Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, unfortunately for Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, his team and the rest of the American League, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles are currently a lot of both.
The embattled manager of the Birds opponent this weekend labeled the O’s as “Lucky” while making his weekly appearance on ESPN’s ,The Michael Kay Radio Show on Aug.31, which oh by the way is a New York sports talk show.
Valentine was asked by Kay’s cohost, Don La Greca “Why the Orioles have been so good despite a minus-44 run differential and Valentine without hesitation responded, “Lucky”. “You’re not good when you have that kind of run differential, you’re having a season with a lot of good breaks”, Valentine went on to say. Several weeks later, the Orioles are proving it is more than luck that has them just a half game behind the Yankees in the hotly contested A.L. East this season.
While it is true the Orioles rose to the top of the division through unconventional stats as a team during the first half of the season, it is fair to say that manager Buck Showalters boys have looked a lot like Valentine’s team (managed by Terry Franconia) from the glory days during the second half of the season.
Those first half stats are what caused many of the experts to proclaim the O’s were nothing more than one-half wonders as they entered the All-Star Break. Who could argue? Even O’s fans were in disbelief and despite heading into the break five games above .500 (45-40), the Orioles scored 36 less runs than their opponents, and were one of the worst fielding teams not just in the A.L., but in all of baseball.
With 75 errors in 85 games, Baltimore led the majors and were on pace to make 143 errors this season, which would have been the fourth-highest total in a season in club history.
The bats were going silent in a hurry and left little hope that the second half would be any different to what fans have been used to watching during the past 14 seasons. The O’s were shut out in the two days prior to the All-Star break and were blanked four times in the 19 games before the Mid Summer's Classic. Baltimore’s bats produced just 63 runs in their final 22 games of the first half (2.9 per game) and were held to two or fewer runs in 12 of those 22 games. In 19 of the last 22 games prior to the break, the O’s were held to single digit hit totals and recorded three extra-base hits or fewer in 21 of those last 22 games.
Another stat that suggests luck has played a big part in the Birds success is how they performed with runners in scoring position. In their 149 games played, the O’s have had 42 games where they failed to get a hit with runners in scoring position and 30 more where they posted just one hit with RISP. The Orioles have still managed to win 15 of the 42 games in which they did not get a hit with RISP and have won 14 of the 30 games in which they recorded just one hit with RISP.
There is hardly any luck involved in pitching success throughout the course of a 162-game schedule and one thing the Orioles have been able to do all season is pitch with the game on the line. During the first half when teams managed to outscore the Birds over the long haul, the Orioles bullpen kept the team in close games. Led by closer Jim Johnson, this unit was consistently holding one and two run leads late. The O’s pen led the AL and was second in the majors with a 2.75 ERA (278.1IP, 85ER) and 17 wins on July 8. Johnson led the majors with 26 saves and was fourth in the AL with a 1.21 ERA. Johnson recorded his 45th save on Wednesday, tying Randy Myers for the most during a single Orioles season. However, the second half didn’t start that way and even Johnson would hit troubled waters immediately following the break, as the O’s would drop four of their first five games coming out of the faux midway point. When the Birds dropped two games in Minnesota by a combined score 25-11 during the first two games of a four game series at Target Field, Showlaters team fell to third place. On July 17, the O’s were 10-games behind the Yankees and just like the experts had predicted, appeared to be heading for a second half collapse.
You know the expression when we are wrong after assuming we are correct. Well, I am proud to proclaim that as of Sept. 21, I’m the happiest “ass” this side of the Mississippi thanks to what Buck Showlaters boys have managed to accomplish since that 6-4 loss at Target Field on July 17.
Since then, the O’s are 39-20, which is six and a half games better than the Tampa Bay Rays and nine games better than the Yankees are. That is the best record in the American League since that date (7/17- 9/20) and is tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the best overall record in all of baseball during that span.
Once again being led by Johnson, the bullpen has more than rebounded. Since allowing six earned runs in one-third of an inning July 27 against Oakland, Jim Johnson has made 18 appearances, recording 14 saves and allowing just nine runners into scoring position. Only one scored, while four moved to third base and four to second. In those 18 games, he has allowed 11 hits and two walks while striking out 12 over 17.0 innings. Opponents are batting .183 against him (11-60) in those 18 outings and he has retired the side in order 10 times.
The bullpen combined to pitch 15 2/3 innings of shutout baseball allowing just six hits as the O’s won the final two games while sweeping the Mariners in Seattle this week. They are now the third best bullpen in the A.L and fifth best in all of baseball with a 3.03 E.R.A.
While the Birds may have been lucky during the first half, they are pretty damn good now Mr. Valentine. Instead of changing the formula and panicking, O’s skipper Buck Showalter built on the positives and used a plethora of players to find the right mix of talent that could get the job done. No other team in baseball has used more players than Showalter this season and his team is reaping the rewards of a farm system that has blossomed after 14 years of poor finishes, which resulted in high draft choices.
When outfielder L.J. Hoes makes his Orioles debut, he will become the 51st Oriole to play in a game this year and the 31st to make his Orioles debut this year. Besides becoming the first position player to be born in Maryland to wear an Orioles uniform since Cal Ripken, Jr. made his debut on August 10, 1981, Hoes appearance will mark the second time in franchise history the Orioles have used more than 50 players in a season. The 1955 Orioles used 54 players and the Birds used 50 players in 2011 and 2000. The 31 Oriole debuts are the most since the club’s first two seasons of existence in 1954 and 55, when all players were new and 43 players debuted in 1955. The next highest total was 25 Orioles debuts in 2000.
The Orioles were dead last in A.L. fielding percentage at the All-Star break, but with steady play in the field have managed to climb to eighth as of July 21. This climb has been made possible thanks in part to the play of rookie third baseman Manny Machado. From Opening Day through August 8, O’s third basemen combined for 24 errors and were last in the majors with a .914 fielding percentage. The team’s .980 fielding percentage was also the worst in the majors but since the Orioles selected the contract of Machado on August 9, the O’s climb has been quick and straight to the top.
Machado has played every inning at third base, making just two errors for the third-best fielding percentage among AL third basemen (.982) and the Orioles as a team, have made just 12 errors, for a .991 fielding percentage, also tops in the American League.
The Birds have not committed more than one error in a game over that span after posting 24 multiple error games during their first 111 contests. The irony of this is that the Orioles last error was on the first play of the game Sept. 9 when you guessed it, Manny Machado threw away a barehanded attempt on a slow roller by Derek Jeter. The Orioles have not made an error in the last 102 innings, their longest streak since they went 101 error-free innings April 30-May 12, 2007.
The O’s manager has pushed all of the right buttons and the button pushing conducted by Showalter has nothing to do with luck. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Orioles are 49-30 (.620) in one-run games. That is the highest winning percentage in baseball and since Showalter took over as manager on August 3, 2010, the Orioles are 61-35 (.635) in one-run affairs.
With their 27-8 (.771) record in one run games this year, the Orioles are on pace to have the highest winning percentage in major-league history in one-run games. The 1981 Orioles, who were 21-7, currently hold the record (.750) in one-run affairs. With solid defense, good pitching, and timely hitting, “The Oriole Way” seems to making a return to the Charm City this season.
The Birds are playing fundamentally sound baseball from inning one through the end of the game, whenever that may be. Further proof Buck has his team focused is the fact that the Birds have now won their last 15 extra innings games, extending a franchise record. The Orioles have played 55 extra innings this year and have outscored their opponents 30-5 during the extra frames. According to Elias, the 15-game win streak in extra innings is the longest in the majors since the 1949 Indians won 17 straight. The Orioles have played nine games that went 12 or more innings this year and are 8-1 in those games (only loss was April 10 vs. New York). Again, according to Elias, the last time the O’s played more than nine games that went 12 or more innings was 1966 (10) and the all-time franchise record was set by the St. Louis Browns in 1914, with 13 games that went 12 or more innings. The Orioles have played five games of 14 or more innings and are 5-0 in those games.
Luck is playing a part this season and after a seagull deposited his load on Tommy Hunters hat on Tuesday, helping him earn the win in the 18 inning contest, who am I to argue. The Orioles bullpen is not forgotten about when it comes to their accomplishments as they continue to shine after nine innings this season. In games that have gone extra innings this year, the Oriole bullpen has pitched to a 1.19 ERA (103.2IP, 14ER). After the ninth inning in those games, the bullpen has pitched to a 0.82 ERA (55.0IP, 5ER) in extra inning play and has a 5.2 K/BB rate (52/10) in those games.
It is not all pitching and defense for the Birds this season. Despite the fact that Baltimore is batting .13 points below the Mendoza line with a team batting average of .247, which ranks ninth in the A.L.; they have hit 191 home runs in 2012 tying the 2011 club for the seventh most in Orioles history. The 1997 squad has the sixth-highest total with 196 and the 1996 team holds the record with 257.
The Orioles have gotten timely hitting from a number of players like Tyler Teagarden. Three of Teagarden’s seven hits this season have come in extra innings to give the O’s the lead in a game. The Orioles are also in rare air in terms if hitting home runs. With Matt Wieters’ two-homer game Sunday giving him 21 on the year, the Orioles joined the White Sox as the only teams in baseball to have five players with 20 or more home runs. It was Wieters’ third two-homer game this season and the fourth of his career.
Speaking of clutch hitting, no player has come through in the clutch as Adam Jones has this season. The O’s are 21-8 when Jones homers and 19 of his 30 homers have tied the game (3) or given the O’s the lead (16). His 30th home run of the year in the 11th inning on Wednesday night was the fourth extra innings homer this season. Earlier this season Jones became the first player since Mark McGuire in 1988 to homer twice in the 15th inning or later during the same season.
The Orioles “Lucky” success has not been strictly a result of what is occurring on the field. Adam Jones must have been wondering what the fans of Seattle were thinking as he rounded the bases after hitting his blast when you consider the six degrees of the Erik Bedard trade pulled off by then O’s General Manager Andy MacPhail in 2008.
On Feb. 8, 2008, MacPhail obtained pitcher Chris Tillman, Jones, LHP George Sherrill, RHP Kam Mickolio and LHP Tony Butler from Seattle in exchange for LHP Erik Bedard. Tillman is 4-0 with a 0.98 ERA (27.2IP, 3ER) against the Mariners, who are batting .135 (13-96) off him. Jones is a two-time All-Star and won a Gold Glove in 2009. Sherrill made the All-Star team for the Birds in 2008 and was traded to the Dodgers for INF Josh Bell and RHP Steve Johnson, both of whom reached the big leagues for Baltimore. Johnson is 3-0 for the O’s in 2012. Mickolio was traded to Arizona for Mark Reynolds, who led the Birds with 37 homers last year and has 58 homers since the trade to Baltimore. Butler never reached the majors and Bedard was 15-14 with a 3.31 ERA in 46 starts for Seattle over three seasons.
So yes, Bobby “V”, while there has been some luck involved this season; the Orioles have performed well enough on the field to lead your Red Sox by an astounding 17.5 games. According to Cool Standings.com, which uses different formulas to devise the likelihood of teams advancing to the playoffs, the Orioles have a 90.2 percent chance of joining their National League neighbors, the Washington Nationals, in making the postseason in 2012. Only the Rangers (99.5) and Yankees (97.5) have a better chance in the A.L.
The same formula gives the O’s just a 23.5 percent chance of winning the division but after 15 years we will take what we can get for the black and orange. This should be a great final two weeks to the 2012 season and it starts with a trip into Fenway Park tonight where the Birds have had some luck of late to say the least. The Birds are 8-4 vs. the Red Sox this season and have plated a dozen more runs than Valentines team during the 12 games played. The O’s have won times at Fenway so far this season, which matches the most victories the O’s have enjoyed in Bean Town since the 2005 season. The O’s success against Boston this season is a microcosm of what the Birds have accomplished against what experts say is the toughest division in baseball, the AL East.
Starting tonight, the O’s have 13 games left to play against the AL East and already have more wins in 2012 against the East (35) than they did the entire 2011 season (28. The Birds won 24 games against the East in 2010 and 2009 and won just 22 in 2008. The last time the Birds won 35 or more games against the East was 2005 (36).
The Orioles have won 28 series in 2012 after winning just 16 series in 2011. The last time the Orioles won 28 or more series in one year was 1997, when they won 31. They have won 10 road series with eight coming against AL East foes (three in New York, two each in Boston and Toronto and one in Tampa Bay) this season.
Winning in September has been Buck Showlaters mantra during his career and it is likely that the Birds will be just fine during a stretch drive that many predicted would cause the Birds collapse.
That is unlikely considering the Birds were winner during the ninth month of the year even when they were losers under Showalter. In three Septembers with Showalter, the Orioles are 41-31. The 40 wins are third most in the AL behind Texas (43) and Detroit (43). The O’s are 188-180 since Showalter took over in 2010.
With a mix of maturing young talent, a manager that seems for the first time his career intent on staying put for a little longer than three seasons, and yes Mr. Valentine, a little bit of luck, the Orioles appear ready to contend for the A.L. crown for at least the next five to seven years.
This could be a hard weekend for Valentine to stomach if the Orioles continue their winning ways at Fenway. While I would much rather be lucky than good, as the saying goes, it does not hurt to have a ton of talent surrounding the luck. The Orioles are a good solid ball club that has had some luck this season and while the run differential Valentine speaks of is still a negative (-10) it won’t matter when the Birds are playing playoff baseball in October, hopefully. I know one thing for sure, for the second consecutive season, Valentines team will not be playing playoff baseball, but the O’s should be aware regardless.
With just 14-games to play, nothing is guaranteed. Many of these very same Red Sox players proved last season that anything is possible, good and bad during the month of September. After beating the Texas Rangers on Sept. 3, the Sox were 84-54. Although half a game behind the Yankees in the American League East, they owned a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card and roughly a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.
All of that changed thanks to a 7-20 record in September and a Robert Andino walk off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in game No. 162 at Camden Yards. The hit came after Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two batters he faced. One more out, one more strike to Nolan Reimold, who hit the ground rule double on a 2-2 pitch that tied the game, and the Sox would have been in the playoffs. Bad luck Red Sox fans would say about the great September collapse of 2011. However, like good luck, any luck at all is conditional. Good luck they say is what happens when hard work meets preparation and that is the story of the 2012 Orioles. From former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, who is now the top front office man for the O’s, to Buck Showlater, all the way down to the to the bullpen catcher, the 2012 Orioles have been prepared and have worked hard every single night during the 2012 season.
Their reward may be a trip to the playoffs in two weeks and if only a one game Wild Card playoff, it is more than the great baseball fans of Baltimore have had in a very long time. I’m thinking of having some orange and black tee shirts printed up for the O’s series next week with the Red Sox that say: I’d rather be lucky than Bobby “V”, at least for the 2012 season anyway. It is going to be a very-very long off-season in Bean Town. Go O’s.