After last night’s victory over the Mariners, the Orioles announced they were calling up top prospect Manny Machado from Double-A and giving him the third base job for the stretch run. Wilson Betemit hasn’t been a total disaster, posting a 100 wRC+ in 356 plate appearances, but he’s one of the worst defensive players in baseball and is dreadful against lefties, so moving him into a 1B/DH platoon isn’t a bad use of his skills.
The promotion is still a bit of a surprise, however, as Machado is a teenager whose numbers in Double-A don’t suggest that he’s ready to start hitting Major League pitching right away. A .266/.352/.438 line isn’t all that different from what Betemit is doing, and of course Machado is posting that line against inferior pitching. But, despite the mediocre looking slash line, there are reasons to think that Machado might be more ready for the big leagues than the raw numbers suggest.
The first thing to note is that the Eastern League isn’t exactly an offensive haven. The average hitter in the EL this year is hitting .260/.331/.392, and the run environment for the league is just 4.31 runs per game. This isn’t the PCL or the Cal League, where you need to hit .350 just to call it a respectable season. Machado’s line might not look all that sexy, but it is good for a 122 wRC+, and ties him for the 18th best offensive season of any qualified player down there. He’s not tearing up the league, but relative to his peers, his overall line is still pretty good.
Then, there’s the park to consider. Our minor league wRC+ doesn’t include park factors right now, but if it did, Machado would jump to around 130 or so. Dan Szymborski’s published minor league park factors give Bowie a 95, which makes it the most pitcher friendly park in the Eastern League. Not surprisingly, Machado has shown a pretty large home/road split, hitting .254/.327/.398 at home and .279/.375/.478 on the road. Bowie isn’t Petco or anything, but it’s not a great place to hit, and we need to keep that in mind when looking at Machado’s overall numbers.
Still, given that he was only good-not-great in Double-A, he’s probably not ready to come in and dominate in a playoff push. For context, when the Marlins promoted Miguel Cabrera from Double-A at age 20, he was hitting .365/.429/.609 as a 20-year-old, and was still only capable of putting up a 105 wRC+ as a rookie. The two level jump is a big one, especially for an inexperienced kid who probably hasn’t seen a lot of high quality off-speed stuff yet. Odds are pretty decent that he’s going to struggle, and that he’s not going to represent any kind of real upgrade over Betemit down the stretch.
But the odds are already stacked against the Orioles anyway. They are 60-51 despite being outscored by 47 runs, and everyone keeps expecting them to fall out of the race any day now. Instead, they just keep winning. Yes, they’ve built their record on unsustainable performances, racking up 12 straight extra inning wins and going 22-6 in one run games. The way the Orioles have put themselves in contention suggests that they’re not as good as their record suggests, and that of all the teams fighting for the wild card, they’re the one least likely to continue winning games at this pace.
But none of that should matter to the Orioles. The reality is that those 111 games are in the books, and no one is going to be stripping wins from them simply because they won more close games than we would have expected. Baltimore is tied with Oakland and Detroit for the lead in the wild card race with 51 games to go, and in that kind of small sample, the variation in expected record around a team’s true talent level is pretty large. Even if we accept that the Orioles are playing over their heads, that does not preclude them from continuing to play over their heads for the rest of the season.
It might not be the most likely outcome, but the Orioles shouldn’t give up on a playoff run simply because the results aren’t likely to turn out in their favor. Even if we thought the Orioles were a true talent .460 team, we’d still expect there to be a wide range of possible outcomes given their current situation. In general, standard deviations around a team’s true talent level are believed to be about eight to 10 wins per full season, so it’s completely normal for a 75 win team to win 65 or 85 games just due to normal variation. In smaller samples, the variations are even larger, so even if we analyze the Orioles as a true talent .460 winning percentage team, that just means that they’ll probably win between something like 39%-53% of their games in August and September. In other words, they could be good, they could be bad, or they could be anything in between. Their underlying stats suggest that the mean is shifted towards the losing side of the curve, but that doesn’t mean that the winning side doesn’t exist simply because they’ve already “gotten lucky” in terms of wins and losses. They are not more likely to underperform now simply because they’ve already overperformed in the first four months.
The Orioles shouldn’t be the favorites to capture a playoff spot, but there’s a real chance that they sneak in and steal one. Cool Standings gives them a 19% chance of making the playoffs, which is simply too large of a window to ignore. The potential returns on a playoff run are huge, and push the value of going for it well into the positive, even given the unlikelihood of success.
We can sit here and say that Machado is probably not ready for the big leagues, and the Orioles probably aren’t going be able to hang around with Detroit, Anaheim, and Oakland in the wild card hunt, and odds are pretty good that at the end of the season, we’ll be right. But, what good does it do Dan Duquette to join in that crowd and tell his fan base to not get too excited because this probably won’t last? The Orioles wisely chose not to punt their future to make a marginal upgrade at the trade deadline, but calling up Machado now is nothing like trading away a good young player for a rent-a-veteran. The Orioles are basically giving themselves another lottery ticket, and if Machado’s talent overcomes his lack of experience, then they might have a slightly better chance of continuing to beat the odds.
That it probably won’t be enough isn’t really the question. Is it worth trying in a season where the team has given fans a reason to come back to the park, even if the odds are stacked against them? Absolutely. The cost of promoting Machado at this point is quite low. If he flops, then he’ll simply start next year back in the minors, and they’ll still be able to manage his service time if they want to get that extra year of team control. The only way they lose that extra year is if he’s good enough to force them to keep him in in the Majors for the next seven years, which also sounds like a pretty good outcome for the Orioles.
Perhaps the more interesting decision will come in September if the team is still hanging around in the wild card race. The Orioles also promoted Dylan Bundy to Double-A after his start for Frederick last night, and if they get into September and need an additional arm, they’ll have a premium stuff teenager knocking on the door. That one might be a tougher call, given how hard they’ve tried to manage his workload this year, but limiting his innings in April and May might serve to give them confidence that he’s still got something left for September. If Machado hits and the Orioles win, we could be having this same conversation about Bundy’s promotion in three weeks.
For the Orioles franchise and the sake of a fan base that hasn’t had much to cheer about in the last 15 years, I hope they keep beating the odds, and I’m glad to see that they’re willing to take steps to try and push those numbers towards the more favorable outcomes when they can.