The Orioles of 2011

We’ve reached Threat Level Midnight. With last night’s victory over the Yankees, the Orioles are now tied with New York American League East lead. Whatever one makes of the Orioles’ chances, this is surprising for pretty much anyone who made a serious attempt at being objective prior to the season. When is the last time a team coming off of a sub-70-win season that got their old GM fired could turn around and parley (among other things) a couple of good pitchers, a breakout performance from an young outfielder, some “luck” with respect to their run differential, and Joe Saunders into a (potential) divisional championship?

Actually, as you may have guessed already, something very similar happened last year in Arizona.

A brief, and non-exhaustive series of thoughts:

Joe Saunders: Hey, Saunders did start a playoff game for the 2011 Diamondbacks, and he did shut down the Blue Jays last week. OBVIOUSLY JOE SAUNDERS IS THE KEY TO SURPRISING RUNS AT CONTENTION.

Mark Reynolds: This is actually a confusing one — was Reynolds the problem for the Diamondbacks such that trading him prior to 2011, or is he a key player in the Orioles current success? What a conundrum!

Okay, these first two are more curious links meant for semi-humorous fun. In reality, Saunders is a mediocre back-of-the-rotation starter that both teams needed at the time. Trading Reynolds helped Arizona bolster their 2011 bullpen and freed up some payroll, but (this year) he has helped the 2012 Orioles’ offense, especially lately.

But let’s get to more interesting parallels.

“Breakout” Outfielders

I am not a big fan of the the concept of a breakout season, but I guess it usefully conveys a point. I am not sure that Justin Upton‘s 140 wRC+ in 2011 can be called a “breakout” to a new level, since he was almost as good in 2009, at a very young age that would lead you to expect him to continue to improve. However, that great 2009 made his 110 wRC+ in 2010 seem disappointing, and almost immediately after Kevin Towers was hired, trade rumors involving Upton started to fly. Those went away after his mammoth 2011 season during which he was one of the keys to the Diamondbacks’ playoff run.

Although he has a different skill set (particularly with respect to plate approach) than Upton, Adam Jones had also long been seen as a future superstar based on his performances at a young age. While there is disagreement over how good or bad Jones is in center field, it was difficult to deny that, despite good physical tools, his plate approach is lacking. There were even some trade rumors about him during the off-season. Well, while his plate discipline has not changed too much this season. What has changd is that Jones is showing much more power, sporting a career-best 128 WRC+ so far, mostly due to his .222 ISO. That got him a big new contract.

Now, there is some bitter aftertaste for Arizona, as Upton’s power has evaporated this year, and the trade rumors ran wild. Upton just turned 25 last month, so it is not as if he is doomed or his contract looks like an albatross. The expectations have just been dialed back a bit. As for Jones, while his seasonal line is still good, it is worth remembering that his wOBA was over .400 when the extension was signed, and is at .362 now. Jones seems like he is regressing back to his usual self — a good, not great player. Jones is also two years older than Upton. This is not to say that Upton and Jones are bad players or have no upside left. Either would help pretty much any team. But they should not be judged only by the periods of time during which they performed at the top of their games.

New GMs

Remember back in 2010, when the San Diego Padres were actually contending out of nowhere, and former Padres pitcher Jake Peavy said that Kevin Towers, who has been fired after the 2009 season, should get the credit? It’s funny, I can’t seem to find any quotes from Jake Peavy about how Josh Byrnes should have gotten credit for the 2011 Diamondbacks, who were run by… Kevin Towers! Maybe if J. J. Hardy gets traded during the off-season to make room for Manny Machado and we’ll be treated to an outburst about how Any MacPhail should have received credit for Baltimore’s 2012 season.

But seriously, folks… Like many people, I have gotten a kick out of “judging” GMs in the past, and still sort of do. I try to be more cirucmspect about it now, although I’m sure I still say silly things. I am not going to “judge” either Dan Duquette or Kevin Towers now. Obviously, they deserve some credit for moves they made during their teams seasons of contention. Towers really improved the Arizona bullpen for 2011, and Duquette’s acquisitions of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been smashing successes. Those are just two examples.

