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September 10, 2013

Painting the Black

Flipping the Birds

by R.J. Anderson

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Over the past two years, I've been wrong about the Orioles no fewer than three times.

My faulty assessments began when Dan Duquette was hired as general manager, in November 2011. Though I praised Duquette—calling him bright, among other adjectives—I expressed doubt about the job's prospects. For good reason, too; other executives turned away Baltimore's advances, likely due to their perceptions about manager Buck Showalter's power and owner Peter Angelos' vision. Despite drafting and developing poorly for years, Angelos (reportedly) rejected one candidate's plan to clear house, further obscuring how much authority the new GM would wield.

Beyond the noise, other factors were working against the Orioles. Fourteen seasons had passed since Baltimore's last winning season, and no resolution appeared near. The short-term outlook was bleak due to the talent and resource differentials between the O's and the division's behemoths. To succeed, the Orioles GM needed patience, resolve, creativity, and a waterproof five-year plan—perfect to sob over when Angelos inevitably grew disillusioned following two poor seasons. Duquette had those things, including the waterproof plan—though its integrity was challenged by champagne, not tears.

The second time I misjudged the Orioles was last spring. I picked them to finish last, which they did not do. I did the same this spring and, barring a collapse, that too will prove incorrect. Erring three times on one team over a short period of time is cause for reflection: What is it about the Orioles that I missed, or otherwise undervalued? Andy MacPhail, for one.

Duquette's tinkerer reputation belies a fundamental truth about the O's: their core predates his time in Baltimore. On most nights, the Orioles start seven players who were with the team under MacPhail. (The exceptions being Nate McLouth and the team's DH.) This includes arguably the team's most important players. Under MacPhail, the Orioles traded for Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis, deals that in retrospect are some of the most lopsided swaps in recent memory. Those three players rank first, third, and sixth this season among Baltimore's position players in WARP.

As well as those trades have worked out, MacPhail did stumble in other areas where Duquette has made the difference. The draft is one good example, as somehow the Orioles went through a lengthy down period and exited with precious few impact talents and worthwhile prospects, even with all those top picks. The O's popped Brian Matusz, Manny Machado, and Dylan Bundy in the first round under MacPhail's watch. They also selected Matt Hobgood ahead of Zack Wheeler during an otherwise fruitless 2009 draft. Comparatively, Duquette's first-round picks include Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey, two potential front-of-the-rotation arms. (Granted, both could bust for all we know.)

MacPhail's biggest failure had to be an inability to assemble a decent pitching staff. Baltimore's rotation ranked last in the majors in ERA and FIP over his four full seasons, and its bullpen ranked second-to-last in ERA and last in FIP. Those staffs set the bar impossibly low, leaving Duquette's rotation (23rd in ERA, 27th in FIP) and bullpen (eighth in ERA, 18th in FIP) ahead by default.

These Birds, though not fierce enough for Hitchcock's liking, are better than yesteryear's versions in part because of Duquette's savvy. His waiver-wire and trade-deadline deals have proved the value of going from bad to decent; it might not be as sexy as going from decent to good or good to great, but it costs less since there are more opportunities. Duquette did most of his retooling this deadline in his rotation, as he netted Scott Feldman and Bud Norris for spare parts. Although he hasn't had a deep farm system to work with, he's coaxed other teams into making swaps, like Kenny Williams used to do.

A common theme among these bad-to-good team stories is finding cheap talent. Duquette has done it through various avenues. Take his first offseason, when he got Jason Hammel (trade), Wei-Yin Chen (international free agent), and Miguel Gonzalez (minor league free agent) en route to reinforcing the young pitching that had failed MacPhail multiple times. None of those were huge moves, yet they paid off.

On the position player side, Duquette gave Nate McLouth another chance after it looked like he was finished. McLouth has since given the Orioles nearly 800 plate appearances of all-around above-average play. Danny Valencia, who couldn't find his stroke with Minnesota or Boston in recent years, has quietly homered seven times this season in 107 plate appearances. Steve Pearce hasn't played tremendously, yet he came cheap and when healthy gives Showalter another option against left-handed pitchers.

Another positive is Duquette's ability to eat sunk costs. This is, admittedly, easier to do when the GM has no skin on the line. Duquette could shift Matusz to the bullpen, trade Jake Arrieta, and demote Chris Tillman and Zach Britton without indicting himself. Duquette's turnaround has involved a fair bit of luck, too: nobody expected Davis and Machado to play this well over the past year, among other seemingly fortuitous outcomes.

Looking back, Duquette was a good match for the O's; an executive skilled at turning over the roster at low costs paired with a team desperate for that approach. Combining Duquette's ability to find useful, if flawed, talent with Showalter's stubbornness to use those players correctly, and it's a match that's worked out better than anticipated. Whatever concerns existed about internal power struggles were seemingly overblown, or have since been calmed by the team's good results.

So how was I wrong about the Orioles that often? I underrated MacPhail's foundation, built through a series of big-win trades, and Duquette's talent-finding craftiness. When twinned, those attributes transformed the Orioles from a perennial doormat to a formidable foe in a tough division. When those of us who've underestimated this team the past few years—myself included—tip our hats toward Duquette and Showalter, we should include MacPhail as well. He didn't finish the job, but he contributed.

