The Orioles’ storybook season added another amazing chapter on Thursday night, as the O’s pulled off a startling four-run comeback after blowing a five-run lead in the opener of their huge four-game series against the Yankees at Camden Yards. This is Baltimore's first meaningful baseball September in more than a decade, and on the night that the Orioles unveiled a statue of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr, they erupted for six home runs to move back into a tie for the American League East lead.
The Orioles have finished under .500 for 14 consecutive years and have lost 91 or more games in nine of the last 11 seasons, including each of the last six years. But if the season had ended yesterday, the Orioles would have been postseason bound, which represents a remarkable turnaround under General Manager Dan Duquette and Manager Buck Showalter. Credit also has to be given to former GM Andy MacPhail, who hired Showalter in 2010 and laid the groundwork for this team.
The Orioles’ record right now is impressive enough, but how the O’s have reached this point has been fascinating.
Defying the odds
Showalter, in his 14th season as a major-league manager, has done a masterful job. Always one of the best in the game at maximizing his roster’s talent, he is a Manager of the Year candidate (along with White Sox skipper Robin Ventura) given the Orioles' performance in the first 85 percent of the season. A stickler for detail, Showalter seems to be the right guy at the right time for an Oriole club trying to find its identify.
I first met Showalter during the 1992 season, when he was in his first year as the New York Yankees manager and I was the Assistant GM of the White Sox. It was after midnight, maybe two hours after a late-April night game at Comiskey Park, and my office phone rang with an internal Caller ID listing "visiting manager's office." It was Buck, and he asked me if I could help him, as a game played earlier that night by an upcoming Yankees opponent was being replayed on a satellite channel, and he wanted to watch it from the clubhouse. We were already taping the game ourselves, so I went over to the visitor's clubhouse and showed him how to view it.
After that late-night conversation, I knew his clubs would always be prepared.
Baltimore is just a middle-of-the-pack club in terms of pitching and offense. They rank ninth in the American League in runs scored, eighth in OPS, and seventh in slugging. Their staff ERA is seventh in the AL, and their 65 Quality Starts rank ninth in the league, third in the division, and below the league average of 69. Yes, their defense is improved to fifth-best in the AL, according to BP’s Defensive Efficiency, but nothing about their team stats suggest a surge to the Junior Circuit's third-best record.
That is what makes their return to relevance so impressive.
The Orioles enter play tonight with a 77-60 record, having won 10 of their last 13 games, yet the Pythagorean Expectation predicts a .484 winning percentage (66-70), That 79-percentage-point gap not only leads the majors in 2012, but is also the largest over-achievement by a club in at least three years.
The Orioles’ run differential is -16, and they are the only major-league team with a winning record and a negative figure in that category. If they sustain both through September, they’ll have achieved something historic, since it’s been 25 years since an American League team made the playoffs with a negative run differential. It worked out fairly well for the last club to do it: the 1987 Minnesota Twins, with a -20 Run Differential, were World Series champions. Only 11 teams have been able to post a winning record despite a negative run differential over the last 10 seasons, and just two made the playoffs (Arizona in 2007, San Diego in 2005).
Baltimore has baseball’s best won-loss record in one-run games (24-7) and are 12-2 in extra-inning games. Those numbers have a lot to do with their inexplicable climb to the top of the standings. In addition, they have the best record (31-22) against the AL East, and are one of five major-league teams that are at least seven games over .500 both on the road and at home.
How have they done it?
There has been a sense of urgency on the Orioles all season, and I’ve always found that to be a tremendous dynamic in a clubhouse. The mindset that losing expectations are a thing of the past has to come from the key decision makers. Duquette and Showalter did not have a white flag raised from the onset of the season.
It starts with roster management. No American League club has made as many moves as the Orioles in 2012. It’s not a result of injuries, since Baltimore’s disabled list placements have been around the league average. Only the Padres have more transactions this year, and their roster has been decimated by injuries. And those Orioles promotions were not without risk, as elevating Manny Machado from Double-A Bowie was not only unexpected but met with negative comments from many minor-league observers.
The Orioles have tinkered with their roster seemingly every day to give themselves what they felt was their best 25-man roster. That’s a strong message to send to the players about accountability and making every game count. I have been involved in situations like that in the past, and it affects everyone's thinking and keeps everyone on edge, knowing that nothing is taken for granted and that losing is no longer tolerated. The very core of a team's everyday baseball group feels it, and media and staff members with the team on a daily basis notice it also.
What the Orioles told their players with their roster activity is clear: they’re committed to giving Showalter and his talented field staff a full complement of players to compete against the tough daily grind of the American League East, and there are no games conceded on the schedule. Clubs frequently go into games undermanned, particularly in the bullpen or on the bench, and that can be a huge factor in close games.
That sense of urgency and willingness to exploit every edge partially explains how the Orioles have rebounded from a 10-game deficit on July 18, making up 10 games in the standings over a 45-day period.
I believe the Orioles' outstanding records in one-run and extra-inning games are also no coincidence. Duquette and his staff have given Showalter, an outstanding tactician, a full deck to work with as frequently as possible, and that has allowed their skipper to play match-up baseball in all those close games.
Baltimore has used 50 players, including 25 pitchers and 11 starting pitchers, over the course of the season. That’s a nightmare for their clubhouse staff and director of team travel, but it’s also an indication they have not limited their thinking to just those players on their 40-man roster—a frequent barrier for most clubs, since it entails some risk of losing players and going outside the comfort level of many team personnel. It’s about adding players like Nate McLouth, knowing that they aren’t the players they once were, but that they’re good enough to contribute to the 25-man roster. It’s about incremental improvement. Adding left-handers Randy Wolf and Joe Saunders suggested that the Orioles were determined to get outs in the final month of the season, and that they were not fully satisfied with their roster.
Another good call was the decision to retain their best prospects at the trade deadline, rather than make impulsive moves to fortify their roster. If they were going to make a run at the playoffs, it would not be at a prohibitive cost, potentially curtailing the club's future chances of success. It contributed to a positive vibe in the clubhouse too, sending the message that decision makers believed in their personnel.
But I think the key has been Showalter recognizing what his club’s strengths and weaknesses are and adjusting his own game accordingly. That’s a tough move for most veteran managers to make. Baltimore has relied on the long ball this year: only the Yankees have scored a higher percentage of their runs on homers than the Birds’ 47 percent, which is one of the highest percentages of the past decade.
As a result, Showalter doesn't give away outs. The Birds have swiped an MLB-low 44 bases and have attempted just 71 steals, the American League's second-lowest total. They have tried a double steal just once, and they don't squeeze. Only two AL clubs use the hit and run less often than Baltimore, and despite being the second-best team in baseball at converting attempted sacrifice bunts (88 percent), they don't bunt more than the average team. That is contrary to Showalter's tendencies of the past, which goes to show that he’s adapted his approach to suit his situation.
But Showalter's maturity as a manager was never more apparent than in the eighth inning on Thursday night, when Pedro Strop blew a five-run lead because of command issues. Considered a quick hook at times during his career, Showalter instead made a strong statement by sitting at the far home plate end of the dugout, keeping a calm demeanor as his young set-up guy experienced post-season type pressure for the first time in his career in front of a sold-out home crowd. Young players look to the manager in situations they have not encountered before, and Showalter's inaction was a positive statement, one that told his players he was not going to panic, suddenly change his ways, and give up on a guy who has been an instrumental cog in a pen that leads the league in saves.
Strop will likely be better off down the line because he knows the skipper believes in him. Is the pen flawed? Nearly all are, and the Orioles’ is no exception. With a number of different looks in their pen, the O’s have notched the most save opportunities, but only two AL clubs have blown more saves. Showalter’s relief staff has made the third-most appearances, as he consistently tries to match up arms with bats they can beat. Orioles relievers have entered games without a runner on base at the third-highest rate in the AL. Credit Duquette and his staff for recognizing Showalter's desire to play match-up for outs. The 25-man is best used when it reflects the manager's actual style, and theirs does.
What the Orioles have done is take on Showalter's personality. They are tenacious, unyielding, and focused. And their best players seem to be their leaders, which is always a big benefit.
With 25 games (13 home, 12 away) remaining on the schedule, including 12 against American League contenders (three vs. New York, six with Tampa Bay, three with Oakland), the Orioles' final four weeks won't be easy. In fact, Baseball Prospectus' Daily Playoff Odds predict 88 or 89 wins and give the club only an 18.5 percent chance of capturing the AL East and a 29.5 percent chance of nabbing one of the Wild Card spots. Of course, this weekend could make a big difference, since they are hosting the Yankees.
But for the Orioles to be in the playoff hunt in the month of September breathes life into a franchise and a fan base that has not had a playoff team since 1997. The Beltway could have two clubs in the playoffs, and absolutely no one predicted that before this season opened.
Baltimore is an outstanding baseball city and was an intimidating place to play when the O's were a contender. I remember my first playoff game there in 1983, when the White Sox club I was working for played the Orioles in the ALCS. Toward the end of batting practice, I was hanging around the cage with Charley Lau, a genius of a man who was Chicago’s hitting coach and had played for the Orioles.
I marveled at how the Memorial Stadium crowd had arrived en masse an hour before the first pitch, and Lau remarked, "This is about a long-standing passion for the Orioles and baseball. These people really know the game, and they woke up today wanting to be here." It was good to see all the orange in the capacity crowd last night.
Is the Orioles’ success good fortune or just a talented GM and manager squeezing everything out of a team? I'm not certain, but I think it’s a little bit of both. That success has made the Orioles one of the best stories of 2012.