Twenty-three years later, is it still too soon to ask?
Maybe so. But with a quarter of the season in the books, and Baltimore holding the best record in the American League, who can resist? Rany Jazayerli in Grantland points out that the 21st-century Orioles have started strong before, only to fade in the late going. But I’m not sure that tradition applies to the new-model Orioles. Jazayerli writes, “2010 is the only season this century in which the Orioles played better at the end of the season than at the beginning,” a strange thing to say considering that the Orioles went 15-13 last September against a steady stream of contenders, finishing it off by coming from behind against the Red Sox and ending their season, in what will forever be known as The “M@#$$f@#$@$ sh#@, take your a#% home” Game. Camden Depot looks back at the 2005 team, the last Oriole squad to be this good this deep into the season. We all know how that turned out.
Could 2012 be different? To answer that, you have to understand why the Orioles have played so much better than projected. Who’s overperforming? Adam Jones. Matt Wieters. Jason Hammel. Wei-Yin Chen. The entire bullpen. To a lesser extent, Chris Davis and Robert Andino and even Jake Arrieta, whose ugly ERA masks a real improvement in his control. Who’s doing worse than expected? Basically just Mark Reynolds and the bench. (Before the season I thought the bench would be much improved this year, but among the new spare parts only Wilson Betemit has really contributed.)
So the Orioles have been lucky with performance, and have been lucky in wins even above their performance, outpacing their Pythagorean winning percentage by 3 games (though to some extent this may just reflect excellent relief performance.)
The good news is, a lot of the overperformers are exactly the kind of players who might be experiencing an actual improvement, not just good luck. Wieters and Adam Jones were prized prospects with obvious potential who’ve never quite put it all together in the major leagues, and who are now, at 26, entering their prime years. If you were to carve out a single class of players prone to have breakout seasons, that’s it. Chen came from Japan — it’s always hard to predict how pitchers will transition from Asia, and while Chen is almost certainly not going to maintain a 2.45 ERA, there’s every reason to believe he was way underestimated. Arrieta is 26, too, and if he can keep up his current peripherals, I can easily see him finishing the season with a 4 or 4.5 ERA; not sterling, but it would have made him the best starter on last year’s team. Matusz has been inconsistent and mediocre this year, which is to say he has massively improved from last year, and there’s every reason to think 2011 was the outlier.
Hammel, on the other hand, is more likely to revert to his previous well-established level, and the bullpen simply can’t keep performing as it has been. (Looking at these guys, though, I’m impressed by how many middle relievers with pretty serious credential the Orioles quietly put together on the cheap. Lindstrom is the only one who really, truly can’t be considered a potential elite reliever.)
Altogether, I think improvement over projection from Jones, Wieters, and Chen alone could make this team about 6 wins better, which means they project as about a .470 team on talent. If they play .470 ball the rest of the way, they finish 83-79. I’d take that!