The Yankees and Orioles: Who’s the Underdog?

The author, because he’s an idiot, mistakenly wrote this preview for the Yankees-Orioles series despite having definitely been assigned the Nationals-Cardinals NLDS, instead, by his fearless editor Dave Cameron. Interested readers can expect full coverage of the Nationals and Cardinals beginning tomorrow (Monday).

If you’ve made your way to FanGraphs — and if, furthermore, our demographic data is even half accurate — you’re the sort of person who either (a) has done well in school or (b) is currently doing well in school. Which, that means you’re probably also the sort of person who (a) has taken a number of quizzes before and also (b) has done well on those same quizzes — and maybe even (c) actively enjoys taking quizzes.

All of which suggests that the reader will be giddy with excitement to take this important baseball quiz:


“Hilarious” is the word, I believe, for which the reader is searching.

Apart from eliciting the heartiest possible guffaws, however, this quiz has a rhetorical purpose: were we able to remove responses from fans of both the Yankees and Orioles, it’s likely that ca. 80% of readers will have picked the latter here — or, roughly the same portion of participants from a 1991 study who, given the choice between two teams and all other things being equal, picked the underdog.

Of course, it’s at this point that an entirely reasonable person might ask, “How do we know the Baltimore Orioles really are the underdog in their ALDS series against the New York Yankees — and, if one were interested in that question, how might he answer it?”

By at least four ways, is how — as follow.

Answer One
The first answer is that the Orioles are an underdog in this series insofar as they (a) haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1997 (while their opponents have only missed qualifying for the playoffs once since then), (b) have spent considerably less on their roster than their opponent (by about $110 million, or the cost of the entire Cardinals roster), and (c) were considered by many — including the very expert authors of this site — to be one of the weakest organizations in the majors entering the season.

For all of these reasons, the Orioles are underdogs when a wider context is considered.

Answer Two
With regard to another sense of the question — that is, whether the Orioles are less likely to win this series against the Yankees, specifically — the answer to that question is, “Let’s consider that in more depth.”

One way the Orioles might be considered an underdog is if sportsbooks are offering higher payouts for them than for the Yankees.

And, look: as of Sunday afternoon, a $1.00 bet on the Yankees to win the ALDS returns about $0.42, according to Pinnacle Sports (a sportsbook that appeals to sharp, or smart, bettors, as opposed to square ones). A $1.00 bet on the Orioles? About $2.14.

These odds suggest about a 69% chance of victory for the Yankees, about 31% for the Orioles.

By this criterion, the Orioles are underdogs.

Answer Three
Here’s another way of assessing the Orioles’ chances of winning the ALDS: by using seasonal runs scored and allowed to calculate their odds of winning the series.

The Orioles scored 4.40 runs per game this year and allowed about 4.35. The Yankees scored 4.96 per game this year and allowed 4.12. The average American League team scored 4.40 runs and (because of interleague play) allowed fewer, 4.35 runs per game.

Using simple indices relative to league average, we’d assume that the Yankees offense would typically score about 4.93 runs against the Orioles pitching and defense, while the Orioles would score 4.14 runs against the Yankees. A team that scores 4.14 runs per game and allows 4.93 would win about 42% of the time.

Game by game, and including an adjustment for home-field advantage, here’s how the series would play out using the figures above:

Game Home BAL NYA
1 BAL 46.3% 53.7%
2 BAL 46.3% 53.7%
3 NYA 38.3% 61.7%
4 NYA 38.3% 61.7%
5 NYA 38.3% 61.7%
Total 34.3% 65.7%

By this measure, the Orioles have only about a 34% chance of winning the series — better than even a sharp sportsbook like Pinnacle is implying, but not by much. They are still decidedly underdogs.

Answer Four
Here’s a thing, though: seasonal totals for runs scored and allowed are likely not representative of a team’s present true talent or roster construction. In fact, the Orioles were one of baseball’s best teams in September and October — not merely by record, but also by run-scoring and -prevention.

So, here’s a different way of assessing the Orioles’ chances of winning the ALDS: by using only September and October runs scored and allowed and then projecting odds of winning and losing the series using just those numbers.

Over the last month-plus of the regular season, Baltimore scored 5.10 runs per game and allowed just 3.61; New York, 5.61 and 4.16 runs, respectively.

Using those numbers, we’d expect the Yankees to score around 4.62 against the Orioles, with the Orioles actually scoring more now, at 4.84 runs. All things being equal, the Orioles would have about a 52% chance of winning a game against the Yankees held at a neutral site.

Game by game, and including an adjustment for home-field advantage, here’s how the series would play out using only September and October runs scored and allowed:

Game Home BAL NYA
1 BAL 57.3% 42.7%
2 BAL 57.3% 42.7%
3 NYA 47.4% 52.6%
4 NYA 47.4% 52.6%
5 NYA 47.4% 52.6%
Total 52.6% 47.4%

By this measure, the Orioles actually aren’t underdogs, but slight favorites.

By at least one criterion — i.e. a game-by-game projection of the ALDS using runs scored and allowed from September and October only — the Yankees might be considered slight underdogs for the series. By at least three other criteria, however — including within a larger context that considers the Orioles’ mediocrity over the last decade-plus and the relatively surprising nature of their 2012 season — it’s the Orioles who are decided underdogs, and it’s based upon this criterion that most neutral fans will likely make their pick for whom to root in the ALDS between Baltimore and New York.

Series Schedule
For reference, here’s the series schedule as it stands on Sunday afternoon:

Away Tm Time Tm Home Game
CC Sabathia NYA Oct 7, 18:07 ET BAL Jason Hammel 1
Andy Pettitte NYA Oct 8, 20:07 ET BAL Wei-Yin Chen 2
Miguel Gonzalez BAL Oct 10, TBD NYA Hiroki Kuroda 3
Joe Saunders BAL Oct 11, TBD NYA Phil Hughes 4
Jason Hammel BAL Oct 12, TBD NYA CC Sabathia 5

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