From historic power to Duquette magic, the Orioles have a blueprint for winning
The first-place Orioles are riding historic power and an imposing bullpen, but there are three other key reasons for their success
It's become one of baseball's most automatic traditions. Every second season, a team rises up, defies expectations, and storms toward the top of its league. Whether due to the laws of regression, or some mysterious, numerically-based superstition, we start to realize the near inevitably of this team winning big in even-numbered years.
We speak, of course, about the Baltimore Orioles. Sure, those other guys in San Francisco have fared pretty well in even years, if we can define pretty well as winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, then surging to the best record in baseball in 2016. But if the Giants represent the pinnacle of even-year achievement, the O's have done a pretty nifty job of carving their own successful path. They erased a decade and a half of losing by storming to an unlikely playoff berth in 2012, then defied the odds again with a division title in 2014. This year, after many pundits picked Baltimore to finish last or close to last in the AL East, it's happened again: The Orioles are winning big.
It starts with an armada of power hitters hitting home runs at an astronomical rate. On Thursday, the O's set the all-time record for most home runs by a team in the month of June, launching their 56th. They fell just shy of smashing the all-time mark for most homers by a team in any month, which sits at 58.
For the season, Baltimore leads the majors with 124 home runs. In a year that has the league threatening to blow past even the steroids-infused 1990s to break the record for most homers in a season, the Orioles are the sluggingest of all teams.
Complementing all that power hitting is an airtight bullpen. Like most ace relievers, Zach Britton was a starting pitcher who wasn't good enough, nor diverse enough in his pitch offerings, to thrive as a 200-inning starter. Instead, he's grown into the closest thing the game now has to Mariano Rivera. Britton owns a hellacious sinker, one that averages nearly 98 mph and generates ungodly amounts of groundballs: his 81.1 percent groundball rate is the highest for any pitcher with as many innings pitched for as long as we've recorded batted-ball data. The second-highest groundball rate ever recorded? Zach Britton, 79.1 percent, last season.
Like Rivera, everyone in the ballpark knows the pitch is coming too, given that Britton throws it 90 percent of the time. It's just that no one can hit it, which is how Britton has allowed just five extra-base hits all season, with a tiny 0.83 ERA. Britton's got company in the quality arms department, with Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Vance Worley forming an able setup crew, even in a down year for normally metronomic sidearmer Darren O'Day. Add a manager in Buck Showalter who does an excellent job handling a bullpen, and you get great results: By Win Probability Added, Baltimore's pen ranks second in the majors, trailing only the Astros' deep relief corps.
Still, potent power and a pugnacious pen can't fully explain how the O's could go from a .500 team last year to a 99-win pace in 2016. For one thing, the starting rotation stinks. The five pitchers with the most innings pitched after staff ace Chris Tillman sport ERAs of 4.50, 6.63, 3.93, 6.12, and 5.77; adjust all you want for park factors or anything else, that's still a flaming pile of garbage.
Even some of the strengths that the Orioles have showed during their recent successful seasons haven't been the same this year: Baltimore's defense ranks just 10th in the AL for 2016 per Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved, after ranking sixth, first, and fifth in the three previous seasons. Moreover, the O's hit for plenty of power and flashed effective relief pitching during the 2013 and 2015 odd years too, both of which ended in also-ran status.
So how have the O's raced to the top of the AL East again this year? Three reasons:
They've had luck on their side.
Acknowledging the bullpen's quality and Showalter's deft hand, neither of those properly explain the Orioles' season-long propensity to sprinkle hits allowed across multiple innings, avoiding harmful multi-run blowups.
They're getting on base.
A perennially dangerous team when it comes to home runs, Baltimore's offense has still been less than great over the past few years, because they've made outs at a higher pace than you'd want to see. This season, the Orioles' team OBP sits at .334, second in the AL; they ranked 12th, 11th, 10th, and 11th in the AL in on-base percentage during the previous four seasons.
As great as home runs are, baseball is the only major North American team sport not governed by a clock, making outs the most precious commodity a team has. Or to put this in simpler terms, put a bunch of dudes on base in front of your mashers, and a bunch of potentially harmless solo shots could turn into game-winning three-run bombs.
Dan Duquette has worked his magic again.
The Orioles' GM can't count any World Series titles on his resume. Still, he might be the most underrated general manager in the game, given his ability to acquire key contributors for next to nothing, again and again.
In penny-pinching Montreal, he deftly traded for Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Darrin Fletcher, and multiple other players who formed the core of the 1994 team, which went 74-40 and might've had a chance to go all the way, if not for that year's season-cancelling strike.
Though he had a bigger budget at his disposal in Boston (and ultimately got run out of town by a petulant media corps), Duquette's acquisitions of bargain-basement players like Troy O'Leary and Brian Daubach helped the team stay competitive despite farm system problems that pre-dated Duquette's arrival. Trading for Pedro Martinez a second time, and netting one of the greatest five-year runs by any pitcher in baseball history, didn't hurt.
He's done it again in Baltimore. Duquette did inherit some good talent from the previous, Andy MacPhail-led regime, starting with the 2008 Erik Bedard blockbuster that netted Tillman and Adam Jones and ranks among the most lopsided trades in baseball history. It's also true that Showalter has left his imprint on the organization in a way that goes beyond what a typical placeholder manager might do, both in his on-field handling of the roster and in providing some input with player acquisitions. Even Peter Angelos deserves credit for finally opening his wallet again: Chris Davis' $161 million contract might not work out in the long run, but he's certainly a valuable asset in the here and now.
Still, the list of Duquette steals on the roster is a long one. Rookie Hyun Soo Kim has done more to boost the team's OBP than anyone, batting a lofty .339/.431/.458 after a slow start to the season; Duquette nabbed him from Korea on an outrageously thrifty two-year, $7 million deal. Pedro Alvarez hasn't been great, but as a left-handed stick putting up league-average numbers on a one-year, $5.75 million deal, the O's will gladly take it. Brach came in a trade with the Padres in November 2013, costing basically nothing after San Diego designated him for assignment.
The coup de grace is Mark Trumbo. Where other teams saw a one-dimensional player with no speed, subpar defense, and big holes in his swing, Duquette saw a slugger whose power could play so well at Camden Yards that it would more than make up for those other defects. On Dec. 2, Duquette acquired Trumbo and reliever C.J. Riefenhauser for backup catcher Steve Clevenger. Trumbo's numbers this season? .282/.332/.562, with a major league-leading 23 home runs.
The Orioles could face some formidable opponents in the second half, with the Red Sox likely to add pitching talent to their loaded lineup, and the Blue Jays likely to augment their bullpen in support of a red-hot offense and a rotation that's received surprising contributions from Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez.
But there's a blueprint here. Bash opponents into submission, limp to the sixth inning, then let the bullpen do the rest. Add a little starting pitching help at the deadline, plus the American League equivalent of #EvenYear magic, and the O's very well might do it again.
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