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May 18, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Yeah, But is it Gonna Fly?

by Jay Jaffe

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Don't look now, but with Thursday's win over the Royals and losses by both the Rangers and Red Sox, the Orioles assumed the American League's best record at 25-14. They've built a modest buffer against at least some of the usual suspects, leading the Rays by one game in the AL East standings, the Blue Jays by four, the Yankees by four and a half, and the Sox by six and a half. It's the Orioles' best record at this juncture since they started 26-13 in 2005 and held onto first place in the division until June 23, 72 games into the season. Of course, that hot start turned out to be just another mirage, one of so many over the past 14 seasons en route to yet another losing record. Hell, the O's haven't even won 70 games since 2006. Does this hot start mean that Buck Showalter's bunch has turned the corner?

PECOTA is somewhat optimistic; coming into Thursday, our forecast-driven Playoff Odds report gave the team a 24.0 percent chance of making the postseason, projecting them for 81.6 wins overall. That wouldn't take them into the playoffs, but anything in the vicinity of .500 would represent huge progress for the organization, particularly in the wake of last November's off-the-reservation choice of Dan Duquette as their new general manager.

From our system's standpoint, the main problem is that the Orioles' .641 winning percentage isn't particularly reflective of how well they've played. They've outscored opponents by just 18 runs, still the third-best run differential in the league, but not as good as the Blue Jays (+25), and hell and gone from the Rangers (+77). As of Wednesday's Adjusted Standings, their first-order Pythagorean winning percentage, based upon runs scored and runs allowed, was a more modest .544, again fourth in the league and third in the division. Meanwhile, their first-order delta (the difference between their actual total and their first-order projection) of 2.7 wins was the league's second-highest behind only the Indians.

Their second-order Pythagorean winning percentage, based upon run elements (hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, etc.) and adjusted for scoring environment (park and league), was a solid but hardly exceptional .530 (fifth in the league and third in the division), mainly because their offense had overachieved by a few runs; the team's second-order delta of 3.9 wins was the league's highest.

The club’s third-order Pythagorean winning percentage, adjusted for the quality of opponents' pitching and hitting—both slightly above average, in their case—was .533, and again, their delta of 3.7 wins was the AL's highest. So the Orioles are overachieving, not only relative to our pre-season expectations (74 wins), but also to the results we could have expected from their own performance once we've accounted for the major ways that it can be distorted.

On the offensive side, the team's 4.66 runs per game ranks fourth in the league, 0.31 runs above the league average (all stats through Wednesday). Their .251 batting average is a point below the league level, their .313 on-base percentage six points below—not helped by the league's fifth-worst walk rate at 7.5 percent—but their .448 slugging percentage is fourth, and their 60 home runs is tops. Not all of that owes to Camden Yards; their .264 True Average (sixth in the league) confirms that they've been a legitimately above-average offensive club even once you adjust for park. They've been particularly tough against lefties (.273/.344/.455) to the extent they've seen them (eight starts plus various relief appearances totaling 22 percent of their plate appearances), but soft touches against righties (.245/.303/.446).

Interestingly enough, the Orioles have hit 31 homers at Camden Yards and 29 on the road, homering in 4.1 percent of their plate appearances in both halves of the split. The team is second in the majors to the Yankees in their Guillen Number, the percentage of runs they derive from homers; their 48.6 percent trails only the Bronx Bombers' 51.4 percent. That's more descriptive than prescriptive; they were second to the Yankees last year as well and it didn't help their cause all that much. What's striking about the homers is that the Orioles aren't even getting maximum benefit from them. An MLB-high 40 have come with the bases empty, eight more than the nearest clubs, the Yankees and Rays; in those situations, the O's are batting .255/.321/.469, for MLB's fourth-highest OPS. The 20 homers they've hit with men on base ranks a still-impressive fifth in the majors, but their overall line in such situations is just .245/.300/.416, for the 12th-worst OPS in the majors; the OBP is 30 points below the major-league average with men on base, the slugging percentage 12 points above.

