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With their victory on Tuesday, the Orioles clinched the American League East for the first time since 1997. By any measure, the O's are a top-five team. Baltimore ranks second in the majors in wins, fourth in run differential, and fifth in third-order and Pythagorean winning percentages. Consistency? April was their only sub-.500 month. Peaking late? Doesn't matter, but they've won 39 of their 57 post-break games. It's enough to make even stolid Buck Showalter smile—well, almost. Yet impressive credentials notwithstanding, few seem to consider the Orioles a legitimate World Series contender.

Among the reasons fostering skepticism is the absence of key players; Manny Machado and Matt Wieters due to injury, Chris Davis due to suspension. The O's reliance upon the likes of Caleb Joseph, Nick Hundley, and Jonathan Schoop—otherwise known as the least productive starting second baseman offensively, according to True Average—also contributes to the doubt.

But weighing heavier against Baltimore than the star void or the shaky lineup segments is an uncertain rotation. Although Orioles starters have notched the game's 12th-best rotational ERA, their FIP checks in tied for 28th. A disparity that wide at the team level is bound to create distrust, no matter how slick the club's defenders are—and make no mistake, the O's excel at catching the white rat. The question then is how likely is this rotation to bring the World Series to Camden Yards for the first time?

To find out, we compiled the regular-season numbers for each pennant winner's playoff rotation since 2004—including the 2009 Yankees, who whirred through October on the shoulders of three starters. Those numbers were then weighed by innings to form an aggregate ERA and FIP. (If a pitcher was a late-season addition, either through trade or promotion, only their numbers with that team were included.) Because the O's postseason rotation is unknown, we chose to present the sub-optimal choice from a FIP perspective—i.e. we picked the non-Kevin Gausman starters. Here's how a rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez stacks up historically:

Team

Year

Winner?

ERA

FIP

Cardinals

2013

No

3.20

3.11

Tigers

2012

No

3.27

3.23

Astros

2005

No

2.85

3.36

Cardinals

2011

Yes

3.48

3.38

Red Sox

2013

Yes

3.33

3.55

Giants

2010

Yes

3.18

3.60

Red Sox

2004

Yes

4.09

3.66

Rangers

2010

No

3.65

3.75

Giants

2012

Yes

3.39

3.75

Rangers

2011

No

3.65

3.80

Phillies

2009

No

4.01

3.91

Yankees

2009

Yes

3.83

3.93

Red Sox

2007

Yes

3.92

3.96

White Sox

2005

Yes

3.52

3.97

Rays

2008

No

3.79

4.04

Tigers

2006

No

3.86

4.25

Phillies

2008

Yes

3.79

4.25

Orioles

2014

?

3.47

4.26

Cardinals

2006

Yes

4.02

4.48

Cardinals

2004

No

4.19

4.59

Rockies

2007

No

4.39

4.63

Astute readers are likely to note that the above table is meaningless since it compares years without adjusting for the offensive environment (among other variables). It's a good point: teams scored 4.81 runs per game back in 2004, as opposed to 4.08 these days. Below is a table that offers an adjusted ERA and FIP score based on the average ERA in each season—no adjustments were made for ballpark or quality of competition, as a means to keep this as straightforward as possible:

Team

Year

Winner?

Adj. ERA

Adj. FIP

Astros

2005

No

151

128

Tigers

2012

No

123

124

Cardinals

2013

No

121

124

Red Sox

2004

Yes

109

122

Cardinals

2011

Yes

113

117

Giants

2010

Yes

128

113

Red Sox

2007

Yes

114

113

Yankees

2009

Yes

113

110

Phillies

2009

No

108

110

Red Sox

2013

Yes

116

109

Rangers

2010

No

112

109

White Sox

2005

Yes

122

108

Giants

2012

Yes

118

107

Tigers

2006

No

117

107

Rays

2008

No

114

107

Rangers

2011

No

108

104

Phillies

2008

Yes

114

102

Cardinals

2006

Yes

113

101

Cardinals

2004

No

106

97

Rockies

2007

No

102

97

Orioles

2014

?

108

88

That the O's dropped to the bottom is to be expected, since they've posted the fourth-worst raw FIP while pitching in the friendliest offensive environment. There are reasons for Baltimore to be more optimistic about their chances than the table suggests—and not just because Camden Yards, a hitter-friendly park, makes them look worse than they would be with added context.

Remember, this is the O's suboptimal rotation. If Showalter and Dan Duquette give Gausman the nod over Gonzalez, then Baltimore's adjusted FIP improves to 95. Still the worst among the pennant winners, but not by the wide margin seen above. (Their adjusted ERA score would only decline to 107.)

Another positive for the O's rotation is they'll have that vaunted defense behind them in the playoffs. What's more, the suspension and injuries haven't affected their out-making ability as much as expected. In fact, Baltimore's defensive efficiency is higher this season without Machado at third base than with him there. That's not because Machado's glove is overrated or inferior to Ryan Flaherty's, but because of other factors, like recent additions through trades and expanded rosters. Prior to September, the O's had turned 71.5 percent of balls in plays against them into outs; since September began, they've converted on nearly 75 percent of their chances. Among our best guesses for the improvement:

  • Random variation over a small sample.
  • Improved left-field play due to more Alejandro De Aza and David Lough and less Delmon Young. (This is probably creditable to a righty-heavy schedule rather than an intent to become stronger defensively.)
  • Steve Pearce possibly offering better scooping skills than Chris Davis.
  • Showalter's expanded liberty to make defensive substitutions.
  • Possibly improved pitching.
  • Random variation over a small sample.

Finally, there's the green-and-yellow-clad elephant in the room—or at least there was when Ben Lindbergh addressed the parlance of pitching winning pennants. To quote the old boss:

The next step was to see whether, for the purpose of predicting postseason results, every .600 (or .580, or .560, or .540) team is alike, or whether having good starting pitching adds an extra advantage. Russell examined the first three pitchers who started for each team in each series. He also looked at Game 1 starters only. No indicator of the quality of those starters (strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, ground ball rate, linear weights) proved to be a significant predictor of a team’s postseason success, after controlling for that club’s regular-season record.

Which is to say that starting pitching, though important, is not necessarily more important in October. Pleasant news for this O's squad, and an acceptable explanation as to why so many recent examples of good-pitching teams have failed to win a title—the 2005 Astros, 2012 Tigers, and 2013 Cardinals—while examples of less-good-pitching teams have succeeded—2006 Cardinals and 2008 Phillies.

If the O's are to make a deep run, they'll have to do it without the better pitcher or staff or history on their side. In doing so, they'll challenge the limits more than any of those teams did. There's no promise Baltimore can do it—but then, there's no guarantee they won't just because the calendar changes.