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Know your "wild card" enemy: Baltimore Orioles

Two weeks ago, this was a series to circle on the calendar

With J.J. Hardy's struggles, one wonders if the second-best third baseman in the AL should have been moved to shortstop.
With J.J. Hardy's struggles, one wonders if the second-best third baseman in the AL should have been moved to shortstop.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be one of the high-stakes, decisive series in the wild card race, but neither the Rays nor the Orioles held up their side of the bargain. In the thick of the race just a week ago, Tampa Bay now stands 4.5 games back of the second wild card spot while Baltimore is 5.5 games back. FanGraphs puts their playoff odds at 6.2% for the Rays and 1.7% for the Orioles.

Still, what FanGraphs is saying is that there's a chance, so let's treat the Orioles as a Wild Card rival and give them a closer look.

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 63-67, 5.5 games behind the Texas Rangers for the second AL Wild Card spot.

Wild Card Odds as of August 31: 1.7% (FanGraphs)

Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 19

Remaining games vs. teams below .500: 12 (six against the Rays)

Final 10 games: Three-game in Boston, four-game series hosting Toronto, three-game series hosting New York

This Year

The Orioles, like the Rays, considered themselves playoff hopefuls going into this season, and at the trade deadline, they were only two and a half games out of the final wildcard spot. Unlike the Rays (who sold one of their high-leverage bullpen arms in Kevin Jepsen), the Orioles decided to go for it, trading Zach Davies, a decent pitching prospect, for a rental on outfielder Gerardo Parra.

They were well positioned to make their aggressive move pay off until they hit a terrible late-season slump. Starting eleven days ago, they were swept by the Twins over four games, lost two of three to the Royals, and were swept by the Rangers over four games. Now they face the Rays, and either team will probably need a sweep to have a realistic hope for a late-season push.

Pitching

Orioles pitchers tend to be underrated, both because they play in Camden Yards, which inflates offense by about 4%, and because they've been a special brand of effective but unexciting for a few years now.

Adjusted for park, the Baltimore pitchers' 3.68 ERA is identical to the Tampa Bay staff's mark of 3.68 (tied for fifth-best ERA- of 96 in the American League), but when you get below the surface, the Orioles start to look worse. Their FIP- drops down to a tie for seventh at 99 (just better than average), and their xFIP- drops again to eighth in the AL, at 101 (just worse than average).

What all of that means is that while Baltimore's pitching staff isn't necessarily a weakness, they're not going to carry the team, either. They've prevented runs at a decent rate, but they've done it with the help of some good sequencing and by avoiding giving up the home run. That's surprising, and probably not entirely sustainable for a team that plays in a homer-prone park like Camden Yard.

Their staff leader is Wei-Yin Chen, who has posted a very shiny 3.17 ERA without the strikeout and walk numbers to match. I wouldn't go too far with the idea that he's simply getting lucky, though. Chen has delivered an ERA significantly better than his FIP in three of his four years pitching in the states, and most interestingly, he's done so without showing a special ability to limit home runs (although, once again, consider the park). Other metrics like SIERA that take into account batted ball data see him as an above average pitcher.

Behind Chen in the rotation are two pitchers at very different stages of their career but with similar results. Both the 31-year old Ubaldo Jimenez and the 24-year old Kevin Gausman carry ERAs above 4.30 but have probably pitched better than that. Jimenez, in particular, has been stung by the long ball like never before in his career. Gausman, meanwhile, with his 20.7% strikeout rate and 5.4% walk rate, looks like a player on the brink of stardom.

The back end of the rotation has been a real problem for Baltimore, however. Miguel Gonzalez has gotten by on smoke and mirrors for three seasons, and it finally caught up to him this year with a 4.85 ERA. Ditto Chris Tillman (4.58 ERA). Bud Norris, once a decent fifth starter, collapsed and was released (he was signed by the Padres).

The Orioles Bullpen, though, has been nothing short of dominant, lead by former top starting prospect Zach Britton, who is having the best season as a closer of his career. His left-handed, high-90s sinker is probably the best of it's type in baseball, and he plays a low-80s slider with plenty of depth off that well.

The result is a 29.2% strikeout rate, a 5.7% walk rate, and a totally insane 78.5% groundball rate.

After Britton, Brad Brach has emerged as an effective all-rounder, while Brian Matusz and Darren O'Day are probably the best lefty-righty matchup specialist pair anywhere.

It's better to get to the Orioles starters than to let them reach their A bullpen.

Offense

So, there's an obvious talking point here. The wRC+ metric is probably the best measurement of offensive ability currently available. It uses linear weights, and adjusts for park and league, and then distributes the results around 100, so a number below 100 is a below-average offense and a number above is an above-average offense.

The Rays and the Orioles have the same wRC+ at 97. But that's where the similarities end. The Orioles have scored runs at the rate you would expect for a below-average offense in a hitters park. They're slightly ahead of their wRC+ placement but not by a ton. The Rays, meanwhile, have scored the fewest runs in the league, and it's not especially close. I don't know what's going on, but I'm sick of it.

Category AL Rank
wRC+ 97 Tied 9th
wOBA 0.314 Tied 8th
Runs 564 7th
Strikeout Rate 22.4% 14th
Walk Rate 6.5% 13th
Batting Average 0.253 8th
On-Base Percentage 0.305 13th
Slugging Percentage 0.42 4th
Isolated Power 0.167 4th
Home Runs 169 4th

As for individual performances, the bright spots in the Orioles lineup have been the usual suspects, with Chris Davis walking a ton, striking out a ton, and hitting for a ton of power, Adam Jones walking not at all, striking out infrequently, and also hitting for power, and Manny Machado being pretty much good at everything.

Jonathan Schoop has patterned his game after Jones, apparently, but without the unbelievable contact ability. He missed part of the season to a knee injury, so these numbers came in only 207 plate appearances.

BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Manny Machado 9.1% 15.8% 0.207 0.306 134
Chris Davis 11.2% 32.7% 0.273 0.313 134
Adam Jones 4.4% 15.7% 0.214 0.290 119
Jonathan Schoop 2.9% 23.7% 0.205 0.333 119

Meanwhile, the Orioles offense has been brought down by players from whom more was expected.

BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Steve Pearce 6.4% 22.9% 0.177 0.257 90
Matt Wieters 4.4% 26.7% 0.144 0.336 88
J.J. Hardy 4.2% 19.5% 0.093 0.257 52

Conclusion

At the start of the season, it was easy to picture the Orioles as a playoff team. Their offense has power potential second only to that of the Blue Jays, and their starting rotation, while not exciting, was supposed to be competitive across the board.

Neither unit clicked, and a late-season collapse makes this series likely academic.