Individually, what stands out is who among the hitters is doing the overachieving relative to expectations:

Player

Age

PA

HR

AVG/OBP/SLG

TAv

PECOTA TAv

Dif

Nolan Reimold

28

69

5

.313/.333/.627

.332

.276

.056

Adam Jones

26

167

12

.295/.341/.590

.313

.271

.042

Matt Wieters

26

147

8

.260/.340/.511

.295

.264

.031

Robert Andino

28

144

3

.280/.331/.394

.255

.233

.022

J.J. Hardy

29

171

9

.261/.310/.497

.270

.264

.006

Wilson Betemit

30

109

6

.232/.294/.465

.268

.263

.005

Chris Davis

26

130

5

.281/.323/.463

.268

.272

-.004

Nick Markakis

28

172

6

.247/.331/.433

.276

.284

-.008

Mark Reynolds

28

108

2

.191/.324/.337

.244

.281

-.037

Nick Johnson

33

63

2

.167/.286/.352

.220

.276

-.056

Endy Chavez

34

65

0

.133/.175/.167

.119

.235

-.116

Jones and Wieters were long ago forecast for superstardom, and while both have had put together some good years—Jones reached 4.0 WARP in both 2009 and 2011, while Wieters was at 3.4 last year—neither has shown signs of approaching their ceilings until now, in their age-26 seasons. The former is already more than halfway to last season's 25 homers after his shot on Thursday (not included in the stats above), his third in as many days; he's now tied for second in the league behind Josh Hamilton. Nine of those homers have either tied the game or given the Orioles the lead, including his 15th-inning shot on Wednesday night to down the Royals. Furthermore, Jones is second in the league in total bases and third in slugging percentage (now .604). The only real ding in his game is his 5.3 percent walk rate, just above his 4.8 percent career mark, though he's striking out in just 15.8 percent of his plate appearances, well below his career mark of 19.4 percent.

As for Wieters, a 4-for-31 week has taken some of the shine off those numbers, but his slugging percentage is 88 points above his career mark, and his 9.5 percent walk rate would represent a career high, nearly a full percentage point above his career mark. Along with that offense, he has become a standout defender, having won the Fielding Bible award as the game's best defensive catcher last year. This year, he has gunned down 35 percent of would-be base thieves and has yet to allow a passed ball (he allowed only one last year).

That's an enviable pair of up-the-middle talents just entering their prime, the foundation of a winning team. To that mix, the O's have added an above-expected performance from Andino, filling in admirably from Brian Roberts, who hasn't played a game in a full year due to post-concussion syndrome, and they've gotten more-or-less on-target performances from Hardy, Betemit, Davis, and Markakis. Though still striking out all too much and not walking enough (36/7 K/BB ratio), Davis is producing at a clip that would represent his best since his 2008 rookie campaign; he hit just .238/.289/.406 from 2009-2011 while striking out 33 percent of the time and shuttling to Triple-A and back.

Left field is currently the lineup's biggest problem. Reimold, who has struggled to match his solid 2009 rookie season (.279/.365/.466), enjoyed a blistering first few weeks, at one point homering five times in an eight-day span. Alas, a bulging disc in his neck has sidelined him since April 30; he has been experiencing tingling and soreness from his left thumb up to his shoulder and appears headed for a second epidural injection, which could push his timetable into mid-June. Chavez, with whom he split time, has been worse than terrible, and Showalter has tried four other players there over the past two weeks, including Betemit and utilityman Bill Hall. Xavier Avery, a 22-year-old rookie, was recalled from Triple-A on Sunday and has since drawn five starts. He's a toolsy speedster who had already exceeded last year's home run total during his month at Triple-A (.273/.373/.469 with five homers in 153 PA), but he has never slugged above .389 at any other level and isn't likely to produce at a level befitting a regular left fielder at this stage.

