Posted September 04, 2012

Orioles catch Yankees in crowded AL East but doubts linger

Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays

Mark Reynolds has powered Baltimore into an unlikely tie atop the division. (US Presswire)

Over the past weekend, Mark Reynolds produced a pair of two-homer games that pushed the Orioles to victories over the Yankees, helping the upstart Birds draw within striking distance of the Bronx Bombers in the AL East race. On Tuesday, with their deficit in the division race reduced to a single game, Reynolds continued his hot streak, bashing a three-run homer off the Blue Jays’ Carlos Villanueva to key a 12-run onslaught. Backed seven shutout innings from Zach Britton and combined with the Yankees’ second loss in as many days to the Rays, the O’s now own a share of first place in the AL East, with the Rays just 1 1/2 games behind.

Just seven weeks ago, the Yankees owned a double-digit lead in the division and looked for all the world like a typical pinstriped juggernaut. On July 18, less than a week after the All-Star break, their record stood at 57-34, giving them a 10-game cushion over the 47-44 Orioles, with the 47-45 Rays another half-game back. Since then, the Yankees have sputtered, while the other two teams have soared:

Tm W L W Pct GB RS RA Pyth W Pct
Orioles 29 15 .659 207 170 .597
Rays 28 16 .636 1 188 104 .766
Yankees 19 25 .432 10 193 190 .508

Among AL teams, only the A’s (29-14) have been better than the Orioles and Rays. Not coincidentally, Oakland and Baltimore entered Tuesday as the two teams holding the AL wild-card spots.

With less than a month remaining in the season, what are we to make of this race? In the grand scheme, the Orioles still look like the odd duck here, not only given their recent lack of success — they haven’t posted a winning season, let alone reached the playoffs, since 1997 — but also their −19 run differential. By comparison, the Yankees are at +83, the Rays at +81. As I noted last month, only five teams have ever reached the postseason with a negative run differential: the 1984 Royals (-13), 1987 Twins (-20), 1997 Giants (-9), 2005 Padres (-44) and 2007 Diamondbacks (-20). When I wrote that, the Orioles were 57 runs in the red, but since then, they’ve cut that by two-thirds.

Concealed within that negative run differential is the Orioles’ .774 winning percentage (on a 24-7 record) in one-run games, a record-setting pace; Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Yankees broke an astounding 13-game winning streak in one-run games. Couple that with an MLB-high .647 winning percentage (on a 22-12 record) in games decided by two runs, and Baltimore’s .708 winning percentage in games decided by two or fewer runs is the third-highest of all-time . Meanwhile, even with Tuesday’s win, the O’s are still 21-22 in games decided by five or more runs, having been outscored by 23 runs in such games.

Baltimore’s recent surge owes much to improved starting pitching. Since the beginning of August, the rotation’s ERA is 3.90, and the starting five has delivered quality starts 63 percent of the time. Prior to that, they were at 4.09 — not too much higher — but delivering quality starts just 44 percent of the time. More than anything else, their consistency has improved. Of the five pitchers who have made at least four starts in that span, four of them — Britton, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman — have delivered ERAs of 4.30 or lower; only Tommy Hunter (7.08 ERA) has been higher, and even that owes mainly to one three-inning, eight-run drubbing that bumped him back to Triple-A. It’s worth noting that among that aforementioned quartet, only Chen began the year in the rotation; Britton was on the disabled list, while Gonzalez and Tillman were in the minors.

Even with that improvement, general manager Dan Duquette hasn’t been content to stand pat. Last week, he acquired Joe Saunders from the Diamondbacks in trade, thus replacing Hunter; rocked by the White Sox in his first start, Saunders rebounded to throw 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Blue Jays. Later this week, the team is scheduled to get Jason Hammel back from the disabled list following an eight-week absence due to surgery to remove loose bodies in his right knee. With a 3.54 ERA and 8.7 strikeouts per nine, Hammel has been the team’s most effective starter this year, and his return comes just as Tillman underwent an MRI that showed an inflamed ulnar nerve.

