Sep 12, 2013, 12:16 PM EDT
The Baltimore Orioles are, in most ways, a better baseball team than they were last year.
– Last year, they scored 712 runs. This year, they are on pace to score 760.
– Last year, they gave up 705 runs. This year, they are on pace to give up a similar 712.
– Last year, first baseman Chris Davis came into his own and hit 33 home runs and slugged .501. This year, Chris Davis is one of the best players in baseball — he already has 49 homers and leads the league with 341 total bases. His slugging percentage is 150 points higher. His on-base percentage is 50 points higher.
– Last year, Manny Machado was a 19-year-old rookie who played 51 tentative games in the big leagues. This year, Machado leads the league in hits, doubles and is playing a spectacular third base.
– Last year, starter Chris Tillman made 15 promising starts. This year, he made the All-Star team and you can define his improvement either by his 16 wins or his 3.7 WAR — depending on your statistical preference.
J.J. Hardy is having a better year. Adam Jones is almost exactly the same player. Bullpen pieces like Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz are pitching pretty well. Not everyone is having as good a year as last year — closer Jim Johnson’s quality has dropped a bit as has catcher Matt Wieters among others. But all in all, it seems, the Orioles really are a better team than they were last year.
Last year, they won 93 games and made the playoffs.
This year, they are on pace to win 86 games and miss the playoffs.
What was the one thing statistical analysts repeatedly said about the 2012 Orioles? They were lucky. If I was asked to come up with the most basic way that stats folk and traditionalists disagree about baseball, I’d probably say that it comes down to the role of luck. Stats people might call it the role of randomness. But let’s stick with luck for now.
Take a look at the pitcher win, the contentious statistic of the moment. Everyone would agree, I’m pretty sure, that the pitcher’s win (like the team win) is composed of two parts — (1) run prevention (how many runs the pitcher and defense allow) and (2) production (how many runs the team scores). The pitcher has a huge role in the first part, but little-to-no obvious role in the production part. So what do you make of a halfway statistic like that?
Traditionalists, many of them, believe that good pitchers — that is to say WINNING pitchers — have an ability to prevent more runs when their team is having trouble scoring. That’s pitching to the score. Traditionalists, many of them, think that good pitchers — winning pitchers — inspire their teammates to score more runs when they are pitching. Traditionalists, some of them, will ascribe to certain pitchers an almost magical power to win games because the team needs them to win games.
Stats people, many of them, think how many runs a team scores for a pitcher (and when they score those runs, which matters in a pitcher’s win) is basically random and so the statistic is silly and generally pointless. They don’t believe this because it’s their heartfelt philosophy. They believe it because no matter how they turn the numbers inside and out, they can’t find any consistent evidence that pitchers can pitch to the score or inspire teammates to score more runs on days they pitch. They cannot find this magic in the numbers.
The point here is not the win, but the concept of luck. A lot of people don’t want to believe in luck in baseball. They want to assign meaning to things. This was the thing, I think, that drove people mad about Joe Morgan. In Joe Morgan’s world, a player didn’t succeed in the big moment because of some combination of skill and repetition and sturdiness and luck. It was because he reached deep into his soul and found something inside him that regular people do not have. By any reasonable reading, if a guy bloops a single just over the second baseman’s reach, that’s kind of lucky. But if he did it in the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and the score tied — especially if he was a player who seemed particularly gritty — Joe Morgan (and many others) would chalk it up to the measure of the hitter’s courage and grit. “That,” they would say, “is a ballplayer.”*
*Quick aside: I’m here in Seattle to write about the Seahawks as they get ready to play the 49ers, and yesterday the local media got a few minutes on the phone with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh. Apparently, Harbaugh had a legendary session where, in his own inimitable style, he managed in only a few minutes to say absolutely nothing. At one point, a reporter was listening to the tape of the teleconference, he stood up in the room, started walking to the back and and mock-shouted, “Well, I just learned that apparently Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are both football players!”
The thing about luck/randomness is that it generally doesn’t repeat. Anyone who has had an especially good day at the roulette wheel knows that. You don’t want to downplay the role of skill and achievement — in the scenario above, the hitter DID put the ball in play, and some hitters (cough Jeter cough) do seem to have a repeatable skill of blooping a ball into the open space in right field — but the stats tend to show that randomness really is random.
Which brings us back to the Baltimore Orioles. Last year, the Orioles were a staggering 29-9 in one-run games. Going back to 1900, it was simply the best one-run record in baseball history. The 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games, did not have as good a one-run record. The 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 1927 Yankees, the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers, the Miracle Mets, the Maddux Braves — none of these teams had as good a one-run record as the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.
As part of the overall package, the Orioles went 16-2 in extra-inning games, setting records there too.
So what is that? Skill? Sure, obviously, there was skill. But statistics show that one-run games — more than any other kind of games — are random. Managers and players and ex-managers and ex-players and baseball analysts have spent millions of hours discussing the strategies of winning one-run games, focusing on countless points like doing the little things right, getting the bunt down, moving the runner over, getting strong bullpen work, getting the sure out, getting the key hit, on and on, and yes, absolutely, in a micro-view, all these play a role.
But the numbers people will tell you: There’s flip-a-coin randomness in there too. I remember having a conversation with a big Orioles fan, and he was challenging me with this question: “Who’s to say the Orioles won’t be just as good in one-run games next year?” I told him it was possible, just like a second straight hot night at the roulette wheel is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
“But roulette is luck,” he said.
“So is wining one-run games,” I said.
We agreed to disagree. He wanted to believe the Orioles — through determination and managerial splendor and the ability to make timely plays — had conquered the one-run game. It wasn’t roulette, he was saying, it was blackjack, and the Orioles were card counters. They had learned how to game the system.
Wednesday night, the Orioles lost to the Yankees 5-4, a one-run game, and New York slipped ahead of Baltimore in the standings. The Orioles’ record in one-run games this year? They are 16-26. It is a worse one-run record than the 50-96 Houston Astros. It is a worse record than then 54-90 Miami Marlins. It is, in fact, the worst one-run record in baseball.
Jul 26, 2014, 1:31 PM EDT
Astros prospect right-hander Mark Appel had his best start of the season on Thursday and now he’s set to be promoted to Double-A.
Jul 26, 2014, 1:08 PM EDT
Veteran right-hander Jake Peavy is headed back to the National League and will be reunited with Bruce Bochy.
Jul 26, 2014, 12:31 PM EDT
Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion hasn’t played since July 5 due to a right quadriceps strain and now his absence appears likely to stretch into August.
Jul 26, 2014, 11:40 AM EDT
The Cardinals have added A.J. Pierzynski as a veteran alternative behind the plate with Yadier Molina sidelined due to a thumb injury.
Jul 26, 2014, 10:32 AM EDT
Big news coming out of Cooperstown this morning, as the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced their first changes to the voting process since 1991.
Jul 26, 2014, 10:09 AM EDT
Jon Lester wants to stay in Boston and is open to returning even if the Red Sox trade him in the coming days.
Jul 26, 2014, 9:31 AM EDT
Only Rudy York (1937) and Mark McGwire (1987) got there faster.
Jul 26, 2014, 8:55 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including another win for the red-hot Rays.
Jul 26, 2014, 12:28 AM EDT
Triples galore for the Dodgers in San Francisco on Friday night.
Jul 25, 2014, 11:55 PM EDT
Ichiro Suzuki went yard for the first time this season, taking Mark Buehrle deep. He had previously homered on August 30 last year against the Orioles.
Jul 25, 2014, 11:25 PM EDT
Jose Bautista isn’t a huge fan of the beards Athletics Derek Norris and Sean Doolittle are sporting.
Jul 25, 2014, 10:55 PM EDT
The Independent League is taking measures to speed up games. Could MLB do the same?
According to Five Thirty Eight, Billy Beane’s A’s have exceeded expectations by nearly $1.38 billion
Jul 25, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
We knew Billy Beane was good… but that good?
Jul 25, 2014, 9:35 PM EDT
The Cardinals are trying to add yet another catcher in A.J. Pierzynski, which would mean George Kottaras could be on his way out.
Jul 25, 2014, 8:45 PM EDT
The struggling Daisuke Matsuzaka will have his elbow examined, which will let the Mets know how to proceed.
Jul 25, 2014, 7:55 PM EDT
Jimmy Rollins needed 1,100 plate appearances total between 2013-14 in order for his $11 million option for 2015 to become guaranteed. He hit PA #1,100 during tonight’s game against the Diamondbacks.
Jul 25, 2014, 7:40 PM EDT
Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez are back. Making things even more interesting, Puig will play center field.
Jul 25, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT
Jesus Montero gets the boot back to Triple-A to make room for the recently-acquired Kendrys Morales.
Jul 25, 2014, 6:10 PM EDT
Dan Uggla is back in the big leagues! What could go wrong?
Jul 25, 2014, 5:19 PM EDT
Career minor leaguer Jake Smolinski got a chance in Texas because of the Rangers’ never-ending injuries and took advantage by hitting .389 in 11 games, but now he’s headed to their crowded disabled list with a bone bruise in his foot.
- Giants acquire Jake Peavy from Red Sox 14
- Maximum stay on Hall of Fame ballot changed from 15 to 10 years 36
- Jon Lester is willing to return to the Red Sox as a free agent even if they trade him 18
- Jose Abreu is third-fastest in MLB history to reach 30 career home runs 7
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 20
- How’d he do that? Magician Maddux fooled hitters all the way to Hall 23
- And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights 46
- MLBPA files grievance against Astros in regard to draft pick situation 35
- Expert’s Corner: How to troll fans of all 30 teams (200)
- Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts (162)
- Yankees acquire Chase Headley from Padres (108)
- Who is the next Face of Baseball? (97)
- David Ortiz passes Carl Yastrzemski on the all-time home run list — is he a Hall of Famer? (92)