Reynolds, who has split time at third base with Betemit and at DH with Johnson—with all three spotting at first base as well—has been the lineup's biggest disappointment, striking out 33 percent of the time and playing cringeworthy defense. He went on the disabled list last week with an oblique strain, so at least that's not a problem at the moment. Johnson, playing in the majors for the first time since early 2010 after overcoming a right wrist injury, literally went 0-for-April (30 PA, 26 AB) but is hitting .321/.424/.679 in 33 PA this month, emerging as a DH threat against righties.

On the other side of the ball, the O's have had their share of surprises, too. They own the league's second-best ERA at 3.42, but that mark is misleading, as their 24 unearned runs are six more than the next-highest AL team. They're actually just eighth in run prevention at 4.24 runs per game, 0.11 better than league average, but after ranking either 13th or 14th in each of the previous six years—and being better than ninth just once since 1999—that is significant progress. Their home run, walk, and strikeout rates—1.0, 3.0, and 7.1 per nine, respectively—are all right around league average, while their .703 Defensive Efficiency is three points above; their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) is actually second in the league.

Collectively, the rotation has been solid but unspectacular, with a 50 percent quality start rate and a 4.13 ERA (both eighth in the league), and a 4.58 Fair Run Average (sixth). Jason Hammel, acquired from Colorado over the winter in a trade for Jeremy Guthrie, has spun a 2.68 ERA (and 3.62 FRA) through seven starts while relying up on a new sinker that has helped push his ground-ball rate to the majors' seventh-highest at 59 percent (up from 46 percent last year). He's also striking out 8.5 per nine. He recently skipped a turn due to soreness in his knee and returned to get roughed up by the Yankees, but it looks as though he'll avoid the disabled list. Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen, a 26-year-old rookie, has posted an even lower 2.45 ERA (along with a 3.63 FRA) while ranking as the majors' most extreme fly-baller; both he and Hammel have been helped by low BABIPs, .270 and .265, respectively. The pair represent feathers in the cap of Duquette, who traded the staff workhorse and went a rather unconventional route in rounding up enough pitching to buy the team's former blue-chip prospects—Jake Arietta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman—time to right themselves.

Tillman is currently plodding at Triple-A, while Britton is working his way back from shoulder inflammation and a PRP injection. Arrieta and Matsuz are in the big club's rotation; both have ERAs above 5.00, though their peripherals have been much better, and their Fair Run Averages are around 4.50. The former, who underwent season-ending surgery last August to remove bone spurs in his elbow, has posted strong strikeout and walk rates (7.8 and 2.2, respectively), but he's been a bit gopher-prone (1.3 per nine). The latter has somewhat overcome the troubles that led to last year's double-digit ERA catastrophe, and while he's walking too many hitters (4.1 per nine), giving up too many homers (1.2 per nine), and being scorched for a .346 BABIP, he has stopped the bleeding long enough to stay in a ballgame. Tommy Hunter's 4.78 ERA is middle-of-the-pack here, but his 1.8 HR/9 and 5.1 K/9 are both the worst of the rotation, as is his 6.05 FRA. At least he's averaging more than six innings per turn, as are all the other starters besides Matusz.

The bullpen has been a source of strength, though its 2.18 ERA (second in the league) doesn't reflect its league-worst rate of allowing 39 percent of inherited runners to score; still, its 4.20 Fair Run Average ranks fourth. It's an effective if unconventional bunch; the team is 14-1 when leading after six innings and 15-0 when leading after seven, but the unit's 7.2 strikeouts per nine ranks just 11th. They're getting by because they're limiting baserunners via the league's fourth-best unintentional walk rate (2.6 per nine), and third-best BABIP (.251), though the latter won't hold up given that K rate.

Jim Johnson isn't anybody's idea of a prototypical closer given his sinker-heavy repertoire and lack of swing-and-miss stuff, but he has converted all 13 save opportunities while allowing just one run in 17 2/3 innings this year, that on a solo homer. Set-up men Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, and Matt Lindstrom all have ERAs under 2.00 while pitching in high-leverage roles, though they're succeeding as much on BABIP as anything else; the first two are below .220, helping Strop offset his walks and Ayala his lack of strikeouts. Lindstrom is whiffing a batter per inning while maintaining the control he found with the Rockies last year. All three are relatively new to the organization; Strop was acquired from the Rangers for Mike Gonzalez last September 1, Ayala was signed for just $925,000 after resurrecting his career with the Yankees last year, and Lindstrom came over from Colorado with Hammel. Waiver pickup Darren O'Day, a side-armer, has an ERA below 2.00, a .244 BABIP, and the unit's best strikeout rate (9.8 per nine), but he's been toiling in lower-leverage duty, as has displaced closer Kevin Gregg, the only reliever making more than $2.8 million this year. At least he hasn't been pitching to contract, get it?

The Orioles have enjoyed solid stretches under Showalter before. They went 34-23 after he took over in late 2010 and finished last season on a 22-16 run, just when you thought that the 47-77 trudge that preceded it had killed whatever optimism that might have carried over. Between that late-2011 run and this one, they're now 47-30 in their last 77 games, for a .610 winning percentage, though just a +16 run differential. Including that stretch, they've been playing over their heads for nearly half a season. They're a long way from a playoff spot, but at least their heads are above water. They're 13-11 against teams with records of .500 or better, and with some reinforcements for the rotation (Britton for Hunter, eventually) and the lineup (Reimold or anybody for left field), they could continue to make life difficult for the rest of the AL East.

* * *

If the archive count is correct, this marks my 620th column or blog entry at BP over the past eight-plus years, not including multi-author contributions, and my last one as a multi-weekly columnist. If you missed Monday's announcement or don't follow me on Twitter (da noive!), you missed the news that I will be shifting my attention to starting up a new blog called Hit and Run at SI.com, scheduled to launch early next week. I will still be contributing here twice a month and pitching in via Lineup Cards, chats, ballpark events, book projects and so forth—you're not rid of me yet. Nonetheless, it's an appropriate time for me to thank you readers again for following along, and for providing so much encouragement and feedback over the years. I hope that you will continue to do so at my new venue, while at the same time continuing to support BP. The names have changed greatly from when I came aboard, but the tradition of great writing and analysis lives on in these virtual pages.

Don't look now, but with Thursday's win over the Royals and losses by both the Rangers and Red Sox, the Orioles assumed the American League's best record at 25-14. They've built a modest buffer against at least some of the usual suspects, leading the Rays by one game in the AL East standings, the Blue Jays by four, the Yankees by four and a half, and the Sox by six and a half. It's the Orioles' best record at this juncture since they started 26-13 in 2005 and held onto first place in the division until June 23, 72 games into the season. Of course, that hot start turned out to be just another mirage, one of so many over the past 14 seasons en route to yet another losing record. Hell, the O's haven't even won 70 games since 2006. Does this hot start mean that Buck Showalter's bunch has turned the corner?

PECOTA is somewhat optimistic; coming into Thursday, our forecast-driven Playoff Odds report gave the team a 24.0 percent chance of making the postseason, projecting them for 81.6 wins overall. That wouldn't take them into the playoffs, but anything in the vicinity of .500 would represent huge progress for the organization, particularly in the wake of last November's off-the-reservation choice of Dan Duquette as their new general manager.

From our system's standpoint, the main problem is that the Orioles' .641 winning percentage isn't particularly reflective of how well they've played. They've outscored opponents by just 18 runs, still the third-best run differential in the league, but not as good as the Blue Jays (+25), and hell and gone from the Rangers (+77). As of Wednesday's Adjusted Standings, their first-order Pythagorean winning percentage, based upon runs scored and runs allowed, was a more modest .544, again fourth in the league and third in the division. Meanwhile, their first-order delta (the difference between their actual total and their first-order projection) of 2.7 wins was the league's second-highest behind only the Indians.

Their second-order Pythagorean winning percentage, based upon run elements (hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, etc.) and adjusted for scoring environment (park and league), was a solid but hardly exceptional .530 (fifth in the league and third in the division), mainly because their offense had overachieved by a few runs; the team's second-order delta of 3.9 wins was the league's highest.

