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Midseason analysis: a Birds-eye view

With the Orioles carrying a record of 37–48 at the All-Star break, discontent reigns in Birdland. Owner Peter Angelos has publicly expressed his disappointment with his team, and rumors have circulated that manager Lee Mazzilli's job status for next year is up in the air. It's true that the Birds have underachieved in their first half-season under Mazzilli. But their problems go far beyond the purview of a manager's influence. The main culprits so far have been wildly ineffective pitching and leaky defense. The offense, as expected, has been better than last year, but has also been impaired by lousy situational hitting, a suddenly punchless outfield, and weak production from the DH spot.

A deeper look at the standings

There is ample evidence that the Orioles are not quite as bad as their woeful won-lost record suggests. For one thing, they play in a tough division that includes two elite teams in the Yankees and Red Sox and two competitive clubs in Tampa Bay and Toronto. For another, Baltimore's feeble clutch hitting has resulted in them not scoring as many runs as their cumulative offensive events (hits, walks, etc.) would predict, leading to a lot of close losses, including a 9-15 record in one-run games.

Clay Davenport's adjusted standings at baseballprospectus.com incorporate mathematical adjustments that result in three alternate won-lost records for each team. The methods used to calculate each record increase in complexity going from left to right across the table. Although none of the methods is perfect, I would consider all of them to be more telling of a team's true quality than its actual wins and losses.

Orioles' actual record as of July 12 37 48
First-order record
(Pythagenport using RS, RA)
38.2 46.8
Second-order record
(Pythagenport using EqR, EqRA)
42.5 42.5
Third-order record
(Pythagenport using AEqR, AEqRA)
41.9 43.1

The so-called first-order won-lost record applies "Pythagenport," an optimized form of that old sabermetric standby, the Pythagorean method, which uses the team's runs scored and runs allowed totals to compute a runs-based winning percentage. Baltimore's first-order record is roughly 38–47, one game better than their actual record—no great difference there, but at least it's not worse.

The second-order record uses Pythagenport again, but substitutes Equivalent Runs for actual runs in the formula. Equivalent Runs, another Davenport creation, are built from component offensive events such as hits and outs and make a mathematical adjustment for the team's home park. The Orioles' 2004 second-order winning percentage is about .500, which is close to what most analysts predicted for them at the beginning of the season.

The third-order method builds on the second-order method but incorporates strength-of-schedule adjustments. This measure is similar to the NCAA's infamous Ratings Percentage Index, but it goes deeper than opponents' won-lost records; it accounts for the quality of the opponents' pitching and hitting. This method estimates that against an average set of opponents, the Orioles' 2004 record would be 42–43. The Birds' second- and third-order records both rank them third in the division, ahead of Toronto and Tampa Bay.

So based on these estimates, the Orioles are really a .500 team, but a difficult schedule and inefficiencies in their hitting and pitching have pulled them below that mark by several games. The schedule is not going to get easier, but those inefficiencies tend to even out over the course of the season, so barring an extraordinary run of bad luck, the Birds should fare better in the second half.

Pitching: missing the side of the barn

One could make a credible case that the Orioles had the worst pitching staff in baseball during the season's first half. Their team ERA of 5.08 is ahead of Kansas City's 5.09 by a hair among American League teams, but the Royals have had to deal with Kauffman Stadium, historically a better hitter's park than Camden Yards. Entering the All-Star break, Baltimore's rotation ranked next to last in MLB in Support-Neutral Value Added. Its bullpen was fifth from the bottom in Adjusted Runs Prevented. No other team placed in the bottom five in both categories.

As reported many times before, the worst transgression by the team's pitchers, and in particular by the young guns, has been their hideous walk rates. At the break, Baltimore's 4.50 BB/9 ranked last in the AL by a long shot. When the Birds threw strikes, results weren't so bad: their 6.71 K/9 ranked fourth in the league, and their .406 opponents' slugging percentage was third.

Betting it all

Baltimore's front office took an immense gamble this offseason by committing to an extremely inexperienced starting rotation. In some ways, the decision could be likened to the United States's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like the path to war, the youthful pitching route was fraught with pitfalls, leaving the administration no net to catch it if it failed. But just as the nation's top decision-makers saw reforming Iraq as a long-term solution to the terrorist problem, the Oriole honchos judged that developing their young pitching talent was better for the long-term health of the team than the lower-risk alternatives.

Like the Bush administration's ongoing trial in Iraq, the Orioles' pitching experiment has gone worse than most people expected, forcing the executive branch of Birdland to adapt to unanticipated developments on the fly. Just as the U.S. military drew from its reserve and National Guard forces for reinforcements in Iraq, so the Birds raided their minor-league pitching staffs to patch their ailing rotation and bullpen. Ray Miller supplanted Mark Wiley as pitching coach in June, echoing the expedited replacement of Jay Garner by Paul Bremer as head of the postwar authority in Iraq after reconstruction did not begin as smoothly as planned.

Like the nation's president, Oriole VP's Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have had to respond to a flurry of second-guessing from the third and fourth estates about the team's pitching problems. And as national defense and intelligence chiefs admitted to excessive optimism and inaccuracies in their pre-war evaluations, the Birds' brains have admitted that their young pitching was not as ready (or as healthy) as once hoped. However, they appear to be sticking to their young guns. And while it's been a terrible three months, it's only been three months. The story is still being written, the early returns are not all bad, and turning back now would be premature.

If anything good came out of the first half, it is that a gradual weeding-out process has yielded two apparently reliable young starters in Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard. On the other hand, Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose are on the back burner due to injury, and Matt Riley's lack of emotive control has landed him in the doghouse. Free agent pickup Sidney Ponson has become an expensive enigma. But there remains a sense that the Orioles' pitching future is gradually being put into place, and such hope has been absent from Baltimore since the early '90s, when McDonald and Mussina ruled the roost.

Defense: Look, Ma! No range!

Another miscalculation by the Oriole administration was its overestimation of the team's fielding abilities. In particular, the left side of the infield took a hit when Melvin Mora was inserted at third base, where he has suffered an agonizing adjustment after playing mostly outfield and middle infield during his five-year career in the majors. Mora's defensive issues, along with some uninspired glovework from his teammates, have resulted in a team defensive efficiency (ratio of batted balls turned into outs) of .6784, next to last in the league and fourth worst in all of baseball. This has to improve for the team's pitching to return to respectability.

Offense: a matter of timing

The Oriole attack sits ninth in the league at the All-Star break with its 5.12 runs per game. This level of run production is a tangible step ahead of the club's tenth-place showing of 4.56 R/G in 2003. But the Orioles' .255 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks next to last in the AL, so the offense has been not nearly as efficient as it could be. Some timely hits here and there would bring a few more wins to the table in the second half.

Clutch hitting alone, however, would not solve the many other weaknesses in the lineup. The club's inability to hit left-handed pitching has been well documented; its .685 OPS against lefties is 13th—i.e., next to last—in the league. Oriole leadoff hitters (read: Brian Roberts) have posted a .324 OBP, also 13th in the league. Baltimore's designated hitters, too, have immolated themselves by posting a Neronian .666 OPS, earning another unlucky (and un-good) #13 ranking in the league. And then there's the outfield, which was a strength for the team in 2003.

#%!*'s in the outfield
Larry Bigbie LF .261 .326 .388 4.0
Luis Matos CF .234 .282 .349 -1.3
Jay Gibbons RF .223 .290 .345 -3.7

Enough of this nonsense. Gibbons's hip and back have probably impaired his hitting, and now that he is on the disabled list, he is no longer part of the problem. But if the three starting outfielders don't improve in the second half, they may find themselves sitting on the bench more often than they would like.

Grounded birds eating crow

After a strong start, the Birds hit some turbulence in May and June, showing that they're still finding their wings as a team. A subpar first half and the increasing likelihood of a team in Washington next year have shifted Oriole trendlines downward. So far, the pitching has been a miserable failure. If Ray Miller can turn around the pitching staff like he did when he arrived for his second tour with the team in '97, the end-of-year summary may be more encouraging. But the defense and offense will also have to improve their support for Baltimore to ascend in the AL East.

The Birds reached the All-Star break on a pace to repeat last season's 71-91 record, but indications are that they ran into some bad luck in the first half. If their luck evens out and they catch a tailwind in the second half, the Orioles may "find a way" to finish with close to 80 wins and move up to fourth or third place. Otherwise, it looks like another disappointing season for Baltimore fans.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 14, 2004 6:29 PM.

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