On the other hand, they did come into situations where pieces were already on the team that could help them. I seriously doubt the Diamondbacks would have gone to the playoffs if Towers had managed to trade Upton prior to 2011. and other key players like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and Paul Goldschmidt were already in the organization. Duquette should get credit for the players he signed, but Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Mark Reynolds were going to be Orioles this year, anyway. Manny Machado (and Dylan Bundy) were also players Duquette did not draft (although that’s more of a sticky note for the future).

This is not meant to say that Towers in 2011 or Duquette in 2012 have not been all that impressive. Nor is it to say that they have been awesome. It is simply a reminder that they came into situations with advantages and disadvantages not of their own making, and thus it is very difficult to judge them based just on one good season their team has had.

That Darn Pythag

Different things have been written here at FanGraphs about the the use and misuse of the Pythagorean Expectation. However, I do not think any of this means that it is “useless” or should be abandonded. It certainly does not mean that we should somehow look at a team’s record in one-run games and assert that it is a skill (or lack thereof) that allows them to “beat” (or fail to meet) their Pythgorean expectation. In 2011, the Diamondbacks outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by six games. That’s nothing compared to the 2012 Orioles, who have their pythag beat by ten games, and have actually scored fewer runs than they have allowed.

Now, as I discussed in a previously-linked post, there is a problematic tendency to link observed run differential with a team’s true talent. Still, observed run differential is usually a better indication of a team’s true talent than its observed wins and losses. But what does that mean?

Well, on the downside, it means that the 2011 Diamondbacks and 2012 Orioles probably played/are playing “over their heads,” and that more likely than not they should not be expected to keep up their winning percentages. That was somewhat borne out by the 2012 Diamondbacks’ flop. So the “lesson” here, if there is any, is not so much about Pythagorean records as about using them as a remind that observed performance and true talent are not the same thing. No matter how good the team’s record or run differential is on one year, the next year’s decisions need to be made based on updated projections (broadly conceived to include both statistical projections and scouting observations) for the next year, not simply from what happened on one season that includes all sorts of random variation.

On the bright side, of course, is the reality that even by outplaying their run differential, or even their true talent, the 2012 Orioles and 2011 Diamondbacks have those “wins in the bank.” Whatever off-season decisions the Orioles need to make after this season, they are in first place right now, and look like they are heading for the playoffs. For the long-term, things get more complicated. In the short-term, they can make decisions like the contender that they are.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

33 Responses to “The Orioles of 2011”

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  1. Michael Scarn says:


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  2. Fletch says:

    An interesting read, but honestly, you had me at Threat Level Midnight.

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  3. Steve says:

    I feel confident enough in Duquette and Showalter to know where their true talent level is going into the offseason. It is a good cautionary tale, but for the offseason. It has little to do with September and October.

    Also, it is a little annoying when “experts” insist the Orioles are not as good as their record. Of course they are, the record says so! All the minutiae and mini-stats mean nothing if they don’t lead to W’s.

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    • NS says:

      According to that very sophisticated logic, no team has ever beaten a team that was better than them.

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      • KS says:

        That’s not what he’s saying. But to belabor the point, let’s say he is.

        When one team bests another, it is by definition the better team, at least for that competition. So, yes, for purposes of any given competition, your conclusion is correct.

        What’s more important in sport: who wins and loses the contest, or the “underlying” stats? The stats are fun, even useful at times. But the purpose of sport is to determine a winner and loser.

        And the winner is the better team. By definition.

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      • NS says:

        When one team bests another, it is by definition the better team, at least for that competition.

        “When Joey Bautista goes 0-4 and Jeff Mathis goes 4-4, Mathis is by definition the better hitter, at least for that day.”

        Rubbish. That’s an utterly useless definition, for obvious reasons. “Better performance that day” is not synonymous with “better player” or “better team”.

        “What’s more important in sport: who wins and loses the contest, or the “underlying” stats?”

        That’s a goofy way to frame the question. The statistics are important precisely because winning games is important, but you are making a fundamental error by attributing significance to a single game.

        We always and forever concerned with future games, and how to win most of them. The entire industry of sport built around predicting future performance and attempting to improve it. And in order to reliably make those predictions & improvements, we need to try to gauge actual talent levels (“best”). And in order to do that, we need to be smart enough not to believe that one contest tells us much of anything about a team’s talent level.

