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June 29, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Is It Next Year Yet?

by Tommy Bennett

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When you think about Baltimore cuisine, you probably think about seafood, and more particularly crab cakes. The Chesapeake offers a rich harvest of the ocean blue, but it isn’t all high quality. For example, a common cheap eat in Baltimore is known as lake trout, which has three surprising characteristics. One, it isn’t actually lake trout (although that is a real fish). Two, it isn’t actually from a lake (it’s from the Chesapeake). Three, it isn’t actually trout (it’s Atlantic whiting). For the uninitiated, the surprise of being served two filets of whiting and some white bread might be rather severe. That being said, if you don’t have much money and you’re not really used to better, get yourself some lake trout. Trouble is, lake trout isn’t very healthy, since most of the taste comes from the deep fat fryer, and a steady diet of it would get monotonous—it is, after all, a mostly bland white fish. Every once in a while, you’re going to want some steamed crabs.

The Orioles are bad again this year. When is the last time you couldn’t have said that about the team? That is, when was it that not only were the Orioles good (or at least not bad), but that they had created reasonable expectations that they would be good? Here are the Orioles’ records for each season of the last decade:

Year

Wins

Losses

2009

64

98

2008

68

93

2007

69

93

2006

70

92

2005

74

88

2004

78

84

2003

71

91

2002

67

95

2001

63

98

2000

74

88

The last time the Orioles had a winning record was 1997, when they were 98-64. Do you know how long ago 1997 was, in baseball terms? Put it this way: the only contributor to that team who is still playing major-league baseball is Arthur Rhodes, a fact that is revealing particularly because it demands some serious respect for what Rhodes is currently doing for the Reds at age 40. The last time you couldn’t really say “the Orioles are bad again this year” was during the Clinton administration.

It has not really been a decade of soul-crushing, monochromatic gruel (you know, the kind intentionally low on protein to keep you docile); that’s the diet Pirates fans have been on. Rather, it has been an awful lot of lake trout. There have been moments where Orioles baseball kind of hit the spot—at least while it lasted. There was 2005, when the team darted out to a 42-28 record on the strength of its .285/.342/.481 batting line—oh, Chris Gomez, how we never tired of your BABIP shenanigans. The year before that, the team actually outscored its opponents 842-830 and finished in third place, despite the fact that Sidney Ponson yielded an astonishing 136 runs.

That it was third place in 2004 with 78 wins demonstrates the real problem. Lake trout is nobody’s first choice of seafood. If you had a little more money, or were in some other town, you’d probably opt for something else. But that’s because other seafood can be absolutely delicious. The hegemony of teams atop the American League East is a ceiling impervious to the Orioles' charms. That they stood by while the Rays darted past them puts a particularly bitter spin on the state of affairs, but it doesn’t change the basic calculus. Since the ascent of the Red Sox and Yankees in the late '90s, the Orioles have been forced to eat fried Atlantic whiting from corner stores that insist on calling it something other than what it is.

But Hey, At Least They Get Some White Bread, Too

It was supposed to begin to turn around. Sure, it took a little wishcasting and some magic beans, but it wasn’t too hard to see a 2012 Orioles roster that featured front-line starters Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta to complement a middle of the order featuring hitters Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Josh Bell. Pretty soon, the Orioles were going to buy themselves a nice condo on the Inner Harbor and it would be bye-bye lake trout, hello crab imperial.

That plan has not worked out. Before their current four-game win streak, the Orioles had a winning percentage below .300. According to our postseason odds, the Orioles wouldn’t make the playoffs this year even if they had 100,000 shots at doing so. Even as it stands, they are on pace for a 50-112 record, which would be by far their worst season since the truly miserable 1939 St. Louis Browns went 43-111. Matusz has an ERA close to 5.00 and a SIERA that isn’t that much better—thanks, bullpen! Tillman, after finally getting called up, was torched in four starts and has a 5.91 SIERA. Arrieta? He's at 5.69. The hitters aren’t faring much better. Wieters (and his .233 TAv) has as of yet been neither deadly nor accurate. It took Jones a June on fire to reach a .255 TAv, and he still isn’t OBPing over .300. Bell is hitting a disappointing .263/.307/.438 with a 24 percent strikeout rate in 296 Triple-A Norfolk plate appearances. Only Markakis and his .295 TAv have stood above, and even his power ceiling is much lower than it once was: his .427 slugging percentage is the lowest of his five major league seasons.

Of course, a great deal of it has to do with their rough schedule. They’ve gone 8-25 against teams from the AL East, but their 15-27 record against all other opponents is considerably better. They’ve also gotten a little unlucky this year, and reading from left to right on the BP Adjusted Standings report is like washing away a little bit of awful from the 2010 Orioles. Their third-order record is 29-46, which translates to a .387 winning percentage. The Postseason Odds report projects the Orioles to win 57 games, which is some small consolation to the dignity of George McQuinn and the '39 Browns.

Things get dramatically better (on the order of six wins) when we do this because the Orioles have faced better hitters than any other team and have faced better pitchers than any other team. “Yeah, yeah,” you’re thinking, “we all know the AL East is good. But is it really that good?” I’m glad you ask, because I like to use numbers. The hitters the Orioles’ have faced have a combined .264 TAv, which is the highest mark in baseball. The pitchers they have faced have allowed a combined .254 TAv against, which is the lowest in baseball.

Doesn’t it just strike you as unfortunate that the same team that has been miserable for a decade would face not only the best hitting so far but also the best pitching? It makes sense, since they are the only bad team in the AL East, meaning they are the only team that doesn’t get to play themselves. And the AL East has played a disproportionate number of interleague games against the also-strong NL East. But, really, lake trout again?

Related Content:  Orioles,  The Atlantic

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