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September 5, 2012

Sobsequy

The Postmodern Orioles

by Adam Sobsey

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The Tides have tied the [International League] record for most players used in a season (74) and most starting pitchers used (20).—Norfolk Tides Media Notes, August 24, 2012
 

The above detail caught my eye in the press box before the Tides took on the Durham Bulls a couple of weeks ago. I appreciated the record numbers for their sheer size, but it’s easy, down here in the isolation of the minor leagues, to lose sight of what they really mean in the only context that counts.

It’s been widely observed that the Baltimore Orioles have the fourth-best record in the American League even though they have the fifth-worst run differential, outperforming their Pythagorean winning percentage by about 11 games. There have to be multiple factors that account for a team playing so far above its head, and although it would be fun if the new organizational ban on cut fastballs was one of them, it probably isn’t.

A staggering 24-7 record in one-run games is a good place to start in getting to the bottom of the Orioles’ overachievement to date, but the Norfolk Tides’ busy transaction sheet is also a helpful place to look. Not that it has escaped notice, even in the mainstream press, where Ken Rosenthal was recently all over how new sheriff Dan Duquette is “manipulating his 25-man roster aggressively.”

According to Bradley Ankrom—whose Transaction Browser for BP is immensely useful and addictively entertaining—the Orioles have made 324 transactions since Opening Day, which is second-most in baseball behind San Diego. A fair amount of this business has been injury-related, but not quite as much as I would have guessed. The Orioles have made 36 transactions involving the disabled list (placement on and activation from) this season, an 11 per cent clip that isn’t out of line with the going rate, which hovers in the 6-10 percent range. One of those moves, of course, was the obligatory “[your team here] placed Nick Johnson on the 60-day disabled list.”

(Someday, archaeologists may discover that, more than fried-chicken-and-beer and “anonymous” texting and funny-Valentine headlines, the Red Sox’ collapse this year really owes to their injury rate: 22 percent of Boston’s transactions this season have involved the disabled list, more than double the average.)

Sixty-two Orioles transactions have involved callups and options. That figure is also not out of line with the prevailing rate, although in the Orioles’ case it does make for some entertaining ATM fees: Dana Eveland was designated for assignment and outrighted three times in a six-month period. Bill Hall was DFA’d and outrighted twice in less than two weeks. It’s been my experience, from down under in Triple-A, that most recall/option moves involve relief pitchers, but the Orioles haven’t dabbled too much in that area. They’ve had a very stable bullpen this season, with a league-leading four firemen in the top 25 in appearances (they’re tied with the Rays).

The Orioles do lead the majors in one transaction category: contracts selected. Seventeen times this year, Baltimore has added to its active roster a player not already on the 40-man. The other contending teams haven’t been anywhere near as freewheeling; the outside-the-box Tampa Bay Rays, for example, have the lowest number of contracts selected in baseball, with just three since April.  (You could argue, perhaps, that they did a better job than the Orioles of assembling their 40-man roster in advance.) The Orioles’ main competition in the contracts-selected department comes from also-rans—Padres (14), Blue Jays (14), Mets (13)—who have nothing to lose except more games.

According to Rosenthal’s article, only 10 Orioles have been with the club all year. So Duquette’s willingness to play a lot of gin rummy with the active roster suggests a new way of exploiting a kind of market inefficiency, or at least of approaching rosters with a refreshing iconoclasm. If the idea of a team tends to rest on the notion of recognizable players, an integrity of composition, then this year’s Orioles are remaking that idea. It’s even a bit postmodern: the corporation is a slippery thing, hard to pin down at any one time save for the logo on the uniform. There’s a kind of old-school clinging, it seems to me from my vantage point near the machinery of Triple-A, to the sanctity of the 40-man roster, as though there’s some sort of major angst involved in taking a guy off or putting him on. Sure, you could lose Bill Hall or Dana Eveland, but does that really matter? The Orioles did lose Brad Bergesen and Miguel Socolovich. And? The Orioles seem to be saying: we only appear to have 40 players we can draw from at any given time; in fact, we will change who those 40 players are, in whatever way it suits us, on any given day.

