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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."

Thank you for reading

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Fun and informative! Loved it.
Is there evidence that teams making many roster moves perform better than run differential would predict? Roster differential is catchy, but it begs the kind of question BP usually tries to answer.
Roster moves is probably too broad, as it includes moves that would be expected to have a negative correlation to success (placed on the DL) as well as ones that we would be testing for positive correlation (contracts selected).

Adam mentions that in terms of contracts selected, the transaction category that Baltimore leads the league in, none of the other competitive teams are close (and the Rays last).

But an interesting test would be to determine the predictive value of roster moves. Multiple DL moves is likely predictive of a decline in performance. Maybe multiple contract selections is predictive of an improvement in performance (because you are replacing someone that is likely ineffective with someone that may be effective).
I'm guessing one would need to dig deeper on this type of analysis, as the fact that their relief pitching has stayed stable is likely a reflection that they are doing well in close games (which, in turn, can allow for run differential to be worse than their actual record). So, it may be the number of roster moves is generally negatively correlated with run differential, but if a team is doing well in close games, then the roster shuffling on relief pitchers will be lessened, muddying up the results.
The Orioles' run differential versus actual record is pretty staggering.

Their .563 record puts them well ahead of their Hit List Factor of .491 and Adjusted HLF of .511, and positively puts their Expected Winning Percentage of .445 to shame.

The fungibility of the roster is one possible contributor and I appreciated your bringing that to our attention.

One angle I was interested in was money, so I started playing around with the data.

At this point in the season the correlation between total opening day player salary, average salary, and aggregate change in salary from 2011 with winning percentage and games behind ranges from .18 to .24 (but they're lower in magnitude with change in payroll, at .09 to .14, which I think means the teams that upped their payroll the most are not getting commensurate bang for their buck).

Better correlated is pay with runs scored/runs allowed differential at .29 and .30.

Still higher correlations exist among payroll and the various win expectancies. BP's Expected Winning Percentage is correlated a whopping .41 with average salary and .40 with total salary, and HLF and AHLF are .32 to .36.

And right in the middle in terms of magnitude is the correlation between pay and something I wouldn't necessarily have expected...over performance on run differential.

I averaged the D1, D2, and D3 figures (into "DAVE") to measure over performance, and this was correlated .23 with total salary and .27 with average salary.

But it was a negative correlation. Lower paying teams are actually more likely to out-perform their run expectation.

In fact, the correlations of pay with actual winning percentage minus a) expected win percent, b) hit list factor, and c) adjusted hit list factor range from -.23 to -.31.

Do lower-paying teams have better "chemistry" (nebulous at best, and hard to do when you have as much roster churn as the Orioles)?

Is building a really good bullpen on the cheap key to success?

Does relative equality of pay lead to better team outcomes?

Or is it just a fluke?
Is it because lower-payroll teams are generally worse, and teams that are generally worse lose by more runs than they win by?
Interesting note from Baltimore Sports Report: The Orioles have a -63 Run Differential between the Angels & Rangers, +44 vs. Everyone else. Could it just be a matter of them not matching up well with those two teams and that they are a slightly above avg team overall?
very interesting note. As luck would have it, they don't play those teams any more the rest of the way.
Is this an anomaly though? I wonder how influential the worst (best) two team based run differentials are to the total amount in general.

I seem to recall reading something awhile back about the impact of a few lopsided games on run differentials, but I cannot remember the takeaway. Is the O's differential a result of meeting Josh Hamilton on the wrong day?
Hamilton and Beltre, yes.
Similar to ostrowj1's point - Couldn't you also find 2 teams that the Orioles completely bashed for a strong positive run differential?

According to B-R they're +19 against Toronto and +14 against Pittsburgh. And when you break it down, they've had a positive run differential against 9 teams this season (some good, some bad) and a negative run differential against 8 teams (some good, some bad). So I don't know if excluding the 2 opponents against whom they've performed the worst really tells you much.
Some teams (perhaps, all?) abuse the disabled the list. Some D.L. injuries are made up to help with roster manipulation. I have heard this directly from the parents of a marginal major leaguer, who has been used this way.
WRT Arrieta, the reason he never got to be in the pen is because he made an emergency start the second day after that was announced and pitched well, and then his command fell apart. The straw that broke the camel's back was his July 5 start against the Angels, in which the Orioles gave him a 7-3 lead in the 4th and he proceeded to cough it right back up, walking the leadoff hitter and just serving up meatballs. After that performance, he was in Norfolk before he even handed Buck the ball.
Duquette went for depth, and it has paid off. He signed twice as many pitchers as he needed, and the team was rewarded (in fact, there's more that were performing well but weren't used in Baltimore - Villareal, Burke, Clark have pitched well enough to earn a look... except there was so little room they had to ship Neshek to Oakland, Socolovich to the Cubs, Bergesen to Arizona, Berken to DFA land). The Baltimore bullpen performed better could be reasonably expected. He made sure the "spare position parts" in Norfolk were ready and were not going to hurt the Orioles when they were called up. McLouth, Tolleson, Ford, Hall... Norfolk was used to repair those who weren't functioning well (Arrieta, Matusz, Britton, Hunter)... And to think he wasn't anywhere near the top of the list when the GM search began during the offseason.
"Wow, you were gone a long time" is one of the best throwaway lines I've read in ages. Well done.