        That’s where statistics come in. Not even advances ones, I might add. The subjects of sample size and predictive power are not specific to baseball in any way.

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  4. Everdiso says:

    What’s that, about 2 billion AL East articles on here in the past week? Not one about the Jays either.

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    • Radivel says:

      Just wait until the Red Sox trade Pedroia for John Farrell and a B level prospect. The Boston papers are already going crazy over this John Farrell obsession.

      Let’s check his credentials:
      – Can manage pitchers and the bullpen? 5/10
      – Can manage other ballgame situations? 6/10
      – Can talk to endless Boston soulsucking media types without embarrassing himself or insulting team/employers/city? 10/10

      Sounds like a perfect fit for Boston, so no wonder they want him so bad. Anyway, if you’re missing your Blue Jays fix, expect something about this somewhat soon.

      Yes, I know you’re trolling.

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      • Michael Scarn says:

        “Well, we were going to hire John Farrell as our next manager, but then we discovered that Radivel gave him a 6/10 on managing ‘other ballgame situations’ and decided to pass. Dodged a bullet on that one.” – Ben Cherington

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  5. Zach says:

    I’d say this post is more about “The Orioles of 2012” rather than “The Orioles of 2011.” Typo, I presume.

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  6. Scraps says:

    Less subtle.

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  7. JS says:

    It seems reasonable to use past run differential to make global attributions about whether that success was attributable to luck or skill. For example, if the Orioles went .550 during a stretch in which they scored fewer runs than they allowed, then we can say that they got lucky. (And they did).

    But it is wrong – or at least much more imperfect – to use past run differential to characterize the true ability of a current roster of players when that team’s roster has changed so drastically during the season. It will lead to wrong predictions.

    The Orioles might have been a .450 team in April, but I do not believe they are a .450 team now. Given the various improvements they have made – no more Endy Chavez(!!) or Tommy Hunter or Jake Arrieta or . . . – they are probably a much better team than their season-long run differential suggests. Not a first-place team, of course. But a team that is currently a lot better than this and other websites suggest.

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    • Mark says:

      Even if you don’t want to use the full season run differential, since July they are +2. So if you want to argue that from April to June they were a 450 win team, you could say that at best they’re a .500 true talent team for the second half of the season.

      Kudos to them for overachieving though.

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      • JS says:

        I agree with this. They are probably a .500 team now rather than a .450 team. My point is only that it is way less crazy for a .500 team to be lucking itself into contention than for a .450 team to be doing so.

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      • Mark says:

        It is pretty crazy given how good the Rays/Yankees are though. Crazy in the I can’t believe it’s happening and kind of amazing at the same time.

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  8. Paul says:

    Oh to remember the “Why Not” Orioles of ’89, who took it down to the wire with Jeff Ballard, some bailing wire, a pack of Big League Chew, and not much else. And THAT was a team that had started the previous year 0-21.

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  9. j.q. higgins says:

    am i missing something? andy macphail wasn’t fired, to my recollection, angelos tried to renew his contract and macphail declined…or was this just spin?

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  10. Jeff says:

    Andy MacPhail wasn’t fired, his contract expired and he was invited back by the owner and he declined.

    If you know a different version of the story I would like to hear it.

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  11. Table says:

    The title confuses me

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  12. RudolfSchmidt says:

    The title does not confuse me perhaps because I am of moderate intelligence, or so my mother tells me.

    The interesting question to ask is who is the 70 win 2012 team that contends in 2013?

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  13. Antonio Bananas says:

    Shouldn’t we have a way of looking at run differential a little closer? Maybe they’re the anti-cardinals. If they start losing, they give up and get blown out, and this skews the numbers. Also, what’s their run differential by month? Maybe one bad month skewed the numbers.

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  14. Bret says:

    The difference between the D’Backs and the O’s is that the D’Backs did not have a top flight prospect ready to help the following year. The O’s have two at minimum, three if you include Gausman (I’m ignoring Machado’s brief exposure this season).

    If you take a 79 win team phythag team as the O’s are this year, add a star pitcher and a star position player you are a 90 win team. If the Detroit Tigers didn’t have Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander they wouldn’t be far from being the Houston Astros.

