Thursday, October 18, 2012

Praising the 2012 Orioles, maybe the most improbably good team (of which I'm a fan) of my lifetime

You've heard it by now, but the Orioles' last winning season, until 2012, occurred in 1997. In that season, they went 98-64 and finished first in the AL East. Since that year, here's where they've finished in the AL East:

- fourth place for six straight seasons;
- third place in 2004;
- fourth place in 2005-2007; and
- fifth place in the four seasons after that.

And then, with not much hope to be much better (Dan Duquette's goal before the season was "to be .500 or better"), the 2012 Orioles somehow won 93 games, eliminated in the new one-game wild card playoff a Texas Rangers team that had participated in the last two World Series, and gave the Yankees all they could handle by forcing a fifth game in the American League Division Series. 

The weird thing about the Orioles this season is that, except for few minor (or at least apparently minor) names here or there, the roster wasn't THAT much different from 2011. Here's the opening day lineup on April 1, 2011:

Brian Roberts 2B
Nick Markakis RF
Derrek Lee 1B
Vladimir Guerrero DH
Adam Jones CF
Luke Scott LF
Mark Reynolds 3B
Matt Wieters C
J.J. Hardy SS

Remember Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero? I bet you didn't. Sorry. I won't go through the entire 2011 pitching staff, but there were many of the same names -- particularly the younger pitchers -- but there weren't nearly as many strong performances as this season.

And here was the opening day roster on April 6, 2012:

Nolan Reimold LF
J.J. Hardy SS
Nick Markakis RF
Adam Jones CF
Matt Wieters C
Wilson Betemit DH
Mark Reynolds 3B
Chris Davis 1B
Robert Andino 2B

And don't forget, oddly enough, that Jake Arrieta started that game. Reimold started the season on fire and homered in four straight games (and in five of six games), but he was eventually lost for the season because of a herniated disc in his neck, and he didn't appear in another game after April 30. You'll also notice Reynolds at third base, a healthy Markakis, and Betemit's presence in the lineup.

But, OK, I'm rambling. How did the O's get from that 2011 roster to facing off against the Yankees in the ALDS? The winning close games thing is obvious now and has been beaten into the ground. It truly was amazing what the Orioles did in close and extra-inning games, but let's explore some of the major and minor moves, in no particular order:
  • Signing Wei-Yin Chen
It wasn't discussed all that much at the time, but the Orioles got a bargain when they signed Chen to a three-year, $11.38 million deal in January. His deal also includes a $4.75 million club option in 2015. Chen, now 27, gave the O's a 4.02/4.42/4.34 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) pitching line in 192.2 innings, which isn't superb but is still pretty good for a rookie making his way through AL East lineups. He stayed healthy the entire season, and though the O's did try to give him a few extra days between starts at the end of the season because he began to tire somewhat, he was arguably the team's most reliable starter from April to October.

Chen may never pitch better than he did this season, but there's no reason he can't at least be close to it. And for the contract he signed, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
  • Putting Darren O'Day on the roster
It's hard to believe after the incredible season he had, but O'Day (and Troy Patton, for that matter) was not a lock to make the 25-man roster before the season. O'Day was lights out in 67 regular season innings, finishing with a 2.28 ERA. Because he didn't finish with a bunch of saves like Jim Johnson, who was also very good this season, O'Day didn't receive the same notoriety (until he kept mowing down batters in the playoffs, at least), but he was every bit as valuable. Fortunately for the Orioles, O'Day is still arbitration eligible, though he should expect a nice raise after a fantastic season.
  • Moving Mark Reynolds to first base
It took much longer than it needed to, but Buck Showalter eventually stopped playing Reynolds at third base. Reynolds never played third after May, and the position was instead occupied mostly by Wilson Betemit and Robert Andino (at least until a certain 20-year-old took over the position; more on that below). A Betemit/Andino platoon wasn't the worst thing ever, but it also wasn't ideal. Betemit isn't very good defensively but can hit right-handed pitching a bit, and Andino fields well and is an OK hitters against lefties. But, again, it wasn't perfect.

Reynolds has improved his defense immensely at first. I'm still hesitant to call him great, or at least very good, at the position, mostly because I think he needs to work on his footwork, mostly around the bag. (That would explain why no other first baseman ends up diving for nearly as many throws.) Still, he at least went from average or below average at first base to slightly above average or decent, which is still impressive for a guy who looks as bad on the other side of the diamond.

He improved his on-base percentage from .323 in 2011 to .335 this season, which can mostly be explained by his uptick in walks (from a 12.1 BB% to 13.6%). But that wasn't enough to make up for his 54-point drop in slugging percentage to .429, the lowest of his career.

Reynolds has a 2013 team option for $11 million, which seems a little steep, especially since he's been worth a combined 0.8 fWAR the past two seasons. Like Luke Scott the season before, Reynolds could be a non-tender candidate, though I wouldn't be all that surprised if he somehow returned for less money. Reynolds has some value, but he's not worth $11 million.
  • Signing Miguel Gonzalez
Prior to this season, I had never heard of Gonzalez. I don't think most fans had, either. But signing him to a minor-league deal when no other team was interested ended up being a very wise decision. In late May and early June when guys like Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz were struggling mightily as starters, the O's needed someone to eat innings, so Gonzalez got his chance. He pitched well out of the bullpen a few times, and he eventually got his first Orioles start on July 6 against the Angels, when he pitched seven innings, allowing one run on three hits, while striking out six and walking two. He continued to pitch well after that, with only a few bad outings, and was one of the biggest reasons why the starting rotation exceeded expectations.