The club’s third-order Pythagorean winning percentage, adjusted for the quality of opponents' pitching and hitting—both slightly above average, in their case—was .533, and again, their delta of 3.7 wins was the AL's highest. So the Orioles are overachieving, not only relative to our pre-season expectations (74 wins), but also to the results we could have expected from their own performance once we've accounted for the major ways that it can be distorted.

On the offensive side, the team's 4.66 runs per game ranks fourth in the league, 0.31 runs above the league average (all stats through Wednesday). Their .251 batting average is a point below the league level, their .313 on-base percentage six points below—not helped by the league's fifth-worst walk rate at 7.5 percent—but their .448 slugging percentage is fourth, and their 60 home runs is tops. Not all of that owes to Camden Yards; their .264 True Average (sixth in the league) confirms that they've been a legitimately above-average offensive club even once you adjust for park. They've been particularly tough against lefties (.273/.344/.455) to the extent they've seen them (eight starts plus various relief appearances totaling 22 percent of their plate appearances), but soft touches against righties (.245/.303/.446).

Interestingly enough, the Orioles have hit 31 homers at Camden Yards and 29 on the road, homering in 4.1 percent of their plate appearances in both halves of the split. The team is second in the majors to the Yankees in their Guillen Number, the percentage of runs they derive from homers; their 48.6 percent trails only the Bronx Bombers' 51.4 percent. That's more descriptive than prescriptive; they were second to the Yankees last year as well and it didn't help their cause all that much. What's striking about the homers is that the Orioles aren't even getting maximum benefit from them. An MLB-high 40 have come with the bases empty, eight more than the nearest clubs, the Yankees and Rays; in those situations, the O's are batting .255/.321/.469, for MLB's fourth-highest OPS. The 20 homers they've hit with men on base ranks a still-impressive fifth in the majors, but their overall line in such situations is just .245/.300/.416, for the 12th-worst OPS in the majors; the OBP is 30 points below the major-league average with men on base, the slugging percentage 12 points above.

Individually, what stands out is who among the hitters is doing the overachieving relative to expectations:

Player

Age

PA

HR

AVG/OBP/SLG

TAv

PECOTA TAv

Dif

Nolan Reimold

28

69

5

.313/.333/.627

.332

.276

.056

Adam Jones

26

167

12

.295/.341/.590

.313

.271

.042

Matt Wieters

26

147

8

.260/.340/.511

.295

.264

.031

Robert Andino

28

144

3

.280/.331/.394

.255

.233

.022

J.J. Hardy

29

171

9

.261/.310/.497

.270

.264

.006

Wilson Betemit

30

109

6

.232/.294/.465

.268

.263

.005

Chris Davis

26

130

5

.281/.323/.463

.268

.272

-.004

Nick Markakis

28

172

6

.247/.331/.433

.276

.284

-.008

Mark Reynolds

28

108

2

.191/.324/.337

.244

.281

-.037

Nick Johnson

33

63

2

.167/.286/.352

.220

.276

-.056

Endy Chavez

34

65

0

.133/.175/.167

.119

.235

-.116

Jones and Wieters were long ago forecast for superstardom, and while both have had put together some good years—Jones reached 4.0 WARP in both 2009 and 2011, while Wieters was at 3.4 last year—neither has shown signs of approaching their ceilings until now, in their age-26 seasons. The former is already more than halfway to last season's 25 homers after his shot on Thursday (not included in the stats above), his third in as many days; he's now tied for second in the league behind Josh Hamilton. Nine of those homers have either tied the game or given the Orioles the lead, including his 15th-inning shot on Wednesday night to down the Royals. Furthermore, Jones is second in the league in total bases and third in slugging percentage (now .604). The only real ding in his game is his 5.3 percent walk rate, just above his 4.8 percent career mark, though he's striking out in just 15.8 percent of his plate appearances, well below his career mark of 19.4 percent.

As for Wieters, a 4-for-31 week has taken some of the shine off those numbers, but his slugging percentage is 88 points above his career mark, and his 9.5 percent walk rate would represent a career high, nearly a full percentage point above his career mark. Along with that offense, he has become a standout defender, having won the Fielding Bible award as the game's best defensive catcher last year. This year, he has gunned down 35 percent of would-be base thieves and has yet to allow a passed ball (he allowed only one last year).