While the O’s have gotten hot, the Yankees have cooled off drastically, in part due to injuries. When Alex Rodriguez went down with a fractured metacarpal on July 24, they were 58-39, still seven games up on the Orioles and eight ahead of the Rays. While the Yankees have gotten stellar performances from Derek Jeter (.335/.379/.525), Nick Swisher (.293/.377/.489) and third base fill-in Eric Chavez (.325/.387/.530) since then, Curtis Granderson (.192/.257/.400), Mark Teixeira (.232/.303/.389, and now sidelined by a calf strain), Raul Ibanez (.215/.311/.418) and Andruw Jones (.131/.239/.230) have all been dreadful, and newcomer Ichiro Suzuki (.274/.297/.403) hasn’t helped much. Since winning seven out of eight games from August 8-15, the team has gone just 6-12 while failing to win back-to-back games even once. Since August 21, they have scored more than four runs just twice, and more than five runs just once. Rodriguez returned to the lineup on Monday, and while he’s collected hits in both games, the Yankees have managed just five runs total. They haven’t collected more than six hits in any of their last five games, their longest streak since 1990.

As for the Rays, they have now won four straight after a 1-6 slide threatened to derail their playoff hopes. They’re 18-9 since the return of Evan Longoria, but the real story lately has been their pitching. Since yielding 10 runs on July 18, they have allowed a microscopic 2.36 runs per game. Their pitchers have limited opposing hitters to 0.4 homers per nine in that span while striking out 8.6 per nine and walking just 2.1. While the starters have been excellent (2.65 ERA), their bullpen has been positively lights out, delivering a 1.11 ERA while allowing just five homers in 121 1/3 innings. Four relievers have thrown at least 12 innings in that span with ERAs below 1.00, including Fernando Rodney, who has an 0.71 ERA for the entire season.

As good as they’ve been, however, the Rays are still looking up at the Orioles and the Yankees. But a race that once appeared over except for the inevitable jockeying for wild-card positioning is suddenly the most tightly packed division battle in all of the majors, and it should make for some compelling baseball down the stretch.

27 comments
Delibirdation
Delibirdation

The O's run differential is skewed by the fact they got demolished by the Rangers and Angels this season. Take those two out and it jumps into the mid +20s at least (that's where it was last time I added the figures up). It's not the end-all-be all. Sure, they are getting fortunate, but they also have an excellent bullpen and a lineup that can hit for power. In a ballpark like theirs, that can lead to extended success as they're never really out of it, and can hold the leads they get.What should be driving people nuts is the sheer amount of bodies the O's have used and the positive production they've gotten out of unexpected names. That's part of being fortunate, but it's also clear that Buck Showalter and the front office is running a tight ship that can thrive with so many moving parts being used. I'm an Angel fan and lived through all those playoff years where the Angels continually outperformed mathematical expectations, the O's staying strong and making the playoffs isn't as farfetched to me as it is to some of these writers.

AlbertTydings
AlbertTydings

Since the sad death of a real pennant race with the unwanted and unneeded glut of wild cards- it is the best two out of three-  the winning of the pennant is virtually meaningless unless thee are three teams battling  -

dtaveras109
dtaveras109

The Yankees are the Yankees. Stats don't mean anything in the last 20+ games of the season. Theeeee Yankees WIN!!!!!!

christopher7329
christopher7329

Jay Jaffe is not only a great writer but a smart guy. I realize simple fans find numbers frightening and deep thought hurts their noggins but knowledge is eternally power. This reminds me of the MLB insiders who continue to insult Billy Beane as if Sabermetrics is a fad like The Enlightenment. If you like and need a simple world I get it but don't kill the enlightened messenger just because you have zero attention span or prefer your brain stays bland.

JimBrown
JimBrown like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Now if we could just fill the stadium with O's fans and show the O's how we really feel about their accomplishments.  The "press" can keep clammering on their "run differential" all they want, realistically it means nada.  The one true measure is wins vs losses and we all know what that spells.  Go O's!! 

G3
G3 like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @JimBrown Wait till you see camden this weekend....

JamesSimon
JamesSimon

Wow, do we really need all those stats? Hey, I love the Yankees, but they're awful at this moment.

JeanneEnders
JeanneEnders like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Numerous articles, including this one, keep citing the run differential and Yankees injuries as reasons why the Orioles shouldn't be doing as well as they are, and why the Yankees are struggling.  While I'm not discounting the toll that injuries can take on a team, and their dynamics, get over yourselves already!  With a $200M payroll, they Yankees should have players to backfill the injured positions and still be productive.  The Orioles, with their $80M payroll, haven't been without their injuries, but they're not crying about it.  Instead of talking about why they shouldn't be in first, let's talk about why they are... How about  a 60-0 record when leading after 7 innings? How about the 150-ish roster moves the Orioles have made this season?  How about their merry-go-round pitching rotation?  Personally, I think these factors are huge reasons why the Orioles have done so well.  By this point in the season, most pitchers and batters have seen each other enough that there are no surprises left.  The Orioles are playing a whole different ball game.  Their ever-changing lineup and rotation is a constant surprise to opponents.  How do you find a groove against a team that refuses to settle into one? 

 

As a long-time fan, I've seen the best (the early 80's, the mid-late 90's) and worst (the last 14 years) of this team, and I am practically euphoric at finally seeing this team playing like the fans have been hoping and praying they would for over a decade.  I'm quite tired of the "experts" using lame statistics to diminish this team's success, and not giving credit where credit is due... to the players, to Buck, to Dan Duquette... Personally, the fact that they are in first place for the first time since 1997 (their wire-to-wire year, and last winning season) is something I've been waiting a looooong time for, and I plan on enjoying it!

 

So let the haters hate, let the Yankees (and their fans) cry foul or injury or whatever.  Me?  I'm gonna sit back, drink my orange kool-aid, and watch the most exciting, fun, and surprising Orioles team to come along in over a decade.  The sweet smell of baseball in October is something this team, and its fans, have waited a long time to experience.  Here's hoping they don't have to refund my post-season ticket deposit!  :)

JayBarone
JayBarone like.author.displayName 1 Like

Orioles are a great story this year. I hope they make the playoffs as a wild card. Still pulling for My Rays to win the division. Whatever happens I want to see the Yankees home. The last 3 game series between the Os and Rays could be a great one!!

kevan.e.browne
kevan.e.browne like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

If you remove the half a dozen times the Orioles have been blown out, then the run differential is in the low-positive  range. 

If you remove the time that Markakis was out of the lineup due to injury, the Orioles are ~ +20.

 

Or, you can leave all the games in the statistical mix and there 's still only 1 number that matters.... Orioles = 0 gms back.

Jeff16
Jeff16 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

 

How does your statistical analysis allow for, say, a manager's experience, skill, and ability to motivate?  Oh, I guess you forgot to add that to your magic formula.

 

It saddens me to see the writer distill down an incredibly complex system to a few statistical facts, as if they somehow represent the whole picture.

MatthewGerardKnauer1
MatthewGerardKnauer1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Who cares about run differential? When was the last time we were blown out? Keep making excuses so your predictions don't go wrong, but you're the one who's going to look like a clown at the end of September. Orioles win, Orioles win!!

d_taradavi
d_taradavi like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hello, Mr. Jaffe: As one of the reasons for doubting the Orioles, you write: "Baltimore’s .708 winning percentage in games decided by two or fewer runs is the third-highest of all-time ."

 

When the O's were 57-51, you listed as one of the reasons the Orioles' "postseason dream is all but impossible:"  "these Orioles are an MLB-best 36-17 (.679) in one- and two-run games, with a winning percentage that would rank 12th since 1901."

 

... so the Birds have played even *better* in the clutch since you last bashed them, yet you continue to do so. Please, keep hating! I'm guessing this is excellent bulletin board material. Ho-hum.

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @d_taradaviI fail to see how recognizing the uniqueness of what the Orioles are doing - with their record-pace performance in close games - equates to "hating" or "bashing" Better to completely ignore such analysis and lazily call anybody who doesn't support your viewpoint a hater? It sure looks that way from here. Ho-hum.

d_taradavi
d_taradavi

 @jay_jaffe  Of course you fail to recognize it.... because rather than credit this team's impressive ability to produce in high-pressure situations, at an increasingly impressive pace as the pressure of a pennant race mounts, you attempt in both instances to point to this as a statistical anomaly that *must* correct at some point. After all, baseball is *all* about the numbers, right?  Your lazy, defensive response gives the lie to your answer to a post that focused on your own analysis, your own numbers. At least, it sure looks that way from here. I'm guessing Britt says thank you for using Ho-hum, though.

hotcorner306
hotcorner306 like.author.displayName 1 Like

As a Red Sox fan, I really have nothing left to cheer for EXCEPT for the O's and/or Rays eliminating the Yankees from the playoffs.  I too feel like you have to look past run differential from earlier games and focus on what they're doing right now.

Padraic
Padraic

Agree with the previous post.  The run differential argument gets old.  You cannot predict the remaining 25+ games based on a run differential formula from previous games, especially when the team is playing well  It's like flipping a coin 9 times and getting heads and then saying the 10th flip will be tails because the last 9 were heads.  There is no direct correlation between their run differential and how they will do the remainder of the season.

Justin B
Justin B like.author.displayName 1 Like

I love just how lazy it's become for sports writers to cite run differential as absolute proof that the os will not make the post-season. This has to be the 10th plus time something like it has appeared on SI this season. Just last week, until the power rankings were adjusted to better reflect the reality of baseball, the Os were ranked 20th while the Red Sox were ranked 7th. Here's a little secret that Pythagorus fails to account for in it's statistical analysis. Three of the OS pitchers that are no longer in the starting rotation/on the team, Brian Matuz, Jake Arrietta, and Tommy Hunter, were responsible for -70 run differential all by themselves. When you subtract a three week period in June out of the equation, the Os have a healthy positive run differential. I won't deny that the stat regarding one run games is substantial, but as far as I was aware a win was still a win whether by 1 or 15 runs. Either way, if Pythagorus actually "watched" the games instead of lazily relying on a statistical formula as the be all and end all determinate of a teams worth, he'd realize that series wins, decisive victories like last nights 12-0 drubbing, and a nearly .700 win percentage are the true measure of a teams worth, not how many runs they've scored all season and how many victories they're supposed to have.

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @Justin B Have I cited the run differential as absolute proof the Orioles won't make the playoffs? No. I have pointed out the rarity of what they have a chance to accomplish, and I will continue to do so. I find examining the splits in their performance to be a fascinating test of the limits of what run differential tells us - in this case, a lot more than a single number (-57 or -19, to call upon their differentials the last two times I've focused upon them) does, and a caution not to dismiss them so easily.

 

If that doesn't float your boat, well, I hope I can create something else that does, but that doesn't mean I'm going to abandon my approach.

Justin B
Justin B

@jay_jaffe I appreciate the response, and allow me to clarify the above statement. First and foremost, let me characterize my analysis by my obvious unbiased support for the orioles, so please take my criticism for what it's worth in that context. As an oriole fan I was won of the 99% sane who expected another 65 win season this year. To express surprise at their accomplishments and doubt at its continuing success is an entirely reasonable instinct given the 180 degree turnaround since 2011. That being said, on several prior articles this year you've noted that Baltimore is "smoke and mirrors" "pretender not contender" and my favorite "why it is near impossible for the os to make the post season". In every case you've cited run differential as a primary if not sole reason why a collapse is eminent. Like ive noted above, a fair assessment given history and their previous status as being 10 games out of first place. It just seems lazy from my perspective, and I don't want to single you out - literally every paid analyst does this, to use the same statistical measures to predict future doom over actual performance through July and August. As you've noted above, there are factors that have contributed to this late summer surge. I just personally believe that statistical measures paint an incomplete measure of actual performance and are far to frequently relied on to provide analysis. The Pythagorean model doesn't account for injuries, or the fact that -70 run differential is not on the roster, or trading away 100 million dollars worth of salary in a malcontent contract dump. I just want more writers to look deeper into storylines this year rather than saying "+ is good - is bad"

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @gkuleck    @Justin B I can't speak for what other writers are doing, but as I've shown here, I've tried to move beyond simply citing the RD as the be-all and end-all of analysis, for the Orioles, the Red Sox (whose fortunes in one-run and blowout games are the flipside of Baltimore's) or any team. That said, it's still a powerful indicator given the relatively few precedents for playoff teams with negative RDs. 

 

You're correct in that the changing talent on a team is an important factor - and here I've pointed to the Orioles' revamped rotation as one aspect of their recent success.

 

Worth noting that the Sox are now -8, it slipped into the red over the weekend.

 

gkuleck
gkuleck

 @jay_jaffe  @Justin B I guess the 'beef' with using a single extremely limited summative statistical tool as a benchmark for a team's success is what bothers folks.  The run differential is a post-mortem tool not predicative since it is so limited.  A deeper in depth probe run by other columnists indicates why it has little interpretative value during a season since often teams change dramatically during the season rendering this summative tool as pretty useless.  The Red Sox still have a positive run differential (admittedly shrinking); what would you conclude about the uniqueness of their season and as a predicator of their eventual win-loss percentage?  

ianforbes
ianforbes

Let it go. The O's have obviously proved everyone wrong this season. Good for them. It's sad that you're still trying to prove yourself right about them not making the post season. So, if they slip up on the final day you can say, "See, I told you all along they wouldn't make it". Pretty weak.