    So yes, O’s have gotten lucky and it won’t continue next year but they will be a much better underlying team and a playoff contender for the foreseeable future assuming Bundy and Machado stay healthy.

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    • mlstarr says:

      Are you forgetting Bauer and Skaggs? In hindsight they didn’t contribute much to the big league club during the season, but in Spring Training there was a lot of talk in Arizona about if either of them would be the #5 starter. Plus, Arizona has had Miley break out unexpectedly to a 4+ WAR SP that is potentially 4-5 wins that weren’t accounted for in preseason expectations, and the Dbacks are still under .500. To assume Bundy and Machado will be stars for all of next year is imho taking a naive leap while remaining blind to the reality of the 2012 Dbacks. Prospects are unpredictable, good luck regresses, and others’ performances regress. Not to say what you laid out won’t happen, but to consider it likely is dangerous. I’d take the (way) under on BundyWAR+MachadoWAR vs. VerlanderWAR+CabreraWAR and the under on 90 wins.

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      • Bret says:

        If you go look at Arod’s year 20 season he didn’t play much and when he did wasn’t very good. The following season he was the best player in the game. I’m not expecting that from Machado but there is no doubt in my mind he can be a 4 win player easy – since they got 0 WAR out of 3B prior to Machado that would be a big leap. Bundy is the best pitching prospect in the game. He might struggle but I’ll take my chances. If he replaces Tommy Hunter’s production and can be average that is a big leap.

        I don’t think the D’Backs and O’s are a good comparison because the 11 DBacks got lucky on the field and with phythag. They had tremendous pitching years from 3 starters. Upton had a career year etc. The O’s have gotten very lucky with pythag but have gotten very unlucky with both production (Hardy, 2B, 1B, 3B prior to Machado, LF) and injury (Reimold, Hammel, Markakis, Roberts). The only guy on offense you could say is having a good year is Jones but his BABIP isn’t crazy or anything. They are still a young team and if they got expected production from a few places (I think Wieters should hit better, Hardy is having a horrible offensive year) that should make them much better. Add in a legit starter and a legit everyday position player for 162 and that makes them much better. So yes, they will get less lucky but I’m almost positive they will play much better. The DBacks were relying on career years plus luck, the O’s have just relied on luck.

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  15. Eric says:

    Just a couple points to be made about Adam Jones.

    First, he was hit on the hand by a Brandon Morrow fastball on May 30. There is some uncertainty about how severe that injury was, but it has been suggested by some in the know that he is dealing with microscopic fractures in the left hand that may require offseason surgery. Whether related to the injury or not, his OPS since that beanball has been .770 (as compared to .986 coming into that game). If he’s playing through persistent hand pain, his performance has been remarkable. If not — perhaps it’s accurate to suggest that he’s just been reverting to his true talent.

    The second point is much more abstract and based largely on my having watched Jones play for years now. He, more than any other player I’ve seen, has a tendency to be extremely mentally aware of “milestone numbers,” particularly as it relates to HR totals. In 2009, he hit his 19th HR on August 5th. He began pressing to hit 20 HRs for the first time and didn’t hit another HR for the rest of the season (20 games), posting a .446 OPS along the way. In 2010, he hit his 19th HR on September 17th. He again began pressing and didn’t hit another HR for the rest of the season (15 games), posting a .638 OPS along the way. This year, he hit his 24th (and 99th career) HR on July 27th. He (once again) began pressing and didn’t hit his next HR for a month (27 games), posting a .668 OPS along the way. Since hitting that break-through HR on August 28th, he’s hit 4 more HRs and has posted a 1.000 OPS with a slashline (.295/.340/.659) that isn’t exactly BABIP-powered.

    Neither observation, standing alone, means a great deal. But I do think it’s worth noting that there are some reasons that specific blocks of Jones’s performance this season may be attributable to one or both factors — and that, like Upton’s 2012, perhaps those blocks aren’t really indicative of his true talent.

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    • Zach says:

      That’s an interesting theory regarding Jones underperforming while on the cusp of a statistical milestone. I’d love to see a future Fangraphs article that tries to see if this kind of effect is statistically significant.

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