20 September 2012

The New Oriole Way: No Need for Good Pitchers in Baltimore

The New York Yankees maintained the slimmest of leads  - just half a game - in their pursuit of another AL East Division Title yesterday by sweeping a double-header with the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-2 and 2-1.

They got a shot in the arm from the returning Andy Pettitte, who provided five scoreless innings to start the game despite being limited to 75 pitches.  Since he hadn't thrown more than 5 innings in any of his rehab stints, I imagine they didn't want to take any chances by stretching him out too much in his first game back.

Half a dozen relievers managed to hold onto a slim lead in the day game and then David Phelps hurled 6.1 innings of one-run ball - only his second Quality Start of his career and his first in a month - to pave the way for another W.  Rafael Soriano saved both ends of the doubleheader to increase his total to 42, which besides being the answer to life, the universe and everything is also evidence that perhaps the $35 million the Yankees gave him before last season weren't wasted after all. 

In any case, the Yankees seem to be doing what they always do: Winning.  None of that is all so terribly exciting, mostly because we who follow the Bronx Bombers have been more or less spoiled since 1994.   
What is exciting is that somehow the Baltimore Orioles, though an astonishing combination of luck, skill, clutch hitting and excellent relief pitching, have managed to be the team that the Yankees find breathing down their collective necks.

There was a time not so long ago when I would have pointed to their terrible run differential as evidence that they wouldn't last.  Or to their lack of any star hitters, or any decent, established starting pitchers.  Or the fact that they hadn't had a winning season since I was a senior in college, or that nobody expected them to win anything coming into the season, or the fact that they had to battle division foes like New York, Boston and Tampa -three franchises clearly much better run than the one in Baltimore.

That time is now past.  The Orioles still have a (slightly) negative run differential, and they still lack an ace pitcher and other than Adam Jones, they don't really have any hitters you'd be comfortable calling a "star".  What they do have is an astonishing record in one-run games (27-8), and an even better record in extra innings (15-2, including 15 straight, the most since 1949).

More important, perhaps, is that they have 85 wins with only 13 games left to play, and so whatever analysis one might do to figure out what will happen from here is nearly moot: the sample size is too small.  Heck, even Houston once won seven out of nine back in April and May, and now they're fighting to avoid 110 losses.

ESPN's David Schoenfeld looked at the Orioles' lack of a true ace yesterday in one of his columns and determined that while it was not so unusual for the best pitcher on a playoff team (in this case Wei-Yin Chen) to be just decent, with only 2.8 WAR, no such team had ever won the World Series either. 

I was somewhat shocked to find that not only is Chen not that good, he's the only pitcher on the team who's actually been decent all year.  Chen is 12-9 with a 3.98 ERA and is the only pitcher on the Baltimores who will qualify for the ERA title this year (162 IP are required).  This got me to wondering how unusual it was for there to literally be nobody else on a playoff team's pitching staff who could say that he had contributed all year.

I used double digit Wins as my benchmark - yes, I know it's an archaic stat, but stick with me here - and looked at every playoff team since they started the 3-division format in 1995.  I used Wins because it's relatively easy to sort and search with them and because while winning 10 games doesn't necessarily make you a great pitcher, it's usually a sign that you at least were sufficiently present on the pitching staff and effective on the mound to be used in such a way as to get credit for 10 or more Wins.  Rarely to lousy, unhealthy pitchers amass 10 Wins.  Got it?

(I did not use Wins amassed for another team, before a late season trade or in the minors, for example, mostly because it would have been a real pain in the butt.) 

That left us 68 playoff teams, and the number of those that had only one 10-game winner?


And none in a full, 162-game season.

The 1995 Colorado Rockies had only one 10 game winner, Kevin Ritz, who went 11-11 with a 4.21 ERA in 173 innings.  Since the league only played 144 games that year, this one is kind of an outlier.  With another 3 weeks in the beginning of the season, Bill Swift would almost certainly have added to his nine Wins, so we can practically dismiss them.

Other than that, no playoff team since 1995 has had fewer than two 10-game winners.  For that matter, only 15 of the 68 have had as few as two, and another of those, the 1995 Cincinnati Reds, also came from a strike-shortened season.  (Unlike the similar-vintage Rockies, the Reds probably would not have added an additional 10-game winner with three more weeks to play, as the next closest pitcher, Xavier Hernandez, was a reliever with just seven Wins, and no starter had more than six.  David Wells had won 10 with the Tigers before coming over in a trade and tacking on half a dozen more for the Reds, so they don't exactly count either.)

In any case, having only two 10-game winners on your playoff team, it seems, does not bode well for your success in the postseason.  None of those teams won the World Series, and only two of them - the 2007 Rockies and the 1997 Indians - even made it that far.

The '97 Indians captured a weak AL Central division with only 86 wins and then squeaked past the Wild Card Yankees and the Orioles before losing to the first Wild Card World Champion, Eric Gregg's 6-foot strike zone Livan Hernandez and the Florida Marlins. 

The '07 Rockies, of course, rode an astonishing winning streak, not just in extra innings or close games like these Orioles, but in nearly all games for about a month.  They won 11 in a row and 14 out of 15 to sneak into the NL Wild Card spot on the very last day of the season, then swept both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks en route to the World Series.  There, despite having gone 22-1 in the previous month, they were swept by the Boston Red Sox.  C'est la vie.

Or, perhaps more precisely, c'est la pitching.  Without at least a few reliable guys to lean on when the team needed to record outs, none of these clubs could withstand the crucible of October baseball.  Almost half of them, seven of the 15 teams, lost in the Division Series, with five of the seven being swept.  Six other teams put up a good fight but ultimately succumbed in the League Championship Series, and the last two we just discussed. 

And these Orioles don't look like they even have a real chance at ending up with multiple 10 game winners.  The next closest pitcher is Jason Hammel with eight Wins, and he's got a knee injury and may not pitch much if at all for the rest of the season.  In any case, he's unlikely to add two wins in the next week and a half.

Chris Tillman is probably their best shot, also with eight Wins, and with potentially three remaining starts, it's conceivable that he could win two more, if he doesn't re-injure his elbow.  (Joe Saunders had six wins with Arizona before getting two with Baltimore, so technically he could win two more games and end up with 10 overall, but he'd have to win both of his remaining starts to do that.)  

As a few other interesting statistical anomalies of the Baltimore pitchers - 

Baltimore has:

  • One complete game.  This sounds worse than it is, since today's game doesn't require guys to finish what they start very often.  Oakland has only one as well, and the playoff-hopeful Dodgers and Pirates only have two each, and the Brewers have none at all.  Even Washington has only three, and they've got the best record in baseball.   
  • Seven Tough Losses, i.e. losses in games in which they got a Quality Start from their pitcher.  This would be the lowest number in MLB except that the Rockies haven't been even attempting to get Quality Starts since some time in mid June, so they have only four such losses.  Generally the good teams are near the bottom of this list, rarely squandering a good performance by their starter.   
  • Thirty relief Wins.  This would be the best in the majors if not for the bizarre experiment in Colorado, where they've amassed 33 such wins.  
  • Ten relief Losses.  Fewest in MLB, though Texas and Oakland each only have 11.  
  • Allowed 33% of inherited runners to score.  This is the third worst number in the majors (the Angels are at 34% and the Cubs at 38%.) 
  • Allowed 74 total inherited runners to score, 4th most in the majors, and seven more than the next closest playoff contender (San Francisco, who has a much better percentage).  
  • 58 Holds, third fewest in MLB.  This kind of makes sense, since a Hold requires that a pitcher come into a game in a Save situation and hold onto the lead without actually finishing the game and therefore getting the Save.  Since the Orioles rarely have a lead early enough in a game for this to happen, it's only logical that they wouldn't be able to do this much. Oddly, Texas has even fewer Holds, just 55, but in their case I think it's because they score so many runs that when a relief pitcher comes into a game, it's usually already out of reach, and hence not an opportunity to get a Hold.  
  • Allowed only 62 steals, third fewest in MLB, and caught 33% of would be thieves, 5th best in the majors.  This strikes me as one of the "little things" that an old-school manager like Buck Showalter would stress, i.e. not giving away runs with carelessness about he guys already on base.  
  • Had relievers enter 73 games with a tie score, most in MLB.
  • Had relievers enter the most high-leverage situations (168) in MLB, since their games are always close.    
  • Had relievers enter 321 games with the bases empty, most in the AL, but only 9th in MLB.  I imagine this is because NL pitchers often have to be swapped out for pinch hitters, rather than just for situational matchups, so they'll more often come in to start an inning after a pinch hitter has replaced their predecessor on the mound.  The fact that the Orioles have more of these situations than any other AL team I believe is a result of either Showalter's rigid determination to use his relievers to start innings whenever possible, or the fact that Baltimore relievers rarely leave the game with a baserunner on base.  Either way, it's kind of odd.  
  • Needed its relievers to get three or more outs 121 times, most in MLB among teams that don't play some weird brand of baseball in Denver.  Only one other potential playoff team has more than 99 such games.  
Naturally, I'll be the first to admit that stuff like run differential and the number of Holds or inherited runners scored in the regular season all go out the window once the playoffs start.  The teams that score more runs than their opponents more often than not in each series will win, just as they always do.  The 2001 Mariners, on paper, were a demonstrably better team than the Yankees that year, but in the end, it was the Seattle tam that ended up watching the Yankees lose the World Series to Arizona, not the team with the 116 regular season victories.

So the Orioles may get into the playoffs, and may even win the AL East, but luck and magic and clutch hitting can go away for no apparent reason at all, just as they showed up for no apparent reason.

Just ask the 2007 Rockies.

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