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The Mini 30, Week 21: Those Pesky O’s

After an interruption by the Dodgers, we bring you, among other things, Baltimore's success story

For the first time this season, a Monday passed without an edition of The 30. Blame the Dodgers for taking the first step toward a $950 million payroll and the Red Sox for helping to make it happen. As penance, I wanted to send each of you a copy of this amazing book I’ve been reading, but the postage fees were untenable.

We’ll be back with a full version of The 30 just in time to nurse your Labor Day weekend hangovers. In the meantime, here are a few of our favorite happenings from the past week in baseball.

The Orioles aren’t going away.

Once upon a time, Bill James introduced a concept known as Pythagorean expectation — “Pythagorean record,” or simply “Pythag” to nerds like me. The idea went as follows: By focusing on teams’ runs-scored and runs-allowed totals, you could gain a level of insight that might not be evident in teams’ win-loss records. Also, by using runs scored and runs allowed as a guideline, you could establish what teams’ expected records would be. The difference between teams’ actual and expected records would then help us understand how lucky or unlucky they’d been.

The Orioles have scored 39 fewer runs than they’ve allowed, for an expected record of 60-68; only eight other teams were worse by this standard. The Orioles’ actual record, on the other hand, is a whole lot better, at 71-57; only eight other teams were better by this standard. That means the O’s have won 11 more games than their run totals would suggest. How big a deal is that? Since 1901, only four teams have posted a bigger positive gap between expected and actual records than this year’s Orioles:

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

There are a couple ways for teams to see discrepancies that big. One is to get blown out a lot. If you lose a bunch of 14-0 games, that’s going to make your run differential look lousy, even though that kind of score only counts as one loss. The other is to win a ton of close games. In the Orioles’ case, that’s the secret sauce. Baltimore has gone 24-6 in one-run games this season, by far the best mark in such games for any team. The recent results have been even more amazing — the O’s have won 13 one-run games in a row. Compare those figures to AL East rivals: The Rays have lost 10 of their past 11 one-run games (and also just became the first team in 43 years to lose four 1-0 games in one month), the Yankees have lost 10 of their past 13. That’s how Baltimore can sit in second place, just 3½ games behind the Yankees (and 1½ games up on Tampa Bay) despite trailing those teams by 138 and 109 runs, respectively. And that’s how an Orioles team that won just 69 games all last year hit that mark on August 26 this year.

So here’s the part where the stats geek tells you the Orioles are doomed, right? Well, not necessarily.

First, there are ways for teams to win games that have little to do with luck. A strong bullpen helps. The O’s rank sixth in the majors in bullpen ERA (3.03) and fifth in bullpen Wins Above Replacement. The pitchers who have thrown the most innings late in games and in high-leverage situations have been especially deadly. Closer Jim Johnson owns a 2.96 ERA and 3.42 FIP despite a modest strikeout rate; fireballing setup man Pedro Strop is at 1.56 and 3.23; sidearming righty Darren O’Day, 2.44 and 2.86.1

Whether you think it’s luck, a good bullpen, managing, or some other factor driving the Orioles’ record gap, here’s another reason to feel good about their chances: Actual record is a much better predictor of rest-of-season performance this late in the year than is expected record. As this excellent study by Bill Petti explains, we shouldn’t count on the O’s to experience the same regression toward the mean you’d normally expect from a team that might have gone a month or two outperforming its expected record.

The Orioles also field a better roster now than they did a couple months ago, despite suffering multiple injuries. Twenty-year-old über-prospect Manny Machado has struggled to get on base since his surprise call-up three weeks ago, but he has hit for power and been a big defensive upgrade over Wilson Betemit. Joe Saunders hasn’t been spectacular this year (4.22 ERA, 4.11 FIP), but he’ll upgrade Baltimore’s leaky rotation the moment he takes the mound at Camden Yards for the first time tonight. Randy Wolf has been a fair bit worse (5.69 ERA, led the National League in hits allowed), but he will give the Orioles five left-handers to play with down the stretch, if nothing else. The biggest trump card could be Dylan Bundy, the 19-year-old phenom who could join a few other top prospects in making a big impact in September. Bundy’s numbers this year across three levels of the Orioles’ organization: 98 innings, 113 strikeouts, 24 walks and 63 hits allowed, 2.01 ERA.