As an Indians fan, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the concept, "Hitting Coach Einar Diaz."

My favorite part of his player card is that he has played for Cleveland, Texas, Montreal (!), St. Louis, and Los Angeles, and as such, is shown in a Pittsburgh Pirates hat. (Apparently he signed there but didn't make the big club.)
You know the saying (which I hate, btw), "those who can do, those who can't teach"
Love that line about playing "gin rummy" with the roster. Most teams would rather hold two sevens waiting all game on that third rather than break them up and chase something else.
For some reason, this piece on the O's rotating roster reminds me about how both the players AND the press (surprise!) used to make a huge stink over then-Red Sox manager Jimy Williams' constant lineup shuffling. The media went so far as to track it in the game recap each day, and the players blamed their own craptacularness on not knowing where they were hitting each day.

I was intrigued by this point, though I don't know the Jimy Williams Red Sox that well.

Here's what I found on the 2012 Orioles lineups and positional usage. Seems amazingly stable, despite the number of roster moves. More importantly, it's worked (at least in OPS for different players in different slots).

The core has pretty much been stable, with the exception of left field, second base, and leadoff hitter.

Nick Markakis has just crossed over into being more of a leadoff hitter than a #3 hitter this season, with 51 starts to 50, and has a much higher OPS at #1. In addition to only batting 1st or 3rd, he’s only played right field except for 2 DH games.

J.J. Hardy has played only shortstop and started mostly in the #2 hole (125 starts) with a few at #3 (7 starts).

The third place in the batting order has revolved. Markakis leads the pack with 50 starts followed by Chris Davis (nickname on Baseball Reference – “Crush”) at 26, Adam Jones (middle name – “La Marque”) at 20, Nate McLouth at 19, Jim Thome (when he was there) at 12, Hardy at 7, Matt Wieters at 2, and Wilson Betemit at 1.

Jones has batted only 3rd or 4th, predominantly cleanup where he has a higher OPS. He’s played only CF except for one game at DH.

Wieters is next highest at cleanup, with 19, but has mostly hit fifth (92 games started). Thome had 10, and Mark Reynolds has had one.

When Wieters hasn’t hit fifth, it’s been Wilson Betemit (11), Chris Davis (10), Mark Reynolds (9), Thome (9), Lew Ford (6), and Johnson and Ronny Paulino one each.

Chris Davis has mostly hit sixth (40 of his games, with 26 3rd, 24 7th, and 13 8th.

Others who have hit sixth have included Betemit (38), Reynolds (33), Johnson (8), Ford (4), Wieters (5), McLouth (2), and Manny Machado (1).

Mark Reynolds has mostly hit seventh (40 of his games), and Betemit has the next most (34). Chris Davis has chipped in 24 starts. A host of others have between one and nine starts hitting seventh including McLouth, Wieters, Andino, Ryan Flaherty, Omar Quintanilla, Ronny Paulino, Nick Johnson, Lew Ford, Taylor Teagarden, Bill Hall, Steve Tolleson, and Machado.

Most of Machado’s starts have come hitting 8th (12) or 9th (9). The most prevalent eighth place hitter over the season has been Reynolds, with 24. Quintanilla and Flaherty both have more than 20, and Tolleson, Davis, Betemit, Paulino, and Andino have at least five each.

Robert Andino has started 60 games batting ninth and 17 leading off, with 12 other starts among 2nd, 7th, and 8th.
Omar Quintanilla has started most of his games batting ninth (22), though that’s only one more than batting 8th. Ryan Flaherty, in his time with the club, also batted mostly 8th (20) vs. 9th (10).

Taylor Teagarden has mostly batted ninth in limited starts, as did Luis Exposito (the only Exposito ever to play MLB).

What was really surprising to me is how many of these players have been used "correctly."

That is, comparing their OPS in different batting positions vs. the number of times they’ve started in those slots suggests Buck Showalter is doing a pretty good job of identifying comfort levels (or is really lucky).

Aside from J.J. Hardy who essentially has only batted second so doesn’t allow a comparison, five (and a half) regulars are hitting best in their most predominant spot in the order, and another three have their second best mark in their most frequent spot and their highest mark in their second most frequent spot.

Nick Markakis (batting 1st), Adam Jones (4th), Lew Ford (5th), Chris Davis (6th), Mark Reynolds (7th), Steve Tolleson (8th), Robert Andino (9th), Omar Quintanilla (9th), and Taylor Teagarden (9th) all hit best in their most frequent spot (albeit Teagarden is only at .575).

Manny Machado, Wilson Betemit, Nate McLouth, Jim Thome, Ronny Paulino, and Ryan Flaherty have hit better in their second most frequent slots, though Machado, Betemit, and Thome have hit second highest in their most populated spot in the order.

Only Matt Wieters and Nate McLouth have hit their worst in their predominant batting positions. Wieters has been much better at cleanup or batting third than at hitting fifth, and McLouth has excelled in the #7 spot but has struggled at #3.
Wieters more often bats 3rd or 4th vs. L, that's why his numbers look better in those spots.