to come up with a number, a baseline, and a way to determine how much a manager actually impacts a game, but the Orioles have certainly enjoyed Showalter’s tenure.
In a deeply flawed AL East, the Orioles have to be considered a strong candidate to emerge as the division champion. The Orioles had no trouble persevering through injuries last season to run away with division crown and nothing overly significant sticks out in the form of regression. The Orioles were 32-23 in one-run games, good at home and on the road, and were only two wins above their expected record using the Pythagorean Win-Loss record. Pyth W-L uses run differential to split out a team’s expected record to compare to a team’s actual record. It’s unlikely that the Orioles will go 47-29 against the AL East again, but it’s hard to say that anybody outside of Boston has improved all that much.
The Orioles were projected to be a .500 team last year and they flew well past that. Perception has not changed in the lead-up to the 2015 season. BetOnline opened the Orioles at 81.5, the same number that Westgate Superbook came out with in Las Vegas. The Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno opened 84.5.
Key additions: Wesley Wright, J.P. Arencibia
Key losses: Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller
It’s been a very quiet offseason for the Orioles, at least on the player side of things. General Manager Dan Duquette was nearly acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays, but the teams could not agree on compensation and there were some other hurdles that could not be overcome.
It’s clear that the additions that the Orioles made don’t exactly get anybody hot and bothered about their chances to improve. In fact, people handicapping solely on what happened this past offseason will have a negative view of the Orioles. Nelson Cruz had a career year last season and cashed in with the Seattle Mariners. Cruz hit 40 home runs and posted a .271/.333/.525 slash line. The only season Cruz had that rated better by wRC+ was his 2010 campaign with the Texas Rangers. Cruz had a .348 BABIP and hit .318, a full 50 points above his career batting average. His loss will hurt the offense.
Longtime Baltimore Oriole Nick Markakis will don a new uniform for the first time in his Major League career after signing with the Atlanta Braves. Markakis had a nice bounce back season after a horrible 2013.
Andrew Miller was dynamite in 23 appearances for the Orioles, but he got huge money to be in the New York Yankees bullpen. Wesley Wright will slide into that lefty matchup role and should be a solid reliever at a fraction of the price, though certainly not the impact type of arm that Miller has.
Why bet the over?
The Orioles took a very conservative approach to the offseason because what they have coming back is probably better than any free agent they could have picked up. Manny Machado, arguably the team’s most valuable player from a WAR standpoint, was limited to 82 games and 354 plate appearances. Machado missed all of April and then suffered a serious knee injury in August that ended his 2014 season. Machado was worth 2.5 fWAR in 82 games and he was on pace for a better offensive season than he had in 2013, when he was worth 6.3 fWAR. He’s a special player and his health is a major key to the season, given the lost production from Cruz and Markakis.
Matt Wieters is the forgotten guy in Baltimore’s injury-plagued 2014 season. Wieters was limited to just 26 games and 112 plate appearances because he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. Seeing a catcher go through Tommy John surgery is certainly a rarity, but there’s far less worry and risk with regards to a second procedure with a catcher. Wieters has reliably been a well above average catcher over the course of his career at a terrible offensive position with a good set of defensive skills. Caleb Joseph, Steve Clevenger, and Nick Hundley did an admirable job without Wieters, combining for one win above replacement player, but it’s clear that Wieters will be an upgrade.
While Chris Davis was getting a crash course in regression, Steve Pearce was busy having a career year in 2015. The 31-year-old first baseman posted a 161 wRC+ in 102 games in his first season as an (almost) everyday player. Pearce will turn 32 during the second week of the season, so who knows if this is a sustainable development, but there’s not a lot in the statistical profile that screams regression. Pearce’s .322 BABIP could come down some, but his plate discipline rates are right in line with most of his career numbers. The power numbers will come down, however, some of the counting statistics could stay the same or go up because Pearce is in line for more than 338 plate appearances after a season like the one he just had.
That brings us back to Chris Davis. Davis was a monster in 2013, posting a video game slash line of .286/.370/.634(!!) with 53 home runs and a 30 percent strikeout rate. In 148 fewer plate appearances, Davis hit 26 home runs, struck out 33 percent of the time, and dropped to a .196/.300/.404 slash. His BABIP fell from .336 to .242, well below his career mark of .320. Davis was suspended for the final month of the season for violating the league’s amphetamine policy.
Fifty-three home runs are probably not attainable again, but Davis should pull most of his statistics up from the depths of hell. He was victimized by the league’s increased number of defensive shifts and that zapped most of his ability to get on pace via something other than an extra base hit. The projection system Steamer has Davis in line for a .242/.326/.477 with 30 home runs. That’s an increase of 28 percent by wRC+. That’s significant and would go a long way to replacing Cruz’s power production.
The Orioles should once again be one of the league’s top defensive teams and that will go a long way into helping a pitching staff that lacks household names. Wei-Yin Chen led the Orioles in fWAR last season with 2.6 and he won 16 games with a 3.54 ERA for the traditional statheads among us. Among the 20 pitchers that made appearances for the Orioles, 11 of them posted ERAs better than their FIPs. Twelve of those 20 pitchers threw at least 50 innings and 10 of them posted better ERAs than FIPs. That’s the quantifiable proof that the Orioles defense is terrific and it has a direct impact on the pitching staff.
One of the two pitchers in that group of 12 that did not “overachieve” against his advanced metrics is Kevin Gausman. Gausman made 20 starts for the Birds and was strong with a 3.57 ERA, a 3.41 FIP, and a 3.93 xFIP. Baltimore backers should expect Gausman to get even better this season. This was his first full test as a starter at the Major League level and his strikeout rate from the minors did not translate to the bigs. Gausman shows good control and flashed plus command last season, holding opponents to a 5.8 percent HR/FB%. That number will probably go up and affect his ERA, but the strikeout totals will also climb and that’s not a bad trade-off at all. The 24-year-old could be headed for a breakout season with a spike in K’s and a fantastic defense behind him.
He took a circuitous route in getting there, but Chris Tillman wound up with another solid season, posting a 3.34 ERA despite a drop-off in strikeouts. The reason for Tillman’s better ERA was his command. Tillman went from 33 home runs allowed in 206.1 innings in 2013 to 21 home runs allowed in 207.1 innings this past season. Tillman’s 2014 season was a tale of two halves. He posted a 4.11 ERA with a 4.49 FIP in the first half and a 2.33 ERA with a 3.38 FIP in the second half. Despite the uneven splits, Tillman is somewhere in between and that makes him a solid middle of the rotation starter and a guy that should be counted on for a reliable performance.
There’s not much, outside of Gausman, that screams upside with the Orioles rotation, but they don’t walk a lot of guys and have no qualms about pitching to contact with the defense behind them. It should also be noted that the Orioles are likely to replace Ubaldo Jimenez’s 22 terrible starts from 2014 with somebody else and that’s going to be addition by subtraction in all likelihood.
Would you be shocked to know that three of the top bullpens in WAR last season were in the AL East? One of them was the Baltimore Orioles, whose 4.6 fWAR tied with the Miami Marlins for the fifth-best team total in baseball last season. Failed starter Zach Britton found a home in the ninth inning and saved 37 ballgames with a 1.65 ERA. Quirky right-hander Darren O’Day and another failed starter, Brian Matusz, formed the perfect bridge to Britton. O’Day is murder on righties as he held them to a .162/.250/.247 slash line and Matusz held lefties to a .221/.277/.350 slash. Yet another failed starter, Tommy Hunter, posted a 2.97 ERA and 3.15 FIP over 60 appearances. His control and command in short bursts were very effective, as he walked just five percent of the batters he faced and over 50 percent of balls in play were hit on the ground.
There’s a lot of volatility in bullpens, so they are always a concern, no matter how dominant they were the previous season. There’s something to be said, however, about a team that was 87-16 when tied or ahead at the start of the seventh inning. Whether or not that’s sustainable is anybody’s guess, but the Orioles won close games and Showalter managed the bullpen beautifully.
Why bet the under?
While the Orioles dealt with some key injuries on the offensive side of things, they stayed remarkably healthy as a pitching staff. The Orioles only used 20 pitchers last season. The Seattle Mariners also used 20 pitchers and you notice that they exceeded expectations. As teams get deeper down the organizational depth chart, finding players that can perform above replacement-level is hard to do. Four relievers posted 60 or more appearances. Everybody that started a game, outside of T.J. McFarland’s spot start, started at least 20 games. Staying healthy over 162 games is one of the biggest keys to going over the posted win total. The Orioles pitching staff did that and it’s a big reason why they won 96 games. Betting on similar health is probably not wise.
Twenty-seven of Nelson Cruz’s 40 home runs either came when the game was tied or the Orioles were trailing. Manufacturing innings was not exactly the strength of the offense. Their 6.5 percent walk rate was the fourth-lowest in baseball and nobody stole fewer bases than the Orioles. Put it all together and the Orioles posted a wRC+ of 104. In the age of dwindling offense, a wRC+ of 104 was good enough for sixth, but Cruz had a lot to do with that because of the power he provided. The Orioles will get Manny Machado and Matt Wieters back, but power was such a big element of their offense last season and it’s fair to wonder who will pick up the slack.