Thus the Orioles this year have driven an old (Lew) Ford, getting him off an indy-league used car lot and giving him his first big-league action since 2007), and they briefly took the D-Train, which resulted in an ugly derailment. They have signed a Hall of Famer in his sunset years (Jim Thome). They have used the oldest man in baseball (Jamie Moyer) and also very nearly the youngest (Manny Machado). They’ve tried Mets post-season legend Endy Chavez. They’ve even re-signed their old pal Miguel Tejada, who played 162 games per season for Baltimore in three straight years. (This year, however, Tejada, didn’t even play in one: the Orioles released him while he was still in Triple-A—I saw him play for Norfolk at Durham in May, in a game in which another old salt, J. C. Romero, also appeared for the Tides. A third venerable major-league player in that game was Hideki Matsui, at that time toiling with the Durham Bulls, so you had two players on the field that night who, between them, had an AL MVP award, an All-Star Game MVP award, and a World Series MVP award. Mercy.)

The Baltimore starting rotation, especially, has been a fungible thing. That’s to a degree due to injuries, of course (e.g. Zach Britton, Jason Hammel), but there has also been a willingness to pull up unbroken but faulty anchors. Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta was ineffective (though some of his peripherals strike me as pretty good), and it was announced that he would go to the bullpen. He never pitched there, though. Instead, he was optioned to Norfolk—his first appearances in the minors since 2009—and recalled again. And optioned again. Brian Matusz, the former first-round draft pick who put up some of the worst numbers in history last year as an early-season starter, was given another chance in 2012, failed again, was sent down to Triple-A and converted to the bullpen, and recalled. He’s given up one run in five big-league appearances out of the bullpen. Dan Duquette recently went out and got Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf. The former was perfect through 5 2/3 innings on Monday and beat the Blue Jays. “We have, like, a nine-man rotation,” Chris Davis said last month.

Duquette told Rosenthal that these incessant roster moves aren’t fast and loose but, rather, sharp and tight: “When I was less experienced, I made some moves that were reactionary. These are more determined moves.” Duquette and manager Buck Showalter appear to be working very deliberately, treating the roster not as a fundamentally stable entity accommodating only minor, usually temporary additions and subtractions as the year goes on—mostly to account for injuries—but as a completely negotiable and inconstant chimera that can and should be reconfigured on a twice-daily basis. If a player isn’t performing, he is moved off. If the bullpen is consistent, as it has been, then why not tinker with the rickety starting rotation? Why not send Brian Matusz back down to Norfolk, yet again—not to “work on his mechanics” or “find himself” but, more practically and perhaps usefully, to be reconstituted himself, as a reliever.

In that sense, Norfolk has been not so much an emergency holding pen as an auxiliary arm of the Orioles themselves—and yet the overall body has a cyborg quality. It’s as though the Orioles are making up the deficit in their run differential by almost not being the Orioles from day to day, at least not the ones you thought you knew last week, last month. The team that is terrible today can be disassembled, rebuilt with new parts, and run back out on the road tomorrow to flatten you. Maybe put it like this: it isn’t about run differential; it’s about roster differential.

But what you really want to know is, did the Tides—who had both Zach Britton and his older brother, Buck, this season—break the International League record for most players used after they tied it? They did, thanks to a player by the truly fabulous name of Sammie Starr, which sounds like it ought to be a porn star’s—and is (NSFW)!

Wow, you were gone a long time. Anyway, this Sammie Starr is a Canadian infielder, a 34th-round draftee in 2010 out of the University of British Columbia who spent almost the entire 2012 season as a low-A Delmarva Shorebird. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Starr was bumped up to high-A Frederick on August 25, played two games there, and was then launched all the way up to Triple-A. He played in exactly one game for Norfolk on August 31st to become the Tides’ 75th player this year and set a new International League record.

So even if Sammie Starr never makes another mark on organized baseball, the roster-rattling Orioles have gotten something valuable out of him this season, just as they seem to have done with an inordinate number of players. But most importantly, Starr is the subject of this article, which at just 266 words manages to include these two amazing quotes, which are exactly 27 words each:

1) “Like most minor league players*, Starr is working to improve his hitting skills knowing it will be a key factor in his promotion to the major leagues.”

*except pitchers.

2) From the deep syntax of Einar Diaz, Delmarva Shorebirds hitting coach: "He can sometimes, his left hand can come down a bit, but he needs to be more aggressive in that and working his hip a little bit."

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

Related Content:  Run Differential,  Orioles,  Roster,  Dan Duquette

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