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

Related Content:  Baltimore Orioles,  Trades,  Andy Macphail

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

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stephenwalters

Insightful summary, RJ. When a club has a disappointing season (or several), it's often assumed that the only logical strategy is a "tear down" and lengthy rebuild. Sometimes that's clearly wise, but it also carries risks (TINSTAAPP!) and potential costs.

I know baseball purists enjoy watching young talent develop, but a lot of fans turn away in such circumstances, and winning them back might be tough. I don't know if anyone has quantified that. I've seen some research about how success builds attendance in succeeding seasons, but I wonder if there's also a "reverse bandwagon effect," where sending fans a message that you don't plan to be good for a while has a negative carry-over. Know of any studies on this?

Sep 10, 2013 07:03 AM
rating: 2
 
bobbygrace

As I recall, the marginal value of a win increases as a team reaches a record that puts them in playoff range. I'm less sure of how much value a win loses as a team moves farther from contention, but I seem to remember that wins for teams out of the race are worth less to the team. These win values are based on findings that attendance and revenues increase markedly when a team is in contention, but don't vary much as you move from middling to poor. The implication would be that, yes, fans turn away as a team gets lousier, but not in such great numbers that it wouldn't behoove a team to go from middling to poor in a given season if such a strategy puts them in contention more quickly than staying in a middling rut for a long time, without the benefit of a near future that puts them into the marginal-value-added territory that comes with playoff contention. I bet other readers can correct me if I'm wrong and can find the original article I'm thinking of as I write.

All that said, the Orioles face relatively new regional competition in the Nationals. Add the rhetoric on Peter Angelos around these parts, and one might be led to believe that, after years of losing and owner interventions gone wrong, O's fans might be more ready to jump ship than fans of other teams. I don't buy this logic -- O's fans are as loyal as they come, ownership problems or not -- but it may be that regional factors make a rebuild more difficult to swallow in some places than in others, leading to the "reverse bandwagon effect" that you describe. I don't know of studies looking for this effect, but again I'm sure that other readers can point them out if they're out there.

Sep 10, 2013 07:54 AM
rating: 1
 
bobbygrace

P.S. The article I'm thinking of, by Nate Silver, appears here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=16335

What I don't remember is whether the longer piece that the article refers to -- which appeared in Baseball Between the Numbers -- addresses the concept of a "reverse bandwagon effect." The article strongly suggests that such an effect is unlikely, stating that even a large reduction in regular season ticket sales should not deter an owner from having a fire sale if it allows the team to rebuild and enhance its playoff odds.

Sep 10, 2013 08:01 AM
rating: 1
 
Pat Folz

No studies, but anecdotally, Cleveland had a long string of sellouts prior to the Bartolo Colon trade and has struggled with attendance since. Their performance in the intervening 11(!) years has been pretty mixed, obviously, but they had very strong teams some years with tepid fan support.

Sep 10, 2013 12:13 PM
rating: 0
 
Schere

At some point, they're going to have to successfully take a pitcher from draft through development, and major-league success. For now, not a single starter was drafted by the O's, and only Tillman spent any time in the O's minor league system. They've got Gausman, Bundy and Harvey in there now, and I hope they make it out alive.

Sep 10, 2013 08:00 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

It seems for a decade or two the Orioles were notorious for producing top notch pitching prospects who never panned out. (Before Tillman, Matusz, Patton, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrieta there was Radhames Liz, Brandon Erbe, Adam Loewen, and Hayden Penn. At least they did nicely with Erik Bedard, while Sidney Ponson was a decent innings eater some years, but Matt Riley, Rocky Coppinger, and Jimmy Haynes were famous flops.) Now, they can count Chris Tillman a success. We will see about Dylan Bundy and Zach Britton. They deserve credit for making something nice out of Miguel Gonzalez. They got the best out of Jason Hammel last year. Those pitching turnarounds came under Showalter.

At the same time, the bullpen became one of their strongest assets. Jimmy Johnson has been there a long time, but converting Matusz and Patton to the pen has ben a success. Darren O'Day was a fine pick-up (before Duquette) as was Tommy Hunter who came with Chris Davis in exchange for Koji Uehara - another successful pre-Duquette purchase.

The junk traded for J.J. Hardy AND Brendon Harris three years ago? Two minor leaguers who are still struggling to be Major Leaguers - and may be out of chances. Obviously that was a salary dump. Neither prospect was highly touted or drafted in the top 10 rounds.

I recall the trade that brought Adam Jones to Baltimore was lauded here at BP as a nice haul for the questionably durable Erik Bedard. I forgot Chris Tillman was part of that haul along with George Sherrill and two prospects who have never really contributed (Kameron Mickolio ad Tony Butler).

Sep 10, 2013 09:58 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter
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A negative for what? a misspelling (ben for been)? If it is too long for your liking, don't read it. If you just get off on dinging everything I write, I've stopped caring. Karma will catch up with you.

Sep 10, 2013 10:29 AM
rating: -5
 
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