Sometimes your favorite team doesn’t make the playoffs, and if you’re in that unenviable position this year, we at Beyond the Box Score want to help you decide who you’re going to root for (or against) this postseason. We’ll be publishing ten articles, one for each playoff team, with writers laying out the case in favor of and opposed to each team. In this one, we examine a team returning to the postseason after a one-year hiatus: the Baltimore Orioles.
Root for the Orioles
Since you’re reading BtBS, you probably have at least some knowledge of advanced statistics. You might be aware of baseball projection systems, which Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs – among numerous other sites – host and promote. You might also be aware that BP’s PECOTA predicted a 74-88 finish from the 2016 Orioles, and FG’s Steamer-ZiPS hybrid foresaw an 81-81 record in Birdland. And unless you share a sleep pattern with Billie Joe Armstrong, you probably know that the O’s actually went 89-73 this year, earning the second AL Wild Card spot. Given all of that, and given what I’m trying to do here, you might expect me to gush over the team’s success in the face of improbable odds, wax poetic on the unpredictable and beautiful nature of baseball, and wrap up with some treacle about underdogs and a long-suffering fanbase.
But at this point in the year, I don’t really give a shit about preseason projections, and you probably don’t either. Here’s the number that matters for me:
That’s how many home runs the Orioles hit in 2016. Baltimore blew everyone else in baseball out of the water: the runner-up Cardinals came in 28 long balls behind them. It’s the fifth-highest team total in major-league history, only 11 shy of the record-setting 1997 Mariners. And unlike their win-loss record, the taters were easy to see coming. In the preseason, Jeff Sullivan noted that the team’s projections gave it a decent shot at reaching the all-time homer mark. When you went to catch an O’s game in 2016, you could expect to see at least one ball leave the park.
Of course, you wouldn’t have much to look forward to beyond that. That power came at a cost – namely, the Orioles’ strikeout rate, walk rate, and BABIP. Thanks to their mediocre performance in those offensive categories, the O’s scored only the 12th-most runs in the majors. By both DRS and UZR, they had a subpar defense, diverging from years past. Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman headlined the rotation admirably, but behind that duo it was a horror show. The same applied to the bullpen, where Zach Britton and Brad Brach were the only two qualified relievers with ERAs under three. All this explains why the Orioles barely eked their way into the playoffs, and why they’ll have to fight for their lives tonight against the Blue Jays.
So really, whether you root for the Orioles or not doesn’t turn on your appreciation of "good baseball" or anything like that, but your aesthetic preferences. Do you want to watch a team like the Red Sox, where every hitter has a discerning eye and every plate appearance takes five minutes? How about the Indians, whose strong pitching staff anchors an iffy lineup? Would the Rangers and their penchant for bullshitting their way to one-run victories suit your tastes? Maybe you favor the Blue Jays? (If yes, please check your citizenship status.) Or do you want to back a team that tries to (and often does) whack the ever-loving snot out of the ball every chance it gets, consequences be damned? While other clubs can offer a well-balanced approach, a clutch lineup, or a historic narrative, no one else in the playoffs can crush dingers like the Orioles. When those October lights come on, that’s what I go to the ballpark for.
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Root against the Orioles
One of the best aspects of the two-Wild Card postseason structure is the inevitably beautiful pitching matchup that accompanies a winner-take-all, one-game playoff. When good teams are playing for their survival, they usually muster some pretty excellent starters. Past seasons have given us Gerrit Cole vs. Jake Arrieta, Masahiro Tanaka vs. Dallas Keuchel, and James Shields vs. Jon Lester. In the NL this year, we've got another high-octane contest in Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner, an obvious attraction that needs no explanation. In the AL, the Toronto Blue Jays will send Marcus Stroman to take the bump, and while he’s had a down year, he’s been excellent in the recent past, his peripherals this year were still quite good, and his raw stuff is electric.
Then... there's the Orioles. They'll turn to 28-year-old Chris Tillman, owner of a 3.77 ERA, a 4.23 FIP, and a low-90s fastball. Tillman is fine, in the kind of way that highways are fine, but his profile is that of a mid- to back-of-the-rotation guy, not the kind of elite starter that has turned past Wild Card matchups into appointment viewing if you care about good pitching. And if the Orioles do (by some miracle) make it past the Wild Card game despite their front office forgetting to put together a rotation, things will get real ugly, real fast.
After Tillman will come some combination of Kevin Gausman (Dan Duquette's personal yo-yo, bouncing between AAA and the majors countless times over the last few years), Ubaldo Jimenez (owner of the best 5.44 ERA you'll ever see), Dylan Bundy (decent, but made of peanut brittle), Wade Miley (seriously?), Yovani Gallardo (slightly better Jered Weaver), and Tyler Wilson (you’ve never heard of him, for good reason). If the Orioles do well this October, we’ll all have to spend a lot of time watching some number of those pitchers struggle to get opposing hitters out. Nobody wants that.
Now, that terrible rotation has obviously been buoyed by other factors, since Baltimore did actually make the playoffs (barely). Orioles position players have been worth over 18 fWAR, good for 14th in baseball, and a Zach Britton-led bullpen has provided a decent amount of other value. Are those good enough reasons to vote for the O?
Nope! Manny Machado is a legitimate superstar, a dynamic hitter and dominant defender who can switch easily between two premium positions. He's also a real hothead, who launched his bat at the slightest confrontation and has been a danger even when he holds on to it. Yes, that was two years ago, but you don't forget those kinds of things.
Who else is good on the Orioles? Chris Davis hasn't quite been worth the Orioles outbidding themselves, multiple times, last offseason. Mark Trumbo smashed 47 home runs over the course of the summer but has nonetheless been roughly league average overall, thanks to his complete inability to field a baseball. Hyun Soo Kim, one of the O's premier bright spots, is only playing in spite of the best efforts of the front office. (And never forget the Dexter Fowler debacle.)
Finally, this wouldn't be an anti-Orioles Beyond the Box Score piece without an acknowledgment of the fact that Orioles closer Zach Britton is on the brink of winning an award he's completely undeserving of. True, that's not really Britton's fault. It's not on him that awards are given by a roulette wheel of take-y writers, and it's not on him that you'll probably log into Twitter in mid-December and somehow find yourself enmeshed in a 45-person argument about why Britton's 2016 makes him the best pitcher EVER.
But it is, at least, a little bit on him for not quite being good enough to start, but for having an absolutely gorgeous power sinker that dominates shorter stints. And regardless of fault, if he closes out six or seven playoff games, the whole conversation will get much, much worse. So root against Hurricane Zach, epicenter of this offseason's hot takes. Root against this dumb front office succeeding in spite of itself, and in spite of not being very good. Root against the Orioles.
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