Finally, if you want the clearest sign this might be the Orioles’ year, there’s this: Against right-handed pitchers, their no. 3 hitter is Nate McLouth … and he’s actually been all right.

The Yankees are digging deep.

Mark Teixeira’s calf injury is expected to keep him out one to two weeks, which means the Yankees are now without both of their starting corner infielders.2 Eric Chavez has done a solid job as a $900,000 fill-in at third. Casey McGehee was expected to offer help against lefties at the corners after the Yankees got him in a deadline deal; instead he hit .184/.234/.326 in 47 plate appearances and just got shuttled to the minors. In his (and Teixeira’s) stead, the Bombers picked up Steve Pearce. Don’t know who Steve Pearce is? Let Rob Neyer’s handy-dandy Steve Pearce timeline be your guide:

March 27: Released by Twins

March 29: Signed by Yankees

June 2: Purchased by Orioles

July 28: Selected off waivers by Astros

August 27: Purchased by Yankees

August 28: Bats cleanup for Yankees

No one is ever — ever — going to feel sorry for the Yankees. But given the injuries to Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, Gardner, and A-Rod, two DL stints for CC Sabathia, this latest Teixeira injury, and Russell Martin hitting something close to an Olsen sister’s weight, they’re still doing pretty well to hold a semi-comfortable lead in the AL East this late in the season. Biggest payroll in baseball or not.

The powers that be at ESPN asked me for my division winner and wild-card picks with just over a month to go this season.

Here they are:

AL East: YANKEES

AL Central: TIGERS

AL West: RANGERS

AL Wild Cards: WHITE SOX, RAYS


NL East: NATIONALS

NL Central: REDS

NL West: GIANTS

NL Wild Cards: BRAVES, CARDINALS

Most of these shouldn’t come as surprises, with only one team holding a division lead of fewer than three games through Monday and the wild-card races close enough to make several teams defensible picks. With just 30-odd games left this season, though, schedule matters a lot. And the Tigers end the season with a big ol’ cupcake party — 13 games vs. the Twins and Royals, as Buster Olney noted. I was already a fan of the Tigers’ in-season acquisitions as well as their obvious star power with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Justin Verlander. The schedule gap was enough to propel them over the White Sox for rest-of-season predictions.

Another reason to be high on the Tigers …

… is Max Scherzer. For much of the season, Scherzer ranked at or near the top of the league in strikeout rate, but still struggled to keep runs off the board. This wasn’t exactly news. Scherzer ranked 13th in the AL in strikeout rate last year, but posted a poor 4.43 ERA. Pitching for the Diamondbacks in 2008, he ranked eighth in the NL in K rate but posted a mediocre 4.12 ERA.

Acknowledging a small-sample-size caveat, Scherzer seems to have figured things out, at least for now. Over his past eight starts, Scherzer has tossed 52⅓ innings, striking out 70, walking 19, and delivering a 2.75 ERA. He’s been even better over his past four starts, with 27 innings pitched, 35 strikeouts, eight walks, a 1.33 ERA, and .603 opponents’ OPS. FanGraphs’ Matt Klaassen details Scherzer’s resurgence and doesn’t find an obvious cause, his pitch mix and other factors mostly remaining the same. It may be that Scherzer’s locating the ball better, or even just having more luck go his way, after years of iffy results despite excellent swing-and-miss stuff. Whatever the case, if the Tigers can get strong starting pitching from Scherzer and Doug Fister behind perennial Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, they’ll be a big threat to go deep in the playoffs.

And now, a sop to White Sox fans.

This second-place prediction comes on the heels of a spectacular failure of a season preview, in which the author was not only pessimistic about the Pale Hose but also said that if things were to break right for the team, Brent Morel (Brent Morel!) could come up big. So let’s try this trivia question, courtesy of our friends at SABR: What do Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, and Hack Wilson have in common?

They’ve all led their league in home runs, walks, and strikeouts, the so-called three true outcomes. That fearsome fivesome might soon induct a new member into their exclusive club: Adam Dunn. Dunn leads the AL in homers (38; next-highest is Josh Hamilton with 35), walks (90; Ben Zobrist has 77), and strikeouts (184; Carlos Pena has 159). Some day 100 years from now, historians will look back on Adam Dunn 2004-12, see the most jarringly consistent numbers you could ever imagine in eight of those nine seasons, and wonder how he could have been abducted by hyperadvanced robots before Miles Dyson’s work could be fully realized.

The Dodgers may have boxed themselves in.

One angle that didn’t get covered in Monday’s trade breakdown: The Dodgers have shut themselves out of a free-agent market that will be flush with outfielders. In taking on nine figures’ worth of Carl Crawford, they’ve made clear who’s going to play left field for the next half-decade. This just before Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and other useful outfielders hit the open market. Hell, just two-plus months ago, the Dodgers shelled out $42 million to sign Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, under the assumption he’d start at corner outfield for them sometime in the next couple years. Taking on Crawford’s contract was more about securing Adrian Gonzalez’s services than anything else, of course. Still, between Puig being a 21-year-old question mark who didn’t even play last year and Crawford’s injuries, the Dodgers may be in the unique position of paying nearly $150 million to two players who might do nothing to fill their giant hole in left field.

On the other hand, we could be making too much of this. Would it really surprise anyone if the Dodgers drop another $100 million for a third left fielder?3

Jason Heyward is very good at baseball.

I’ve professed my love for Heyward many times already, from ESPN’s Franchise Draft to yelling on Twitter (as if Fredi Gonzalez could hear) to stop screwing around with Jose Freaking Constanza and play the future superstar instead. After a tepid start (.739 OPS through the end of May) that made you briefly wonder if last year’s struggles went beyond Heyward’s nagging shoulder injury, he’s justified the love, hitting .307/.368/.566 since June 1, with 18 homers in 76 games.

More and more, we’re seeing teams lock up young stars well before they can reach free agency, with Starlin Castro’s $60 million deal the latest of that ilk. The timing of those deals is always interesting. How soon is too soon to offer big bucks? Should your opinion of a player change if he has an off year or even a lousy couple months? It’s up to team scouts and analysts alike to trust their convictions and make decisions accordingly. Heyward, a first-round pick and megatalent, wouldn’t have made a great sign after last year’s struggles, and I’m kicking myself for not writing a column saying as much last fall.

With that in mind, let’s single out a player who should be locked up ASAFP. Twenty-two-year-old Brett Lawrie is a promising and powerful hitter who provides good speed and solid defense at third base now that he’s settled into that position. He’s also a delightfully hotheaded Canadian. But injuries curtailed his production this year, with Lawrie hitting just nine homers in 427 plate appearances, producing a line of .282/.326/.416. Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has been aggressive in locking up players to long-term deals before they can skip town, though in some cases, that strategy hasn’t worked out quite as well as hoped. Still, a Heyward-style breakout next year could pump up his price tag considerably. Now is the time.

Honorable mention to fellow 22-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, who’s certainly not a buy-low at this point (.292/.362/.606 this year, on pace for 35-plus homers despite spending a month on the DL earlier this summer), but is going to get even more expensive if and when he cranks 40-plus sometime soon.

Finally, our GIF of the Week goes to …

… Joe Mauer. We can only assume he can be this casual in making this kind of pickup because he doesn’t have to watch himself in Head & Shoulders commercials each and every time he wants to watch anything on MLB.TV — a game, an inning, even a damn highlight. Your dandruff-free fans salute you, Joe.

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri