We all know how the 2016 season ended for the Orioles. I don’t want to write about it. So, I won’t. I have forgiven Buck Showalter. I love him. I understand that long term relationships have their ups and downs. This was a major down. I have moved on from this and do not need to open a wound that has healed.

Let’s talk about Robert Andino! If there was a single moment that I look back at as the starting point for the current run of success of the Orioles, it is a night that baseball fans will never forget: September 28, 2011. The best night of regular-season baseball ever. The 2011 Red Sox were 77-0 when leading after eight innings.

Jonathan Papelbon, and all of his douchey bro-ness, had a 1.53 FIP and was a steady presence in the 9th inning. With two outs in the ninth, Nolan Reimold tied the game with a ground-rule double, then Robert Andino hit a line drive to left that made the Red Sox root for the Yankees.

Robert Andino couldn’t have won the game without the Chris Davis double when they were down to their last out. Robert Andino couldn’t have started this run if not for Nolan Reimold’s double to tie the game. The 2011 Orioles were bad. Alfredo Simon, Vladimir Guerrero, Kyle Hudson, Nolan Reimold, Robert Andino, that other guy…this was a bad team that played spoiler on one of the greatest nights of sports history. This was a year that saw J.J. Hardy hit 30 home runs. And only three of the players who played in that game are still on the 40-man roster: Chris Davis, Hardy, and Adam Jones. There have been five seasons of baseball since that night, and the Orioles have made the playoffs in three of them. For the first time since the mid-1990s, it has been fun to be an Orioles fan.

For 14 long, miserable years, sprinkled with fleeting moments of optimism, it was pretty terrible being a fan of the Orioles. Every once in a while, something fun would happen. Miguel Tejada being an MVP caliber short stop. Erik Bedard had that 2007 season where he struck out 221 guys in 182 innings while sporting an ERA+ of 146. The Baseball Prospectus annual had this to say: “The only reason not to think of Bedard as a favorite for the 2008 Cy Young is the lack of support he’s likely to get from the Orioles. Amazingly, he’s been mentioned in trade talks; it should take a truly extraordinary package of players to get him.”

On February 8, 2008, Andy MacPhail, GM of the Orioles for half of a season, traded Bedard to the Mariners for a package of five players, including lefty flamethrower George Sherrill, a trio of pitching prospects, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, and Kam Mickolio, and some 22-year-old centerfielder named Adam Jones. Sherrill went on to make the All Star team as the Orioles’ closer and was traded for a package of prospects that didn’t amount to anything special.

Jones and Tillman have had a lot more to do with the overall success of the Orioles over the last five seasons. Using Baseball Reference WAR, Tillman has been worth 13.3 WAR since 2012, in which he has averaged 169 innings, a number that would be even higher if he hadn’t only started 15 games in 2012. Clayton Kershaw he is not, but he has been a steady presence on the mound for a team that has desperately needed it. Jones has emerged as a star in MLB. In Baltimore, he is a hero and a highly-respected player and man. During the riots in Baltimore, Jones spoke thoughtfully before the game. He has truly distinguished himself off the field as one of the faces of the game.

Why am I living in the past? Why am I thinking about a 9-year-old trade and a game that occurred long ago? This is supposed to be a preview of the upcoming 2017 Orioles, dammit. The past two years I wrote way too much about boring players like Jimmy Paredes, David Lough and Ray Navarro. Not this year! They don’t play for the Orioles now, so that is the last time you will see their names here.

The past is something that I find important. That is why I seem to be reflecting on it. It wasn’t that long ago that I lived for the future of the Orioles. Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop. These were the guys that were going to usher in a new era of winning and championships. As a long-suffering fan, all we had was the future. We had our hopes up about so many prospects (Brian Matusz…ugh) that putting so much pressure on a few young studs seemed like it was just going to hurt us all over again. The future was bright though, and it has been incredibly fun to watch.

So, the 2017 Baltimore Orioles, or will it be the OrioLOLs? Projections have missed something for five straight seasons. PECOTA projects 73 wins this year. What the hell do the Orioles have to do to be better than that? Fans seem to think that PECOTA actually hates the team, like for real hates. If you make the mistake of reading the comment sections on articles, you would find that fans think “nerd stat heads” hate baseball and hate your [insert favorite team here], and hate everything fun and good in this world. This is a certainty in life at this point. As certain as our ever-closer deaths and taxes being due in less than a month, the Orioles will receive losing marks from all of the preseason projection systems. It does not matter that PECOTA has missed by 10 or more wins in four of five seasons and over 15 games in three of five seasons (including missing by 17 wins last season). PECOTA does not hate the Orioles, or the Angels, or the Yankees, or any other team. PECOTA cannot hate. It is not sentient…yet.

Were the Orioles really that lucky last year? And in 2012? And in 2014? Did they really overachieve by 17 wins? Even if you believe that they overachieved in order to make the Wild Card game, a justifiable belief, it is difficult to believe that they just lucked their way to 89 wins and a Wild Card game. It is time to believe that the Baltimore Orioles have been better than they are given credit for. As an O’s fan, I hope this trend endures.

PECOTA projections are formulated using WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). For the Orioles to win 73 games, they will need to have a team combined WARP of 23. That is bad. Like, tanking team bad. Think White Sox level bad. 2010-2014 Houston Astros and Cubs bad. Third-worst in MLB level bad. For a team that is openly tanking for the hopes of a massively successful rebuild, 73 wins isn’t terrible. The Orioles, however, are not a team that is rebuilding, therefore 73 wins would be a terrible reminder of a 14 year stretch of mediocrity and sadness that has not been missed in Baltimore.

The 2016 Orioles went 89-73, good for 2nd place in the AL East. Here is a fancy little box-o’stats:

Pythag .519 11th B-Age 28.4 13th
RA/G 4.41 16th P-Age 27.8 9th
RS/G 4.59 12th Salary $147.7M 9th
TAv .258 18th Top P bWAR* Z. Britton 4.3 bWAR
FIP 4.27 18th Top H bWAR Machado 6.7 bWAR

*For this article, I utilize Baseball Reference’s version of WAR. The reason is purely selfish: it makes the Orioles look better and, therefore, allows me to manipulate the data to justify my own belief and further my agenda of convincing someone that already agrees with me that projections just don’t get it.

Let us state the obvious, Manny Machado is a damn stud. He is a generational talent, a “once in a lifetime” talent that was immediately hailed as the “future of the Orioles.” He was compared to the 90’s version of Alex Rodriguez, his favorite player growing up. In 2011, I planned a trip to Cooperstown to see him enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2039. That is how good I thought he was going to be. He has absolutely not disappointed. Machado is just finished his age 23 season, and had a triple slash line of .294/.343/.533. If you think that the Orioles will outperform their PECOTA projection, then you probably think he will continue to grow as a player and outperform his own projection. It would not be farfetched for him to outperform it by two wins (he is projected for 4.8 WARP, worse than the 5.7 WARP he had last year and much lower than the 7.3 WARP from 2015). Like I wrote above, I don’t like WARP, and believe the proper projections that put Machado in the 6-6.6 range for WAR. Boom, we are now at 75 wins.

Chris Davis played with a dislocated left thumb throughout last season. Even with that injury, he hit 38 home runs. Even with all of his issues at the plate last year, he was still worth 3.0 bWAR. PECOTA projects that Davis will hit only 35 home runs in 2017. When low-power shortstops are hitting 20 home runs, I doubt Chris Davis will only hit 35. Color me skeptical, but I think he could hit that 3 WAR mark fairly easily, especially if he plays more than his projected 138 games. His thumb is reportedly healthy and I expect lots of power, and lots of strikeouts. Maintaining his level of play from last year, with a little bit more power from a healthy swing, adds another win to the projection, and we are now at 76 wins.

Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones are similar players at this point. They are both home run hitting, up-the-middle defenders with no patience at the plate and a K% of between 17% and 20%. Overall, Jones is a more valuable player, and has been fairly consistent throughout his career. I admit that it was disconcerting to see his power numbers drop last year, especially in a season that saw a league-wide increase in power. If Jones truly was playing through an injury last year, which some believe, he should add, at minimum, 1.5 wins to the projections. This is all while Schoop continues to grow as a player, both defensively and offensively. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Schoop hits for more power, and his average goes up a tick. If so, he easily adds a win to his projection. Both of those guys together get us to 79-80 wins.

We could go on and do this for each player, but they are basically all the same. Welington Castillo replaces Matt Wieters, and should be worth the same 1 to 1.5 wins. Mark Trumbo is back, as is Pedro Alvarez. They are both better than PECOTA projects, but MVP’s they are not. I say, together, they add 2 wins total to the team. What they add in offense they subtract in defense. PECOTA basically has the rest of the team at about 2 wins lower than what they have done over the previous few seasons, so you could conceivably add one to two more wins to the total, which puts us at 82, maybe 83 if you are feeling extra good. The pitching is what will make or break the Orioles in 2017. And pitching is where PECOTA is the harshest on the Orioles.

Look, it was not hard to watch the Orioles in 2016 and realize that starting pitching wasn’t their strong suit. I did not think that the Orioles would win 89 games last year; I projected them to be a .500 team and thought that they could be better if the pitching came together. The PECOTA projection for the starters is terrible. I don’t really know how else to put it. Chris Tillman is projected to be worse than Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley… that’s a head-scratcher. Nobody is expecting a Cy Young winner in the rotation, but Tillman, who has averaged a 3.95 ERA over the past four seasons, will be better than Ubaldo. Unless of course his shoulder doesn’t heal and he doesn’t pitch. But, even in that scenario, not pitching could be better than Ubaldo.

There are a lot of people predicting a continued breakout from Gausman. He throws hard, has a devastating splitter, and, in 179 innings, was worth 4.2 bWAR. He is the best pitcher the Orioles have, and will only get better. If you know nothing about Gausman, familiarize yourself with his splitter. It is nasty. It is beautiful. And he should throw it a helluva lot more. It is these secondary pitches that are making many pitchers a lot better. Think The Rich Hill and his curveball, Chris Archer and his slider, and Matt Shoemaker and his split-change. Each of these pitchers throw their secondary pitches more than 40% of the time, and each of these pitchers are significantly better because of it.

Since Gausman throws a splitter, let us focus on Shoemaker. You might know about him. He was a decent back of the rotation starter in 2015. Low 4 ERA and a FIP that hovered around the 4 mark prior to the second month of 2016. It is widely known that on May 16th of last year, Shoemaker decided to start throwing his split-change as often as his fastball. The first 300 innings of his career he was a serviceable fourth starter: 4.13 ERA, 4.09 FIP, K-BB% of 15.2, GB% of 39%. Then he decided to throw his splitter more and he became a legit number 1: 2.93 ERA, 3.01 FIP, K-BB% of 19.6, over 40% ground ball rate. He was amazing. Gausman could benefit from this. His own split-change compares favorably to guys like Shoemaker, Tanaka and healthy Alex Cobb. Here is a fancy little box of numbers:

 

Pitcher Whiff% GB% Exit Velocity Usage
Kevin Gausman 22.6 60.2 85.2 21.3
Matt Shoemaker 21.0 51.3 85.6 40.0
Healthy Alex Cobb 22.9 62.4 IDK Bro 38.1
Masahiro Tanaka 15.3 61.3 88.8 30.2
Rest of League 16.2 50.6 87.0 16.9

To put it simply, his splitter is just plain sexy. I could watch it all day. It is so pretty. But, the splitter isn’t something you just wake up and decide to throw. It is a pitch you have to feel. Not to mention Gausman is blessed with a fastball that features the seventh highest average velocity of any qualified starter. Seventh! Nobody that throws a splitter can bring the heat like Gausman. You will read below about spin and fastballs. Gausman throws, on average, a 95.6 mph fastball, that has an average spin rate of 2307. Somehow, he manages above average pop up rate and ground ball percentage on his fastball. Because of this, it is not simply a pitch he can move to the side so he can throw his splitter more. Oh, and his fastball has pretty good run to it.

All of this is to say that Gausman will be good, especially if his curveball/slider thing (most sites are in disagreement over to what his breaking ball should be classified as) continues to improve. Seriously, just look at this thing.
Rob Rogacki, of Beyond the Box Score, wrote about Bundy, spin rate, and his fastball. Bundy threw 892 fastballs above 2400 rpm in 2016, which was the ninth-highest in baseball. In an article on FanGraphs, Travis Sawchik noted that fastballs begin to have a rising effect at or above the 2400 rpm mark, which isn’t actually rise as much as it is a decrease in the speed in which the ball drops due to backspin. Sawchik writes about Jake Odorizzi’s success against opponents with his “rising” fastball, and Rogacki goes on to compare Odorizzi’s fastball to Bundy’s.

Pitcher Usage Avg Velocity Whiff % FB/BIP PU/BIP
Bundy 57.5% 95.0 mph 11.0% 31.4% 11.8%
Odorizzi 56.0% 92.5 mph 12.4% 31.4% 13.0%

All stats via Brooks Baseball

As you can see here, Rogacki finds that, despite the significantly lower velocity, Odorizzi manages a higher whiff and pop-up rate on his fastball than Bundy. Rogacki found that Odorizzi’s fastball was rated as “one of the best fastballs in the game”, and he accomplishes this by throwing that heater in the top of the strike zone. Bundy, on the other hand, did not spend as much time in the upper portion of the zone. When Bundy did throw the high fastball, he was able to generate a significantly higher whiff rate than his average 11%, as seen below.

In a nutshell, the data suggests that Bundy could benefit from throwing the high heater, especially in the upper six quadrants of the zone (the red and purplish red squares). This is of course assuming that the outfield can catch all of those fly balls that Bundy would give up, but that could be an entire other article. If Bundy follows Rob Rogacki’s suggestion, he could be more dangerous, and add a win or two to the Orioles’ season. I am cautiously optimistic when it comes to Bundy, as he held his own as a starter, and has brought back his cutter (allegedly). It feels like we have waited for Bundy forever, and certainly he must be an old man at this point, but he is still, somehow, only 24 years old.

What’s the secret to his success? It isn’t the greatest pitch in the world, it is kittens.

Besides a third baseman that should be talked about more, and home runs, the greatest strength of the Orioles is their bullpen. It has been a strength since they started winning in 2012. PECOTA projects the following for the bullpen:

Zach Britton – 2.84 ERA
Brad Brach – 3.96 ERA
Darren O’Day – 3.97 ERA
Mychal Givens – 4.13 ERA

The worst season Britton has had as a reliever was in 2015, where he had a 1.92 ERA. I know that ERA isn’t the greatest predictor of a normal pitcher’s future value, but Britton isn’t a normal reliever. FIP has a difficult time with ground ball pitchers, and Zach Britton just happens to have one of the single greatest pitches in the majors. Predicting him to have an ERA two full runs higher than he had last year is crazy. Nobody expects another record breaking year, but each of these projections is wrong. PECOTA is expecting each of these players to have their worst seasons of their careers, and I am not buying it. Last year, according to bWAR, Britton was worth 4.3 WAR, and while I think he was absolutely amazing, it is farfetched to believe he will replicate his 2016 season. Either way, his worst season as a reliever saw him post 2.5 wins, so to suddenly believe he will be worth a lot less than that would be foolish. Britton alone adds, at minimum, 2 wins to the projection. And now we are at 85, and that is without talking about the other guys, of which I will barely do, because they are boring.

Matt Wieters who? The era of Mauer with Power is done. His replacement, Welington Castillo, was just over half a win more valuable than Wieters last season. He isn’t a Gold Glove catcher, but he can handle the job until Chance Sisco is ready to play full time. And Caleb Joseph ended his RBI drought a few weeks ago, so he is basically ready to be MVP of the American League now. Besides Castillo, the team basically looks the same. Seth Smith came over from Seattle in a trade for Gallardo (a real head-scratcher of a trade, considering Gallardo is incredibly bad for a major league starting pitcher). Smith is a hitter that should not play the outfield, but will be asked to do it for roughly 130 games. Not good, but not terrible considering he can get on base at a high clip and can hit with some decent power, averaging a .171 ISO in pitcher-friendly parks since leaving Colorado in 2011. Oh, and the whole Robert Andino thing at the beginning of all of this? He is back. So, basically, each night will be as magical as 9/28/2011. Prepare yourself.

The Orioles have been fun to watch for five seasons. The 2017 team looks almost identical to the 2016 team. They hit homers! People dig the long ball, right? And boy oh boy will they hit home runs. I doubt there will be another team that can match the Orioles for power. Watching Manny Machado play third base is fun no matter what. Watching Machado and Schoop interact with each other is also fun. So, while I spent this article writing about the past, and slamming PECOTA, I must say that I generally love PECOTA. However, PECOTA, much like the majority of sports writers and stat heads, does not know how to quantify what Buck Showalter brings to a club. It is incredibly difficult to explain what the Orioles have done for five seasons, so most people say they are just lucky.

They strike out. They have a few guys that will take a walk. They hit home runs. Their infield defense is good, if only because of Manny Machado. Their outfield defense…well, they have a lot of designated hitters and first base types manning the outfield. Adam Jones has a ton of ground to cover. The bullpen shuts it down after 6 innings. That is the Orioles. This will not be a team that, aside from their third baseman, makes smooth plays with the leather. Trumbo is so bad in right field. Like historically bad. He makes Matt Kemp look like Kevin Kiermaier. But Manny Machado is so, so good.

Since I love projections so much, it is time to make some of my own. This team does not look like the worst team in the American League. They don’t even look like the worst team in their own division. Bottom line: if Mark Trump and Chris Davis don’t hit homers, if the bullpen implodes, and if Gausman and Bundy take steps back, this is a bad team. But, if things go right, Buck Showalter continues to manage the hell out of a bullpen, and the team hits those home runs, and Tillman pitches like he has in the past, and Gausman and Bundy both take steps forward, this will be a team that makes another run at irritating the projections. At this point, after five seasons, I’ll take the over when it comes to Buck Showalter.

2017 Record: 84-78

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility!” – Søren Kierkegaard

The long-term future looks bleak. There is little on the horizon in terms of prospects. In two seasons, along with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado will be suiting up in pinstripes. I will cry each night that I watch him cement himself as a Hall of Famer. I will not get to see the high fives. I wish for the potential, for the possibility of great things, as it will never disappoint. Then it becomes the present, and the potential is gone, leaving us a shell of broken promises and sadness. This isn’t 2011. The future isn’t bright. 2017 is the last chance this team has. It better not disappoint.

Next post:
Previous post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *