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.
Aug 21, 2014, 9:51 PM EDT
Impending free agent Michael Cuddyer will almost certainly finish his season in a Rockies uniform.
Aug 21, 2014, 8:59 PM EDT
Castillo could reportedly make his decision this weekend.
Aug 21, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT
Royals catcher Salvador Perez was scratched from Wednesday’s lineup with tightness in his right knee, but an MRI on Thursday revealed no structural damage.
Aug 21, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
Here’s hoping Nationals manager Matt Williams has been practicing his Babe Ruth home run trot, because he has a promise to fulfill.
Aug 21, 2014, 6:57 PM EDT
Gomes was hit in the mask in the bottom of the fifth inning by a ball that deflected off the arm of Kurt Suzuki on a hit-by-pitch.
Aug 21, 2014, 6:14 PM EDT
But not the best among major league starters this season.
Aug 21, 2014, 5:42 PM EDT
Beckham had a very promising rookie season as a 22-year-old in 2009, but the former first-round draft pick has hit just .240 with a .658 OPS in 636 games since then while never topping a .700 OPS in a season.
Aug 21, 2014, 5:20 PM EDT
He heads to Triple-A tied for the Reds franchise record in relief losses with 10, which is especially remarkable considering he won his first decision of the season before dropping 10 straight.
Aug 21, 2014, 4:55 PM EDT
Richards’ leg buckled underneath him as he went to cover first base on a potential double-play ball last night and he was down for nearly 10 minutes before being carted off the field in obvious pain.
Aug 21, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
A Tigers pitcher has dodged a major legal bullet.
Aug 21, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
He hit a combined .312 with an .863 OPS in 328 games for the Cardinals from 2011 to 2013, but Craig’s production has plummeted to a .237 batting average and .639 OPS in 98 total games this season.
Aug 21, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
One unearned run was all he allowed against his old mates. Tough way to lose.
Aug 21, 2014, 3:40 PM EDT
Work fast. Throw strikes. If anyone has come up with a better way to win games, I haven’t heard of it yet.
Aug 21, 2014, 2:54 PM EDT
That’s kind of the whole story, but there’s nothing else going on right now.
Aug 21, 2014, 2:24 PM EDT
Masahiro Tanaka’s attempt to avoid Tommy John elbow surgery with the rest-and-rehab approach has gone well enough that the Yankees right-hander will face live hitters for the first time Saturday.
Aug 21, 2014, 2:04 PM EDT
It’s better than no baseball in November, right?
Aug 21, 2014, 1:43 PM EDT
Texas not trading impending free agent reliever Neal Cotts before the July 31 deadline was surprising and now they’re going to hang onto the left-hander for the rest of the season.
Aug 21, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
A nine game winning streak and a bunch of walkoff wins. Do they have a weakness right now?
Aug 21, 2014, 12:48 PM EDT
There’s only a week or so remaining in the minor-league season, so if Zimmerman wants to go on a rehab assignment before coming off the disabled list he’s running out of time.
Aug 21, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
The Cubs have their grounds crew’s back.
- The Nationals extend their winning streak to 10 games with another walk-off victory 3
- Garrett Richards out 6-9 months with torn patellar tendon 10
- A pitch clock in Major League Baseball? No thanks. 88
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights 81
- Garrett Richards suffers ugly left knee injury 28
- Giants win protest, will complete rain-halted game at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon 46
- Royals might actually know what they are doing 33
- Curt Schilling reveals that he was diagnosed with mouth cancer, blames smokeless tobacco 72
- Mike Matheny addresses turmoil in Ferguson: “It’s a sad situation. It’s a tough situation for our city” (127)
- A pitch clock in Major League Baseball? No thanks. (88)
- Here’s today’s dose of barfy Derek Jeter sentiment (82)
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights (81)
- Let’s speed up the pace of play. But let’s not be gimmicky about it. Let’s just enforce the rules. (74)