I'm not sure if he'll pitch as well in future seasons, but it's not like a 28-year-old, oft-injured journeyman starter/reliever is supposed to be easy to predict. He's obviously earned a shot at a rotation spot next season, and if he pitches well again, it's a tremendous bonus.
  • Signing Nick Johnson
OK, just kidding. Still, this actually happened. And you're not going to believe it, but he got hurt. But he did have a couple of important hits. Oh, and look at his Twitter handle. So, yeah.
  • Promoting Manny Machado from Bowie
I'm not going to say watching Machado's development was the most exciting thing this season, but it was easily one of the most exciting things. Machado, 20, made his major-league debut on August 9, collecting his first two hits. The next night, he upped the ante by hitting two home runs and knocking in four runs. After that, things cooled off for Machado somewhat, and by the end of the season he batted .262/.294/.445 in 202 plate appearances.

His plate discipline needs to get better, but that was something he improved as the season went on. He also started to look more comfortable when hitting with two strikes. While the O's struggled to score runs in the ALDS, Machado was one of the few Baltimore hitters to actually have a few nice at-bats. That didn't necessarily translate into big offensive numbers, but his talent is evident. With more playing time and exposure, Machado should become a potent, middle-of-the-order hitter in the next couple of years.

Oh, and he was outstanding at third base and helped fortify the team's infield defense. That seems important for someone who never played the position in the minors.
  • Trading for Jason Hammel (and Matt Lindstrom)
At the time, the trade looked OK, but nothing special. And then Hammel started pitching, and he was very good from day one. If not for a right knee injury that limited him to just 118 innings, Hammel likely would have posted the best numbers of his career (he basically did anyway, though, just in fewer innings). He finished with a solid pitching line of 3.43/3.29/3.46, and his 2.9 fWAR was the best among O's pitchers. Chen, who pitched nearly 74 more innings, was the next closest with a 2.2 fWAR. Hammel's wildly effective two-seam fastball produced a ton of ground balls (53.2 GB%), the highest of his career). He also struck out the highest number of batters (8.62 K/9) of his career. And he did all this while keeping his walks relatively low (3.2 BB%) and doing a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the ballpark (0.69 HR/9). 

Hammel, 30, has one year of arbitration left, so he'll at least be around for another season. But if the 2012 version is indeed the real Hammel, the O's may have found someone who can pitch effectively in their rotation for the next few years. The knee injury is somewhat of a concern, but when healthy, Hammel was outstanding.

Lindstrom also pitched well in his 36.1 innings out of the bullpen, posting a 2.72 ERA. Dan Duquette figured he was expendable, though, and shipped Lindstrom to Arizona in late August in exchange for Joe Saunders. In seven regular season starts after arriving in Baltimore, Saunders was actually decent, with a line of 3.63/3.77/4.44 and accumulating 0.8 fWAR. It helped that he was pitching to a few bad/injured lineups (Toronto twice, Seattle once, and Boston once), but those innings and starts helped propel the O's to the playoffs. Also, against all odds, Saunders put together back-to-back effective starts against the Rangers and Yankees in the playoffs. In both outings, he went 5.2 innings and allowed just one run. Saunders may not be in an Orioles uniform next season, but he proved to be a helpful addition, and it only cost the O's a replaceable reliever who has a $4 million team option next season.
  • Batting Markakis leadoff
It seems like ages ago, but when Markakis returned from his first-ever trip to the disabled list after having surgery on his broken right wrist, he was inserted into the leadoff slot in the lineup. From July 13 (when he returned) to September 8 (when an errant CC Sabathia fastball broke Markakis's thumb, ending his season), Markakis batted a whopping .335/.390/.489 and looked like the hitter O's fans had been expecting the last couple of seasons. In those 54 games, Markakis collected 74 hits (he had just 51 hits in his previous 50 games), and he walked six more times than he struck out (20 to 14). 

Maybe it was just a fluke or an unsustainable hot stretch for Markakis. But he needs to be the team's leadoff hitter on opening day next season, which is something I'm sure Buck Showalter already knows.
  • Pulling the plug on Matusz, Arrieta, and Hunter as starters
I still think there's some hope for Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta as starting pitchers in the future; according to the Orioles, that's still the plan, at least. (Tommy Hunter, though, needs to stay in the bullpen.) But they weren't overly effective in the rotation this season, and eventually the O's decided to send them to the minors to straighten things out. But they didn't return as starters; they returned as relievers.

When Arrieta came back, he wasn't all that much different, though his stuff still looked pretty good (it usually does). But when Matusz returned, he had somehow transformed into a power lefty, capable of blowing hitters away with ease. The sequence that sticks out in my mind is when he entered in the play-in game to face Josh Hamilton, and even though Hamilton obviously didn't look right, Matusz blew him away with three straight fastballs. Considering Hamilton had a four-homer game against the Orioles in May and looked dominant at the time, it was a bizarre sequence.

Matusz's performance out of the bullpen was something entirely new, and even though he still wants to be a starter (which he should), it had to feel pretty awesome to routinely dominate hitters since returning to Baltimore in August.


I want to keep going on, and I probably could for a few thousand more words. But instead, I'll just list some of the other keys to this season:

  • Signing Nate McLouth (obviously)
  • Giving Chris Davis consistent at-bats
  • Trading for Jim Thome (still not sure how wise that trade was, but he had a few big hits)
  • Picking up guys like Lew Ford and Omar Quintanilla (who were helpful at times) for basically nothing
  • Keeping Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty, who could be a decent player
  • Using Kevin Gregg only when it was necessary
  • Getting a shot in the arm when a much-improved Chris Tillman returned in July
  • Giving Steve Johnson a chance
  • Receiving solid years from guys like Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, and Luis Ayala
That's it. Or, at least, I think that's it. This season was pretty fun, Orioles. How about another?