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.