Seems to me the most fun you can have as a sports fan is when your team exceeds expectations. It’s fun when a known good team plays like a good team, too, but then you don’t get the same kind of magic of surprise. You’re already planning ahead for the playoffs, and you’re more likely to be disappointed by anything short of a title. It’s always the best to pull for someone people didn’t see coming, and a team most people didn’t see coming this year was the Orioles. Orioles fans, then, ought to be enjoying this, yet it seems an awful lot of them are spending their time ripping on FanGraphs. See, FanGraphs projected the Orioles for last place. Ergo, we’re maroons! Fans apparently don’t love it when you ascribe surprising success to random variation. I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
So let’s consider what we have here. The Orioles are in the running to finish with baseball’s best record. They were projected to be something like a .500 team on true talent. Obviously, then, they’re exceeding the preseason projections. The roster hasn’t really changed all that much. So where are the Orioles beating the forecasts? We already know they’re doing better than they were expected to do. Why is that, in 2014?
Let’s not get hung up on individual players. We’re going to look more at the team level, made possible by our preseason Positional Power Rankings. And before we get any further, I’ll note that this year’s Orioles, as a team, have been clutch, and that’s impossible to project because it’s not really been identified as a sustainable skill. Clutch performance basically explains the difference between the Orioles’ record and the Orioles’ BaseRuns record, but the Orioles’ BaseRuns record is still quite good, and that’s the focus of this investigation.
Let’s go quickly! In the bullpen, the Orioles have done much better than expected. A big part of this has been the emergence of Zach Britton, the groundballing dynamo. However, the starting rotation has done a little worse than expected, so, overall, the pitching staff has been just 1 WAR better than it was projected for through this point. That’s not nothing, but that’s not worth our time.
Meanwhile, overall, the position players have been nearly 5 WAR better than they were projected for through this point. That feels a hell of a lot more significant, but we can break this down. Swinging the bat, the Orioles were projected to be almost exactly league average, and right now they’re better than that by about 11 runs. So, that mirrors the pitching staff’s performance. Running the bases, there’s no difference. Then we get to the defense. Putting everything together, the Orioles were projected for about +12 fielding runs by now. They’re actually at +46. The Orioles, as a team, lead baseball in UZR, and they’re the runners-up in DRS.
There’s our key. You’ve got about a win with the pitchers, and about a win with the bats, but better than three wins with the gloves. Or at least, what we’re calling the gloves. Manny Machado‘s played just 82 games, but still the Orioles have been this good. Matt Wieters has been lost for a while, but still the Orioles have been this good. Nelson Cruz has spent 500 innings in the outfield, but still the Orioles have been this good. I’m not entirely sure how to explain it, but I know the numbers that I’m looking at. The numbers think the Orioles’ defense is awesome.
And that’s why the Orioles’ team ERA is a half-run lower than their team FIP. Defensively, the Orioles have been better than the projections at almost every position, and no matter what you want to call that, that’s the statistical truth. Say, the numbers haven’t loved Nick Markakis in a while. Here’s Nick Markakis!
What follows now is a table, broken down by batted-ball type allowed. Within the table, for 2013 and 2014, you’ll see the Orioles’ ranks in the American League in BABIP.
|BIP Allowed||2013 BABIP AL Rank||2014 BABIP AL Rank|
They’ve still been great at covering groundballs. They’ve been better with fly balls, and they’ve been better with line drives. We know that the Orioles are particularly aggressive with their shifting, but then the numbers don’t really know what to do with shifting, so. The ultimate point is this: balls in play haven’t hurt so bad. The Orioles have had to spend chunks of the year without one of the premier defensive players in the majors, but turning balls in play into outs is still helping to drive their success.
Is it about defense, or is it about the pitchers allowing a lesser average quality of contact? We’re not quite equipped to answer that, but we can do what we can. The Orioles have allowed a basically average line-drive rate. They’ve allowed a basically average groundball rate, and while they’re in the upper four in infield flies generated, the Rangers lead in that department, and their BABIP allowed is terrible. The Orioles have allowed a basically average amount of fly balls to leave the yard. It doesn’t seem like this is a special pitching staff. It seems like just a regular pitching staff, that’s been blessed by good glovework.
Left unanswered is, why has the outfield been so effective? Last year’s Orioles outfield rated below-average, defensively. This year they’re fifth in UZR, and the most innings have still gone to Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Nate McLouth has turned into David Lough and Nelson Cruz. I don’t know what to say about this. Maybe the Orioles have just been presented with unusually easy opportunities. Maybe ordinary batted balls have just been hit unusually close to to outfielders. Maybe the outfielders have collectively gotten better, or maybe there’s been a change in how they’re all positioned at-bat to at-bat. The best I can do is give you some information. To fill in the inevitable gaps, I leave you to wonder and speculate.
This year’s Orioles, without question, have beaten what was expected of them. Part of that is unprojectable clutch performance. Part of that is the division struggling around them. And a big part of that is the team defense playing like one of the very best in the league. The pitching so far has been a little bit better. The bats so far have been a little bit better. The gloves have been outstanding, and while I can’t sit here and explain to you why, thankfully I’m under no obligation to do so. That would probably really stress me out.
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