That's an enviable pair of up-the-middle talents just entering their prime, the foundation of a winning team. To that mix, the O's have added an above-expected performance from Andino, filling in admirably from Brian Roberts, who hasn't played a game in a full year due to post-concussion syndrome, and they've gotten more-or-less on-target performances from Hardy, Betemit, Davis, and Markakis. Though still striking out all too much and not walking enough (36/7 K/BB ratio), Davis is producing at a clip that would represent his best since his 2008 rookie campaign; he hit just .238/.289/.406 from 2009-2011 while striking out 33 percent of the time and shuttling to Triple-A and back.

Left field is currently the lineup's biggest problem. Reimold, who has struggled to match his solid 2009 rookie season (.279/.365/.466), enjoyed a blistering first few weeks, at one point homering five times in an eight-day span. Alas, a bulging disc in his neck has sidelined him since April 30; he has been experiencing tingling and soreness from his left thumb up to his shoulder and appears headed for a second epidural injection, which could push his timetable into mid-June. Chavez, with whom he split time, has been worse than terrible, and Showalter has tried four other players there over the past two weeks, including Betemit and utilityman Bill Hall. Xavier Avery, a 22-year-old rookie, was recalled from Triple-A on Sunday and has since drawn five starts. He's a toolsy speedster who had already exceeded last year's home run total during his month at Triple-A (.273/.373/.469 with five homers in 153 PA), but he has never slugged above .389 at any other level and isn't likely to produce at a level befitting a regular left fielder at this stage.

Reynolds, who has split time at third base with Betemit and at DH with Johnson—with all three spotting at first base as well—has been the lineup's biggest disappointment, striking out 33 percent of the time and playing cringeworthy defense. He went on the disabled list last week with an oblique strain, so at least that's not a problem at the moment. Johnson, playing in the majors for the first time since early 2010 after overcoming a right wrist injury, literally went 0-for-April (30 PA, 26 AB) but is hitting .321/.424/.679 in 33 PA this month, emerging as a DH threat against righties.

On the other side of the ball, the O's have had their share of surprises, too. They own the league's second-best ERA at 3.42, but that mark is misleading, as their 24 unearned runs are six more than the next-highest AL team. They're actually just eighth in run prevention at 4.24 runs per game, 0.11 better than league average, but after ranking either 13th or 14th in each of the previous six years—and being better than ninth just once since 1999—that is significant progress. Their home run, walk, and strikeout rates—1.0, 3.0, and 7.1 per nine, respectively—are all right around league average, while their .703 Defensive Efficiency is three points above; their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) is actually second in the league.

 

Collectively, the rotation has been solid but unspectacular, with a 50 percent quality start rate and a 4.13 ERA (both eighth in the league), and a 4.58 Fair Run Average (sixth). Jason Hammel, acquired from Colorado over the winter in a trade for Jeremy Guthrie, has spun a 2.68 ERA (and 3.62 FRA) through seven starts while relying up on a new sinker that has helped push his ground-ball rate to the majors' seventh-highest at 59 percent (up from 46 percent last year). He's also striking out 8.5 per nine. He recently skipped a turn due to soreness in his knee and returned to get roughed up by the Yankees, but it looks as though he'll avoid the disabled list. Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen, a 26-year-old rookie, has posted an even lower 2.45 ERA (along with a 3.63 FRA) while ranking as the majors' most extreme fly-baller; both he and Hammel have been helped by low BABIPs, .270 and .265, respectively. The pair represent feathers in the cap of Duquette, who traded the staff workhorse and went a rather unconventional route in rounding up enough pitching to buy the team's former blue-chip prospects—Jake Arietta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman—time to right themselves.

 

Tillman is currently plodding at Triple-A, while Britton is working his way back from shoulder inflammation and a PRP injection. Arrieta and Matsuz are in the big club's rotation; both have ERAs above 5.00, though their peripherals have been much better, and their Fair Run Averages are around 4.50. The former, who underwent season-ending surgery last August to remove bone spurs in his elbow, has posted strong strikeout and walk rates (7.8 and 2.2, respectively), but he's been a bit gopher-prone (1.3 per nine). The latter has somewhat overcome the troubles that led to last year's double-digit ERA catastrophe, and while he's walking too many hitters (4.1 per nine), giving up too many homers (1.2 per nine), and being scorched for a .346 BABIP, he has stopped the bleeding long enough to stay in a ballgame. Tommy Hunter's 4.78 ERA is middle-of-the-pack here, but his 1.8 HR/9 and 5.1 K/9 are both the worst of the rotation, as is his 6.05 FRA. At least he's averaging more than six innings per turn, as are all the other starters besides Matusz.

 

The bullpen has been a source of strength, though its 2.18 ERA (second in the league) doesn't reflect its league-worst rate of allowing 39 percent of inherited runners to score; still, its 4.20 Fair Run Average ranks fourth. It's an effective if unconventional bunch; the team is 14-1 when leading after six innings and 15-0 when leading after seven, but the unit's 7.2 strikeouts per nine ranks just 11th. They're getting by because they're limiting baserunners via the league's fourth-best unintentional walk rate (2.6 per nine), and third-best BABIP (.251), though the latter won't hold up given that K rate.

 

Jim Johnson isn't anybody's idea of a prototypical closer given his sinker-heavy repertoire and lack of swing-and-miss stuff, but he has converted all 13 save opportunities while allowing just one run in 17 2/3 innings this year, that on a solo homer. Set-up men Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, and Matt Lindstrom all have ERAs under 2.00 while pitching in high-leverage roles, though they're succeeding as much on BABIP as anything else; the first two are below .220, helping Strop offset his walks and Ayala his lack of strikeouts. Lindstrom is whiffing a batter per inning while maintaining the control he found with the Rockies last year. All three are relatively new to the organization; Strop was acquired from the Rangers for Mike Gonzalez last September 1, Ayala was signed for just $925,000 after resurrecting his career with the Yankees last year, and Lindstrom came over from Colorado with Hammel. Waiver pickup Darren O'Day, a sidearmer, has an ERA below 2.00, a .244 BABIP, and the unit's best strikeout rate (9.8 per nine), but he's been toiling in lower-leverage duty, as has displaced closer Kevin Gregg, the only reliever making more than $2.8 million this year. At least he hasn't been pitching to contract, get it?

 

The Orioles have enjoyed solid stretches under Showalter before. They went 34-23 after he took over in late 2010 and finished last season on a 22-16 run, just when you thought that the 47-77 trudge that preceded it had killed whatever optimism that might have carried over. Between that late-2011 run and this one, they're now 47-30 in their last 77 games, for a .610 winning percentage, though just a +16 run differential. Including that stretch, they've been playing over their heads for nearly half a season. They're a long way from a playoff spot, but at least their heads are above water. They're 13-11 against teams with records of .500 or better, and with some reinforcements for the rotation (Britton for Hunter, eventually) and the lineup (Reimold or anybody for left field), they could continue to make life difficult for the rest of the AL East.

 

* * *

 

If the archive count is correct, this marks my 620th column or blog entry at BP over the past eight-plus years, not including multi-author contributions, and my last one as a multi-weekly columnist. If you missed Monday's announcement or don't follow me on Twitter (da noive!), you missed the news that I will be shifting my attention to starting up a new blog called Hit and Run at SI.com, scheduled to launch early next week. I will still be contributing here twice a month and pitching in via Lineup Cards, chats, ballpark events, book projects and so forth—you're not rid of me yet. Nonetheless, it's an appropriate time for me to thank you readers again for following along, and for providing so much encouragement and feedback over the years. I hope that you will continue to do so at my new venue, while at the same time continuing to support BP. The names have changed greatly from when I came aboard, but the tradition of great writing and analysis lives on in these virtual pages.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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