All Hail MLB’s Clingers

Coco CrispIn a romantic sense, a “clinger” is a person — maybe a significant other, maybe something a bit less — who won’t leave you alone. Your classic clinger is needy to an extreme degree, and lives in a world where no public display of affection is too egregious. Every moment, he or she believes, should be spent in close physical proximity, and the concept of personal space is foreign. Clingers live in a world of emotional codependency, and grasp onto a potential partner like a leech. And it’s not a nice name to call a guy in front of his friends when I just needed a hug, OK, hon? OK?!

In baseball terms, though, “clinger” has a different connotation. A clinger is a team that nobody expected to be any good. A clinger is a team that held onto a respectable record at the All-Star break, maybe, but was expected to fade before long. A clinger is a team that has defied expectations over and over, and still, with about 30 games left in the season, sits close to playoff position. In this case, it’s more like a guy clinging to the edge of a cliff, waiting for help to arrive, and it seems almost impossible — even when you hear the sirens in the distance — that he’ll hold on long enough.

By my count, there are two quasi-clingers — Washington and Cincinnati. We might have thought they’d be OK, maybe even wild-card sleepers, but division leaders with the two best records in baseball? No way. So they might have been clingers for a period this season. But then they got too good, and it becomes obvious the clinger label didn’t apply. They were legit, and if they fell from the standings, it would be a collapse, not a patented clinger fade.

There are also two anti-clingers. (Yeah, I know, I need a better name, and I’m taking suggestions.) These are the underachieving teams that have the talent to make the playoffs, but haven’t quite put it together. Still, everyone expects them to make a run before Game 162. This year’s main anti-clingers are the Angels, whose starting pitching has been a surprise letdown (thanks, Zack Greinke), relegating them to third in the AL West. The other anti-clinger is the Houston Astros. Just kidding, it’s the St. Louis Cardinals, who spent most of this season with a terrific run differential and a mediocre record. Unlike the Angels, though, the Cardinals seem to have righted the ship in time and now find themselves in the wild-card position.

So, let’s count down the three actual clingers, from least improbable to most.

3. The Oakland A’s: 71-57

We covered the A’s in the midst of their incredible July hot streak, just after four straight one-run victories over the Yankees. They finished that month 19-5, best in baseball, and have done well for themselves at 15-10 in August. This is a team without a great offense — they’ve scored the second-fewest runs in the American League, and their best hitter over the past 30 days has probably been Coco Crisp — but the pitching staff is stellar. The bullpen is third in baseball by ERA, and the starters are sixth. Overall, only Tampa Bay has allowed fewer runs in the American League.

And that’s a common theme for successful clingers. More often than not, a clinger won’t overpower many teams with offense. They have to win the close games, and winning close games means having a little bit of luck and a great bullpen. Since July 1, when Oakland’s streak began, they’re 11-3 in one-run games, and 22-5 in games decided by three runs or fewer. That’s spectacular. A little lucky, too, but Oakland is one clinger that should hang on for the duration.

2. The Pittsburgh Pirates: 69-60

Unlike nos. 1 and 3 on this list, the Pirates are currently outside the playoff race and looking in. They trail St. Louis, the anti-clinger, by two games, and with a 10-16 record in August, the Bucs may be suffering through a clinger fade. It’s been a wonderful year in Pittsburgh, highlighted by Andrew McCutchen’s MVP-caliber season (statistically, he’s neck and neck with David Wright and Ryan Braun, and one of those two men will not be awarded the MVP under any circumstance) and A.J. Burnett’s post-Yankee resurgence. But will it end with a whimper?

Like Oakland, Pittsburgh has a great bullpen. Unlike Oakland, the starters are middle-of-the-pack, and the average offense isn’t doing enough to keep them on top. In fact, in their 16 losses in August, the Pirates have scored just 2.8 runs per game, while conceding 6.1 runs. With a season run differential of +19, and trending toward zero, it looks the collective Pirate fingers might be slipping from the cliff’s edge.

1. The Baltimore Orioles: 71-57

As of today, the Orioles are so detached from reality that I’m not even sure they exist. Consider this — they’ve now won 13 one-run games in a row. Thirteen! Yes, the bullpen is very good, and yes, it’s even better when you just look at the four main arms — Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, and closer Jim Johnson, but if you don’t think a lot of luck is involved here, you’re crazy. As the New York Post pointed out, their run differential numbers (-39) are pretty darn similar to Kansas City’s, but the Orioles are 71-57 while the Royals are 57-71. And for every dominant bullpen game, there’s one like Monday’s win over the White Sox, when a dramatic 8th-inning home run turned a 3-2 loss into a 4-3 win.

It’s been that kind of year for the O’s, who are thriving despite the 24th-best starter ERA in baseball and the second-worst offense in the toughest division. If the season ended today, they’d nab a wild-card spot along with Oakland. But the season doesn’t end today, and their remaining schedule includes 16 games with Tampa, Oakland, and the Yankees. The more Baltimore clings, and the more they defy expectations, the more emboldened their fans become. With good reason, too; wins are the only thing that count, and the condescending tone of writers throughout the year (myself included) will naturally lead to a defensive, defiant attitude. But a great bullpen and even better luck can only take you so far before regression kicks in, and with 34 games left on the docket, I’m still taking reality in a late-round KO.

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball, MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere