September 7, 2012
Feasting on the East
On Wednesday night in Toronto, the Baltimore Orioles experienced the unfamiliar feeling of losing a baseball game. The O’s entered the evening tied for first place in the AL East, having gone 21-10 since the start of August, and having made up 10 games since July 18th on the other team atop the division, the New York Yankees.
With each victory and each game gained on the Yankees came another explanation of how a team that had been picked to finish fifth by most pre-season pundits could be winning despite being outscored by its opponents. Many observed that the Orioles were excelling in games decided by one run, often an indicator of a team outplaying its underlying performance. Some pointed out that an effective bullpen can help teams win tight games, while still others thought Baltimore’s bullpen success would prove as ephemeral as its one-run record. More than one wondered whether the O’s league-leading transaction total could be the secret to their success.
A charmed team like the Orioles never owes its success to a single factor, so it’s likely that all of the above played some role in the team’s 76-60 record. But the above might still be missing something: the Orioles are one of three AL East teams this season whose records don’t look like we thought they would. The O’s may have managed to exceed our expectations in part because two of their division rivals have disappointed.
For the past few seasons, the AL East has been by far baseball’s toughest place to play. The Yankees and Red Sox have spent more than any other team, while the Rays have spent smarter. The Blue Jays haven’t been in quite the same class, but they finished at or above .500 in 2010 and 2011 and could have contended in a different division. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, which dictates that teams face each of their divisional opponents 18 times during the regular season, the Orioles have had to play more than 44 percent of their games against these four teams. No division would have been bad enough to make Baltimore look good, but the East made the O’s look even worse than they were.
From 2009-2011, the Orioles went 106-161 against the East, a .397 winning percentage. Against all other divisions over the same span, they went 93-126 (.425). That woeful performance against their most frequent opponents was punctuated by some embarrassing showings in the season series: 5-13 records against the Yankees in all three years, a 16-2 drubbing by Boston in 2009, and a 15-3 takedown by Toronto in 2010.
But it’s not just the results of those games against Eastern opponents that reveal the Orioles’ distinct disadvantage. We can see the same thing if we drill down and study the quality of their competition. In each season from 2009-2012, Orioles pitchers faced the most fearsome batters of any staff in baseball, as measured by all-in-one BP offensive statistic True Average. (A higher TAv means more difficult opponents.) It’s not surprising that Baltimore’s pitching had trouble keeping its opponents off the board.
(Opposing pitchers batting are excluded from these figures.)
In 2012, the Orioles have held their own in their season series against the Yankees and Rays, battling to a combined 13-13 draw. But they’ve feasted on the struggling Sox and Jays, going 8-4 and 9-5 against them, respectively. This season, the collective TAv of batters facing the Orioles has fallen to .273, only the ninth-highest figure in baseball. The pitchers their batters have faced haven’t been quite as effective this season either, collectively allowing a league-average .260 TAv, as opposed to two-to-three points below that in the few seasons before. Over thousands of plate appearances, a difference of even a few points of TAv can mean many runs added to or subtracted to a team’s total. If you think the Orioles’ run differential looks lackluster now, imagine what it would look like had the O’s faced the same quality of competition in 2012 that they did over the past few seasons.
So why have the Orioles faced weaker opponents overall in 2012? Largely because the Red Sox and Blue Jays have struggled, and the Orioles have played them as often as ever. The following tables show how much less effective the batters and pitchers the Orioles have faced in games against Boston and Toronto have been this season—not just against Baltimore, but overall. The O’s have 10 games left against the two teams combined, so continued success against both could sway the winnable division their way.
Like the Orioles’ bullpen performance and record in one-run games, the swoons of the Sox and Jays might not carry over to 2013. Both teams have been hit hard by injuries: the Sox lead all of baseball with over 1,500 games missed due to injury, while Toronto ranks seventh with over 1,000. (The Yankees place third, with over 1,350.) Next season, the injury bug might bite a different division, and the AL East might be back to its usual self. Maybe the Orioles will build on the recent success of young players like Zach Britton and Manny Machado and take another step forward, or maybe the perfect storm of fortuitous timing keeping this Baltimore team in contention will blow over and leave another last-place team behind. But for now, everything’s coming up Orioles.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .