There is no shortage of cliches one can use to describe the ascent of the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics this season.
Worst to first. Rags to riches. Duds to studs. Go ahead. Rattle 'em all off. Each one will get the point across just as well as the last one. Very few of us saw the O's and the A's coming this year
The O's have gone from being a 93-loss team and a perennial doormat in the AL East to being on the verge of 90 wins and their first postseason berth in 15 years. The A's have gone from being an 88-loss team and a low-budget laughingstock to being a team with a legit shot at 90 wins and their first postseason berth in six years.
There's still time for the O's and the A's to fall short of the postseason, but at this point in the season it's hard to doubt either one of them given all they've accomplished. The smart money is on both the Orioles and the A's surviving into October.
As things are right now, one of the questions that springs to mind is, which success story is more surprising: That of the Orioles, or that of the A's? To answer that question, we need an immediate discussion.
Did They Warn Us?
Only two American League teams finished with worse records than the Orioles in 2011. The O's finished 24 games under .500 at 69-93, in no small part because they allowed an MLB-high 860 runs. Baltimore's pitching was an utter mess in 2011.
However, things weren't so bad at the end of it all. Once the season came down to the wire, the Orioles started showing signs of life.
Baltimore's 15-13 record in September stands out because it was the only month they managed to post a winning record last season, but they got the ball rolling even before September arrived. The O's won six in a row in late August, and seven out of 10 overall to finish the month.
Thus, the Orioles went 22-16 in their final 38 games in 2011. That's a .579 winning percentage, which is awfully reminiscent of the .571 winning percentage the Orioles have this season.
Still, it was hard to take Baltimore's success late last year as a sign of things to come because the club's pitching was still a wreck even while it was winning games. The Orioles posted a 5.17 team ERA last September, which included a 6.09 ERA on the part of the team's starters. They went into the offseason with a lot of work to do where their pitching staff was concerned.
For their part, the A's were also solid down the stretch in 2011. They went 35-35 in the second half under the watchful eye of Bob Melvin, who replaced Bob Geren as manager 63 games into the season.
September saw the A's go 14-12, a stretch that was largely aided by a 3.15 ERA from the team's starters. Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Guillermo Moscoso all posted ERAs in the 2.00s last September.
However, offense remained a problem for the A's to the bitter end in 2011. They finished in the bottom three in the AL in runs scored when all was said and done, and they only averaged about 4.2 runs per game in September.
In the second half as a whole, the A's allowed 10 more runs than they scored. It was fairly evident heading into the offseason that their pitching was pretty solid, but that their offense needed a significant facelift.
Both the Orioles and the A's went on to be busy bees during the winter, albeit in much different ways.
How Did They Prepare During the Winter?
The O's certainly made a lot of moves this past offseason. What they didn't do was make moves that caught people's attention.
Among the players picked up by Baltimore this winter were Darren O'Day, Taylor Teagarden, Pedro Florimon, Dana Eveland, Endy Chavez, Wei-Yin Chen, Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson. In other words, a nice mix of retreads and guys who had fans saying, "Who?"
The one move Orioles GM Dan Duquette made that actually moved the needle a little bit was the trade that sent Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. As far as the fans were concerned, however, it was hard to see why a team that needed to improve its pitching would trade away a guy who had racked up three straight 200-inning seasons.
So when spring training rolled around, the Orioles didn't look a whole lot stronger on paper than they did at the end of the 2011 season. Their offense appeared to be solid enough, but their pitching staff still looked like a patchwork affair with a very low ceiling. It looked like the O's were headed for yet another rebuilding year. And indeed, one only called it a "rebuilding year" if one was feeling generous.
The A's were also busy this past winter. But unlike the Orioles, the A's appeared to get worse in a very loud way.
Billy Beane made some big moves during the offseason. He traded Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a collection of prospects, and a couple weeks later he traded Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals for even more prospects. A few days after that, he traded Ryan Sweeney and Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox for Josh Reddick and a couple of spare parts.
Beane then went on to make a couple of curious free-agent signings. He started by adding the world's most preeminent journeyman pitcher in Bartolo Colon, and he then added a journeyman slugger in Jonny Gomes. A few weeks later, Beane pulled off a signing that was equal parts surprising and embarrassing when he signed Manny Ramirez off the scrapheap.
In between the Gomes and the Ramirez signings, however, was the move that nobody saw coming: the Yoenis Cespedes signing.
When Cespedes was looking to sign with an MLB team in February, all the reports at the time had him going to teams like the Tigers, the Cubs and the newly-rich Miami Marlins. The notion that a dirt-cheap team like the A's would sign him didn't cross that many minds.
The A's didn't just sign him—they gave him the biggest contract ever given to a Cuban defector.
The Cespedes signing generated some nice buzz in Oakland, but nobody took it as an excuse to start dreaming about the A's in the World Series (as folks in Anaheim and Detroit were doing after their clubs' big offseason signings). Beane had certainly landed a big fish, but he had done so after trading away several talented pitchers and after signing a couple of retreads.
Thus, the A's looked like they were in the same boat as the Orioles heading into the 2012 season. They had some intriguing individual pieces, but the big picture left a lot to be desired. What the O's and the A's have reminded us over the course of the last few months is that it doesn't always matter how strong a team looks on paper. The games, after all, are not played on paper.
How Have the Orioles Done It?
Based on the numbers alone, the Orioles should not be a winning team this year.
Half of the American League's 14 teams have negative run differentials this season, and the Orioles are one of them. As of Tuesday, they've allowed seven more runs than they've scored, and that's thanks largely to the fact that O's starters have an ERA of 4.52 this year. Baltimore's pitching has gotten better, but it's only gotten better in the sense that it's been upgraded from "horrid" to "mediocre."
It doesn't help that the Orioles are in the red in terms of defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. They're not winning games with pitching and defense.
To this end, the 2012 Orioles aren't a whole lot different from the 2011 Orioles. They also finished in the red in defensive runs saved, and their starters posted an MLB-worst 5.39 ERA. This helped amount to an expected win-loss record of 67-95, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which was a near-mirror image of the club's actual 69-93 record.
This year, the O's have an expected win-loss record of 76-78. They should be under .500. Instead, they're 22 games over .500. What gives?
The obvious answer would be that the O's are scoring more runs this year than they did in 2011, but that's not really the case. They averaged about 4.4 runs per game in 2011, and this year they're averaging 4.4 runs per game once again. They have hit more home runs than they did last year, but not by a wide margin. The O's have hit an impressive 197 homers this year, but they hit a respectable 191 in 2011.
The one area where the O's have drastically improved this season is their relief pitching. Baltimore's relievers weren't much better than its starters in 2011, as the relievers posted a 4.18 ERA that ranked 27th in all of baseball. In 2012, Baltimore relievers rank fourth in baseball with an ERA of 3.07, and they lead the American League in both wins and saves.
The O's have Jim Johnson to thank for the saves, as he leads all of baseball with 48 of them. The bullpen's wins, though, are spread out all over. Three Orioles relievers—Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Darren O'Day—have at least five wins in relief. This is a byproduct of something that the O's have had all season that doesn't show up in the numbers. For lack of a better idea, I'll just use a cliche and call it a "never say die" attitude.
Buck Showalter basically doesn't allow his team to give up on a given game, especially not if it's still close. And thanks to the dramatic improvement of Baltimore's bullpen, the O's are actually capable of winning the close ones this year. To date, they're 27-9 in one-run games and a ridiculous 16-2 in extra-inning games.
No other team in the AL has single-digit losses in one-run games, and the O's are also the only team in the AL that has double-digit wins in extra-inning games. If it's late in a game and the score is close, odds are the O's are going to win it.
Showalter's influence hasn't just led to great performances in close games. His influence is largely responsible for the ways the Orioles win close games, as he deserves credit for getting everything he can out of anybody who happens to put on an Orioles uniform. Here are a few examples:
- Chris Davis: He spent a good portion of 2011 in the minors, and this year he has a .787 OPS and 26 home runs in just 486 at-bats.
- Miguel Gonzalez: Signed as a free agent in March after the Boston Red Sox cut him loose in December, he's gone on to post a 7-4 record with a 3.70 ERA in 13 starts for the O's.
- Nate McLouth: He only played in 166 games in 2010 and 2011 and was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this season after hitting .140 with a .385 OPS in 34 games. In 47 games with Baltimore, McLouth is hitting .275 with a .786 OPS.
- Chris Tillman: Once a top pitching prospect, Tillman looked like a lost cause in his first few years in Baltimore. He posted a 5.58 ERA in his first 36 starts with the Orioles in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Suddenly, he's 8-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 13 starts this year.
We could also talk about the surprisingly good production the O's have gotten out of players like Jason Hammel—who has been great, when healthy—and Wei-Yin Chen, and about how much Manny Machado has stabilized the infield since his early-September call-up, but I'm guessing you get the point. Instead of riding a few select horses, the O's rely on contributions from all over in order to win games.
Sounds easy enough. But if it really was easy enough, teams like the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs would also probably be in contention right now. Evidently, getting everyone to pitch in like the Orioles have isn't so simple.
And for that, you have to tip your cap to Showalter. As well as to Dan Duquette, for finding all the players, and to Rick Peterson for working wonders with the club's pitchers.
How Have the A's Done It?
On the first of June, the A's had the exact same record as the Houston Astros at 22-30. The only teams in the AL with worse records were the Twins and the Seattle Mariners. Ever since, the A's are 64-37. That's a winning percentage of .634, which is the kind of winning percentage that will lead to a 103-win season if a team can keep it up for a whole year.
Lest you start thinking that the A's are defying mathematics like the Orioles are, think again. By the numbers, their success this season makes total sense. Baseball-Reference.com has Oakland's expected win-loss record at 85-68, which is virtually the same as the team's actual 86-67 record. Score one for math!
One thing the A's are doing this year that they didn't do so well in 2011 is something out of the very first page of the Baseball 101 textbook: They're scoring more runs than they're allowing. Oakland's plus-72 run differential is one of the top marks in the AL.
For the most part, the A's have their pitching to thank for that. They have a 3.52 ERA as a team, which is good for second in the American League behind the Tampa Bay Rays. Their 3.74 starters' ERA is also good for second in the AL, and their 3.09 bullpen ERA ranks them just behind the O's for third in the AL.
Keep in mind that we're talking about a pitching staff that lost both Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez over the offseason. More recently, the A's have lost Bartolo Colon to a PED suspension and Brandon McCarthy to a skull fracture. Brett Anderson was only able to make a handful of starts upon returning from Tommy John surgery before he had to be shut down with a bad oblique.
Injuries and the like have forced the A's to use 10 different starting pitchers this season, and six of the starters they've turned to are rookies. That's typically not a great recipe for success.
Conveniently enough, however, Oakland's rookie hurlers have been much better than advertised. Better yet, the two best rookie starters the A's have used this season were acquired thanks to Beane's willingness to trade Cahill and Gonzalez.
Jarrod Parker, acquired in the Cahill trade, has a 3.40 ERA in 27 starts. FanGraphs has his WAR calculated at 3.5, and that actually ranks Parker ahead of standout AL hurlers like Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Tommy Milone, acquired in the Gonzalez trade, leads the A's in wins and innings pitched, and his own WAR ranks him ahead of pitchers like Matt Moore and Wei-Yin Chen.
Parker and Milone aren't the only trade acquisitions who are paying big dividends. Josh Reddick is on the verge of hitting 30 home runs, and he's also given the A's Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field. Ryan Cook, acquired along with Parker in the Cahill trade, has been one of the most versatile relievers in baseball this year.
Yoenis Cespedes has also been well worth Oakland's trouble. He's been hurt a lot and his bat has been hot and cold, but he has the exact same weighted on-base average as Albert Pujols, according to FanGraphs.
Cespedes and Reddick have provided the bulk of Oakland's power this season, but far from all of it. The 2012 A's are a lot like the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks in that they have a lot of guys who can hit home runs, and every home run they hit seems to be a big one.
The A's are tied for sixth in the AL with 180 home runs this season, but that's misleading. No team in baseball has hit more home runs than the A's since the All-Star break, and that's allowed them to average better than five runs per game despite the fact they're only hitting .249 as a team.
In "late and close" situations, the A's have hit 28 home runs. To put that in perspective, the Washington Nationals, keepers of baseball's best record, have hit 24 home runs in late and close situations. The mighty Texas Rangers have only hit 13 home runs in similare situations.
Because their bullpen is so good and their offense is so clutch, the A's are a lot like the Orioles in the sense that nobody wants to try to match up with them in a game that's close in the late innings. The A's are a solid 23-18 in one-run games, and they've won nine of the 14 extra-inning games they've played.
Also like the Orioles, the A's have plenty of swagger. It manifests itself in the "Bernie Lean" and random appearances of "Pie-derman," but A's players will be the first to tell you that there's more to their chemistry than simple goofiness.
When I spoke to various members of the organization a couple weeks ago, everyone swore by Bob Melvin's leadership. The general attitude of the team all stems from him, and everyone has total faith in him.
Sort of like how the Orioles have total faith in Buck Showalter. For all the differences between the O's and the A's, the faith they have in their managers is one of a couple key ways in which they're very similar.
The Grand Conclusion
Full disclosure: I had the O's tabbed to finish last in the AL East and the A's tabbed to finish last in the AL West. Neither of them struck me as being particularly strong heading into the season, and that didn't bode well seeing as how they play in two of baseball's toughest divisions.
The lesson learned over the last six months? You can analyze and you can make projections, but you can't predict. If you were to ask me which team has most surpassed my expectations for them, I wouldn't have an answer for you. Both teams are doing way better than I figured they would.
But if you were to ask me which team is still surprising me, on the other hand...
The answer to that one is easy: the Orioles. As much as I'm enjoying their rise to power this season, there's a lot about it that still baffles me.
I've used the term "lucky" quite a bit in conjunction with the Orioles, and I still think it's a good word to describe them.
The fact that they're 22 games over .500 with a negative run differential is absurd, and the way in which they've gotten significant contributions from the likes of Nate McLouth, Miguel Gonzalez and Lew Ford has me thinking that there may be something in the water in the greater Baltimore area.
However, I don't mean to use the word "lucky" in a pejorative way. The Orioles have benefited from their share of luck this season, to be sure, but a team doesn't breed overachieving players like the Orioles have this season unless there's something going on behind the scenes.
Dan Duquette went out and found quite a few players that have talent that others couldn't see, and the winning culture that Buck Showalter instituted in Baltimore has effectively amplified what talent the Orioles do have.
You could say that Billy Beane and Bob Melvin have pulled off the exact same trick in Oakland, and you wouldn't be wrong. The big difference between the A's and the O's, however, is that at least the numbers—the one and only objective entity us baseball fans have to go by—say that the A's make total sense.
The Orioles don't make much sense at all. It's what makes them surprising, but it's also what makes them a ton of fun to watch. You never know what's going to happen—you just know that it's probably going to end up being good for them.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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