On Tuesday night, the Orioles flashed some of their 2012 magic against the Yankees at Camden Yards, winning on a 10th-inning walk-off homer hit by Nate McLouth that brought an end to a battle of the bullpens. For last season’s Orioles, who went 16-2 in extra-inning games and 29-9 in games decided by a single run, winning one-run games with walk-offs was a way of life. For the 2013 Orioles, who entered last night 3-3 and 6-6 in such situations, respectively, those victories have been as difficult to come by as they are for the typical team.
“Run differential” was the frequent refrain in any conversation about the Orioles’ success in 2012 and outlook for 2013. Good teams tend to outscore their opponents by a comfortable margin. The Orioles, who went 93-69, outscored their opponents, but barely—their run differential was that of 82-80 team. Some said it was luck and assumed it wasn’t sustainable, while others credited a good bullpen and Buck Showalter, both of whom the O’s brought back.
Whatever it was, it hasn’t quite carried over, and the Orioles have paid a price. After their 45th game of 2012, the O’s were 28-17 and alone in first place in the AL East. Their odds of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, stood at 33.5 percent. Today, through the same point in the schedule, they’re 24-21 and tied with Tampa Bay for third. BP gives them a 12.5 percent chance of making it back to October.
However, what we’re watching isn’t any kind of collapse. While the Orioles are in a worse position than they were a year ago, they might be a better team.
The Orioles have hit better than they did in 2012, upping their True Average from .259 (ninth in the AL) to .275 (seventh) and scoring roughly a quarter of a run more per game through the same point in the season. The lineup has had an unlikely leader in Chris Davis, who has built on his moderate success with Baltimore last season to lead the AL with a .381 TAv. Manny Machado has taken a giant step toward stardom in his sophomore season, and Nate McLouth has reestablished himself as a strong leadoff hitter, looking more like the player who made an All-Star team and won a Gold Glove five seasons ago than the one released by the Pirates last May. Adam Jones hasn’t taken his game to an even loftier level, but he’s matched his 2012 TAv almost to the point.
Although Davis can’t be expected to keep up his pace, any decline on his part could be partially offset by improvements from Matt Wieters (whose hot September has given way to a slow start), Nick Markakis (who’s in the midst of what would be his worst season), and Nolan Reimold. Reimold has hit .162 and slugged .279 against right-handed pitchers, but the return of Wilson Betemit should give him a productive DH platoon partner.
However, to sustain or increase their scoring, the Orioles will have to find a way to upgrade at second base. In the predictable absence of Brian Roberts, Baltimore’s second basemen have been among the worst in baseball, and in the likely event that Roberts doesn’t return (or gets injured again), the combination of Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla could kill any remaining hopes of contention. Fortunately for the Orioles, Triple-A Norfolk holds a potential solution in Jonathan Schoop, the organization’s top position-playing prospect. Schoop started slow, but he’s hit .348/.362/.500 in May. He’s currently on the seven-day DL with a lower back strain and slated to see a specialist, but given how aggressive Baltimore has been in promoting other prospects to plug holes at the big-league level, Schoop could be up before the All-Star break if his health improves.
The Orioles rank seventh in the AL in defensive efficiency—the percentage of balls in play converted into outs—at .721, up from ninth at .715 last season. That’s not a new development: the Orioles made strides on defense in the second half of last season, for which Showalter credited the arrivals of McLouth and Machado, a natural shortstop temporarily pushed to third base by a defending (and deserving) Gold Glover. The Orioles aren’t an airtight fielding team, but they have some defensive standouts and can catch the ball often enough to compete.
And now we come to the main source of the Orioles’ struggles. Baltimore’s FIP and Fair Run Average (FRA) are up by roughly half a run compared to 2012. The bullpen, which kept Baltimore in all of those close games last season, has a collective ERA of 3.40 (14th in the majors), up from 3.00 (fifth) last season. Darren O’Day, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter have continued to pitch well, but setup man Pedro Strop hasn’t shown the same knack for wriggling out of jams, and closer Jim Johnson has blown as many saves in 17 attempts this season (three) as he did in 54 attempts in 2012. The Orioles’ bullpen hasn’t been bad; it just hasn’t been as otherworldly as it was last season, which is what we should have expected.
The real weakness is in the rotation, where the Orioles spent the winter browsing but not buying and where injuries to Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez have forced them to resort to starting the likes of Freddy Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, and Josh Stinson. Fortunately, there’s hope on the horizon. Chen’s return from an oblique strain will fill one hole, and Japanese lefty Tsuyoshi Wada, who had Tommy John surgery last May and has yet to debut in the majors, made his second Triple-A rehab start on Tuesday and could soon contend for a spot. And in another nod to their tendency to treat their farm system as an extension of their active roster, the Orioles will summon Kevin Gausman, the organization’s top healthy pitching prospect, to start against Toronto tomorrow. The usual caveats about 22-year-old pitchers who haven’t appeared above Double-A also apply to Gausman, but the righty has pitched well for the Bowie Baysox and is regarded as a future top-of-the-rotation arm. Gausman isn’t guaranteed to experience the out-of-the-gate success we’ve seen from Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, or Jose Fernandez, but he should provide a more palatable alternative to the retreads he’s replacing.
Although the Orioles are well behind the winning percentage pace they set last season, they’re slightly ahead of where they were (+17 vs. +14) in run differential through the same point in the schedule. The O’s success in one-run games made it easy to overestimate them in 2012, but we shouldn’t underestimate them now because they haven’t pulled off the improbable again. These Orioles might turn out to be a stronger squad than the one that won a Wild Card. But without the breaks that propelled them to the playoffs last season, the climb to contention could still prove too steep.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .