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September 7, 2012

Overthinking It

Feasting on the East

by Ben Lindbergh

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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.

Year

BAL Opposing Batter TAv

MLB Rank

2011

.276

1

2010

.274

1

2009

.276

1


(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.

Year

Vs. BOS/TOR Opposing Batter TAv

2012

.264

2011

.277

2010

.274

2009

.271

2008

.273

2007

.270

2006

.273

 

Year

Vs. BOS/TOR Opposing Pitcher TAv

2012

.263

2011

.263

2010

.256

2009

.259

2008

.249

2007

.244

2006

.258

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.

Rob McQuown and Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this story.

‚ÄčA version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

11 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

TGisriel

Very interesting article. It helps explain why the Orioles have been down so long.

I note that while the figures for 2012 overall are somewhat lower, it is not dramatic. Overall opposing batter TAv for 2012 is .273, which is only 3 points "easier" than 2011 and 1 point "easier" than 2010. Moreover it is 13 points "harder" than average. The O's pitchers are still facing well above average batters.

Similarly for opposing pitchers, the difference you cite is 2-3 points. Apparently the pitchers the O's have faced this year are average at .260. You state that previous years have been 2-3 points "lower", and characterize that as "not quite as effective". I had some trouble with that one. Wouldn't a TAv 2-3 points lower than .260 for opposing pitchers show that they were more effective? Perhaps the use of the term "lower" and "higher" is confusing in this context where "lower" is better and "higher" is worse.

In any case, while the Blue Jays and Red Sox have been significantly worse in their batters' TAv this year, as opposed to previous years, it is still .264, which is above average.

Interestingly, the Blue Jays and Red Sox pitcher TAv is the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, which is slightly worse than average. It was in 2011 that the Red Sox and Blue Jay's pitching declined. This year, their batting has significantly declined.

Bottom line: While the relative TAv of the batters faced by the O's pitchers helps explain why the O's have improved, the batters the O's have faced are still, in an absolute sense, significantly better than average. The pitching the O's have faced has been average.

This helps explain why the O's have improved, but it doesn't really explain why the O's have a winning record. They are still facing above average competition.

Sep 06, 2012 14:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

The line about a .260 TAv being average was misleading there, and I've removed it. Normally, .260 is average, but the TAv of opposing batters cited here excludes pitchers hitting, so the Orioles' opponents haven't been as far above average as that .273 figure would suggest. As for the lower/higher TAv being more/less effective: I was saying that the TAv allowed of the pitchers who've faced the Orioles this season has been 2-3 points higher than in recent years, so they've been a little less effective in 2012.

And yes, you're right. Weaker competition is part of the picture (maybe a small part of the picture). It's not the sole explanation for the Orioles' success.

Sep 06, 2012 14:41 PM
 
TGisriel

What is average TAv when pitchers as batters are excluded?

I would think that pitchers as batters have little impact on the O's. They only face pitchers as batters in away inter-league games.

Sep 07, 2012 07:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Hendo

Summing up what I've learned from BP in the last few weeks...

The good news for Baltimore: A 24-7 record in one-run games, thanks largely to an epochally effective bullpen, has carried the ream into a month where they are scoring lots of runs.

The mixed news for Baltimore: Dan Duquette now has to stand pat with the roster he's feverishly shuffled together over the first five months of the season, and must count on the current run barrage not to cease and/or the bullpen not to falter.

The other mixed news for Baltimore: Regression to the mean conforms to no one's schedule.

Sep 07, 2012 07:41 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Good point. Even as recently as mid July this year, every team in the A.L. East was over .500.

Sep 07, 2012 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
andykaylor

Shouldn't the Sox and Jays swoon equally benefit the Rays and Yankees? I can see how this explains some marginal improvement, maybe even a sizable improvement if you factor the intangible morale boost of a few extra wins, but I don't think it gets them into the division lead. I would also note that the Orioles are 73-48 (.603!) against all teams other than the Rangers and Angels (and did I hear recently that they also have a positive run differential if you exclude the Rangers and Angels?). The O's are just feasting!

Sep 07, 2012 12:56 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Right, the Rays and Yankees should benefit too, so this doesn't really explain why they're in first place. I think it does explain some small part of their improvement since last season.

Sep 07, 2012 14:57 PM
 
andykaylor

It definitely doesn't hurt. I enjoyed the analysis either way.

Sep 07, 2012 16:40 PM
rating: 0
 
CrashD

You did not mention where the Orioles rank in days lost to injuries so far this year. I assume it is nearer the bottom than the top of that list.

Question, though: what if any is the correlation between a team's rank on this scale and their rank in division, league, or even Hit List standings? Is the correlation greater if one incorporates the WARPS of the disabled players, e.g. by scaling each day lost to injury by the WARP, or other suitable statistic, of that player? Might this permit comparisons between teams? For example, was the loss of Mariano Rivera less important to the Yankees than the loss of David Ortiz to the Red Sox (or, dare I ask, than was the loss of Brian Roberts to the Orioles?)

Can of worms, man, but you opened it.

Sep 07, 2012 18:49 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Well, I didn't focus on the injuries in this piece, because I wasn't really trying to explain why the Sox and Jays have had down years (injuries have had a lot to do with it, but that's a subject for another article). That said, there are certainly other metrics we could use here that probably give a more complete picture than days lost to the DL--WARP lost, percentage of payroll lost, etc. I don't have those updated stats handy, but it's something we can check and probably will check at the end of the season.

Sep 07, 2012 18:57 PM
 
Pat Folz

If the Orioles have actually improved relative to TOR and BOS, that would hurt TOR's and BOS's numbers, right? Granted, probably not as much as injuries, but did you consider/quantify that impact by any chance? (i.e. how much worse are those teams in games NOT involving the Orioles this year?)

Sep 08, 2012 09:43 AM
rating: 0
 
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