Speaking of power, let’s talk about the aforementioned Steve Pearce. Pearce’s wRC+ of 161 and team-high .404 wOBA went against conventional baseball wisdom. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to post a career year in his age-31 season, but that’s what Pearce did. Is Pearce simply an anomaly? He certainly could be because 2014 marked the first season in which he received full playing time. But those expecting a repeat of 2014 are probably going to be disappointed.
Among players with at least 150 plate appearances, six Baltimore Orioles rated above league average in wRC+. One was Pearce. Another was Delmon Young, whose statistical profile screams regression. Another was Nelson Cruz, who is no longer with the team. Another was Nick Markakis, who is no longer with the team. Adam Jones, who is an elite-level player, and Machado were the other two. It’s fair to be concerned about the Orioles offense. Teams that work counts and make consistent contact are safer bets than teams that live by bashing home runs.
As mentioned above, the majority of the Orioles’ pitching staff outpitched their true performance because of the defense. By xFIP, the Orioles ranked 25th in baseball. By SIERA, which is skill-interactive ERA, the Orioles ranked 24th. By ERA, the Orioles ranked seventh. It all depends on what you believe in. Statistically, it would appear that regression is coming….
Pick: Under 81.5
And it certainly could. This is a really tough team to gauge because they are going to get some very important position players back from injury. Unfortunately, some key position players from last season are due to experience regression and Nelson Cruz is gone. The starting rotation has the same questions that it had entering last season. While I believe Kevin Gausman can take a step forward, concerns about his secondary stuff exist and are very real and he’s probably the most important pitcher to Baltimore being able to sustain what they have done over the last two seasons.
Another concern, in some respects, is that the Orioles only have three players under guaranteed contract for next season. They are Adam Jones, Ubaldo Jimenez, and J.J. Hardy. If this season doesn’t go as planned for the Orioles, they have some attractive, tradable assets to try and build for the future. Three of them, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Wei-Yin Chen, are Scott Boras clients and that means that they will test the market. Bud Norris and Darren O’Day are two pitchers that would garner a lot of attention at the trade deadline. The Orioles may opt to go for it and extend qualifying offers to Davis and Wieters, but it’s something that you have to consider with what amounts to a six-month investment over a 162-game season.
This is still a great defensive team, and I have found inefficiencies in win totals numbers that don’t accurately predict defense. The reason is because defensive stats don’t have a high correlation rate, but it’s a pretty safe bet who will be good defensively and who won’t be. The Orioles will be very good and that’s why I’m hesitant to go under, but I think the wins that the Orioles picked up last season and going to be spread among other teams this season. The O’s were 47-29 against the East and that doesn’t happen again.
I’ve changed my mind three times on this number. When it first opened 84.5 at Atlantis, the under was the play. When Westgate opened 81.5, I wrote up a reason to take the over. This is not a strong play. Betting against Buck Showalter isn’t easy. I’ll trust my reads on some of the other teams in the AL East that will improve and tentatively roll with the Orioles below the number.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
It wasn’t the season that the Baltimore Orioles had hoped for in 2013, but the Orioles won more games than they lost in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1996-97. The Orioles weren’t able to repeat their entertaining playoff run from 2012, a season in which they won 93 games, but it had to be considered another successful year for Baltimore.
The Orioles were victims of regression in 2013. The 2012 Orioles won 93 games despite scoring just seven more runs than they allowed. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss record was a very pedestrian 82-80 mark. The Orioles were ridiculously good in one-run decisions, going 29-9 in those games. Even though the 2013 team got significantly more production from its position players, 14 more wins above replacement player per Fangraphs’s calculations, the Orioles won eight fewer games. Outliers in baseball, like a spectacular record in one-run games, a batting average on balls in play that’s too high, an ERA well below a FIP, and so on, tend to normalize either over the course of the season or in the following season. The 2013 Orioles were 20-31 in one-run games and had the exact same record as their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark.
While the offense and defense improved in 2013, the pitching staff did not. Entering the 2014 season, that’s the concern for the Orioles. The Superbook at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino opened the Orioles win total at 78. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV was a bit more ambitious about the Orioles, opening at 80.5. William Hill also opened at 80.5.
Key additions: Ubaldo Jimenez, Jemile Weeks, David Lough, Suk-min Yoon
Key losses: Jim Johnson, Scott Feldman, Nate McLouth, Jason Hammel, Brian Roberts
Up until Monday, it had been a rather uneventful offseason in Baltimore. The biggest hole for the Orioles was the starting rotation and they bought a $50M plug to fill it. The Orioles inked Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year deal, giving them a de facto number one starter for a rotation that sorely needed an upgrade.
The Orioles began the offseason by trying to cut money in their bullpen and fill a hole at second base with the trade of closer Jim Johnson to Oakland for Jemile Weeks. The assumption was that Johnson’s money could go towards the signing of a starting pitcher like A.J. Burnett, who lives in Maryland during the offseason, but things haven’t fallen into place yet. Weeks has been a below-replacement-level player for the Athletics, which makes the Johnson move seem like nothing more than a salary dump.
Because of the success of Wei-Yin Chen, who has accumulated 4.3 WAR in his 55 Major League starts, the Orioles took a chance on South Korean free agent Suk-min Yoon. At the time of writing, Yoon’s signing had not yet been announced, but it is expected to be normal more than a formality. Chen, originally from Taiwan, and Yoon will be expected to fill the void left by the losses of Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel. Feldman, an early July trade acquisition signed with the Houston Astros. Hammel will be missed in the sense that he’s a competent Major League arm, but injuries really hampered him over the last two seasons.
David Lough is the most intriguing Orioles pickup of the offseason. The former Kansas City Royal is viewed as a plus-defender with some offensive upside. He’s a very good replacement for Nate McLouth.
Brian Roberts is largely a loss in name-only, as Roberts, once a top-five second baseman in baseball, has averaged just over 200 plate appearances per season since 2010.
Why bet the over?
Baltimore is one of the teams that has the luxury of tailoring the team to its ballpark. Camden Yards is a very good hitter’s park in the summertime and the Orioles’ power output illustrates that. The Orioles led all of baseball in 2013 with 212 home runs. Four players hit more than 20 home runs for the Orioles, paced by Chris Davis’s breakout season with 53 bombs. Davis was the league’s most valuable first baseman according to Fangraphs’s WAR calculation.
With the Orioles, you can expect production out of their key offensive positions. Davis may not put up the same video game numbers, but he has tremendous power, good plate discipline, and a very friendly park to hit in. Adam Jones continues to be one of the game’s most unsung superstars. He’s a terrific defender, an outstanding hitter, and is in the heart of his prime. Manny Machado is one of the league’s most electrifying players, accumulating 6.2 WAR in 2013. He is a perennial Gold Glove candidate at third base, which is incredible given that shortstop is his natural position. Machado, who will turn 21 this July, rose rapidly through the minors, so there could be some untapped offensive potential at the big league level awaiting him as he gets a better understanding of the art of hitting and more familiarity with the pitchers.
The core group of position players, including catcher Matt Wieters, who has finished third in caught stealing percentage in each of the last three seasons, are a group that you can rely on to produce. In large part because of Machado, the Orioles finished second in defensive value. The way to help out a marginal pitching staff is to field the ball and not give the opposition extra base runners. The Orioles did well with that last season and team defense appears to be a strength again.
What the Orioles lack in pitching depth, they make up in position player depth. Ryan Flaherty did a good job, at least defensively, filling in at second base with Brian Roberts out. He’ll be a utility man this season. Guys like Quintin Berry and Tyler Colvin provide good defensive insurance in the outfield.
Maybe Ubaldo Jimenez is truly fixed. The former Cleveland Indian and Colorado Rockie was a stud down the stretch for the Indians, posting a 1.66 ERA and a 1.28 FIP over his final eight starts. The swings and misses were back, the velocity started to return, and, perhaps most importantly, Jimenez was a confident pitcher once again. He ended the year with a 3.30 ERA and a 3.43 FIP, indicating that his performance was no fluke.
Oddsmakers could be underrating the rest of the Orioles pitching staff, a group that boasts a lot of league average type starters and some help from within the organization that could have an impact. Chris Tillman was one of 2013’s pleasant surprises, posting a 16-7 record and a 3.71 ERA to build off of an impressive 15-start stint in 2012. Miguel Gonzalez is a crafty righty who induces a good amount of weak contact, which helps hide his below average strikeout rate. Bud Norris showed swing-and-miss stuff after being acquired from the Houston Astros and his sabermetric stats like FIP and SIERA indicate that he should be much better this season.
Wei-Yin Chen should be around league average again, which is actually a good thing for the Orioles. Back-end of the rotation starting pitchers that can perform at a league average level are pretty desirable commodities. Add Suk-min Yoon into the same boat, though it’s unclear what the expectations are for Yoon at this point. The sky is the limit for former first-round pick Kevin Gausman, who regularly sits 96+ with the fastball, but command and control issues have plagued him during his Major League appearances. If he can smooth out his mechanics and delivery, Gausman could enough to push the Orioles over their win total.
After the departure of Jim Johnson, and the Orioles’ failure to sign Grant Balfour earlier this offseason, Tommy Hunter appears to be the guy in line for save opportunities. Hunter failed as a starter with both the Rangers and Orioles, but his profile as a late-inning reliever seems more favorable. After making the transition to relief, Hunter’s average fastball velocity climbed four miles per hour. Without needing a third pitch at his disposal, Hunter could thrive in a role that fits him better.
Behind Hunter, the Orioles have a couple of interesting matchup relievers. Slingshot sidearmer Darren O’Day is murder on right-handed batters, while Brian Matusz proved to be extremely effective in a lefty matchup role, holding lefties to a .164/.225/.277 slash line. It remains to be seen how pitch-to-contact righty Ryan Webb will do away from the National League, but he will be one of the few guys in the Orioles pen without big splits.
The Orioles have some power bats capable of winning games by the long ball and project to be a good fielding team. The rotation, while lacking big names, is talented enough to battle this team to a .500 or better season.
Why bet the under?
The Orioles pitching staff is a major question mark. There’s absolutely no guarantee that Ubaldo Jimenez is fixed. Through his first 24 starts in 2013, Jimenez posted a 4.00 ERA and a 4.33 FIP. The ERA is above league average, the FIP is not. Jimenez improved on his ground ball rate in 2013 with the help of Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, but if he drifts towards being more of a fly ball pitcher, Camden Yards will not be friendly to him. Not only is the rotation a question mark from a talent perspective, even with Jimenez, the Orioles ranked 22nd in innings pitched by starters in 2013. Jimenez averaged less than six innings per start, even taking into account his strong stretch to end the season. With depth being a serious concern in the bullpen, starters consistently exiting in the fifth or sixth inning will put a lot of strain on an already thin bullpen.
Tillman, who was inexplicably the starter in the All-Star Game, overachieved a bit in 2013. A spike in strikeouts was a huge help to Tillman, but he stranded over 80 percent of his runners (league average is around 72 percent) and he was rather lucky on balls in play with a .269 BABIP against. FIP, or fielder independent pitching, evaluates pitchers on what they can control – strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs allowed. Tillman’s FIP was over half a run higher than his ERA. Usually, an ERA-FIP discrepancy of that size would indicate some regression. Tillman was fortunate that 24 of the 37 home runs he allowed were solo home runs. He may not be so lucky this season.
Like Tillman, Gonzalez also had a large discrepancy between his ERA and FIP. It’s the second straight season that has happened for Gonzalez, so he may just be one of the guys that bucks the trend, but that’s not a comfortable position to take.
Orioles starters tied with the Twins for the league’s worst FIP and the Twins had one of the lowest strikeout rates in recent history. This group doesn’t appear any better on paper, unless Gausman is able to figure it out in a hurry.
Outside of a rotation that would do well to be league average, the bullpen lacks depth and will have an inexperienced closer pitching the ninth inning. The primary setup men, O’Day and Matusz, have four combined saves. After the fiasco surrounding the potential signing of Grant Balfour, the Orioles decided to abandon the plan to use a free agent closer and trust the in-house guys. This could be a bullpen in a state of flux all season long, especially if Hunter can’t hold down the closer role.
What the Orioles have in power, they lack in getting on base. The Orioles had the third-highest slugging percentage last season, but tied for 17th in on-base percentage. Of the team’s 212 home runs, 125 were solo home runs and 59 more were hit with only one runner on. Not that home runs are a bad thing by any means, but the Orioles would be in a much better position to maximize their power if they had guys who could get on base more frequently.
All that you need to know about the Orioles’ power is that they lacked in so many other areas that the team’s wRC+ was exactly league average. The Orioles hit 18 more home runs at home, a big part of why they were 11 games above .500 at home and three games below .500 on the road.
For all of Wieters’s defensive prowess throwing out runners, he has registered as one of the game’s worst pitch framers each of the last two seasons. This Orioles pitching staff will need all of the help that it can get. With the fact that they already pitch to contact and gave up the most home runs per nine innings in baseball, there are too many negative trends to expect to Orioles to have a good season.
Pick: Over 78
With the addition of Jimenez likely providing two or three additional wins for the Birds, the lean would be to the over here. This is a talented offense that can out-hit some of its pitching shortcomings. They’re a scrappy team under manager Buck Showalter and they have good depth to withstand some of the nagging injury situations that are sure to pop up. The bullpen is a big concern, but Jimenez adds some depth to the rotation and the oddsmakers may be undervaluing guys like Norris and Chen. It’s a tough division and the bullpen could blow its share of leads, but a second full season for Machado and the emergence of Davis make this a very competitive team.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.