14 July 2012

Uh Oh, Here Comes Gravity: the Orioles and the Playoffs

Before the season began, I saw the Orioles as a .420 winning percentage team.  Based on their fWAR, they are performing at a .450 clip while they have actually played at a .523 rate through the first half of the season.  There is some argument of whether or not they are truly a .523 team.  Metrics suggest otherwise, but it is undeniable that they have outperformed their metrics.

With that thought...let's just run through some simple numbers.  We will start with fWAR.  A replacement level team is expected to win 29% of the games that they play.  A reminder, a replacement level team is defined as the quality of play freely available to teams (it is a somewhat generic, abstract number, but it seems to work well).  If the Orioles were compiled of replacement level players, then they would have been expected to win 25 of their 86 games. 

However, they are not replacement level.  Their position players have a cumulative fWAR of 5.4 (14th of 14 in AL).  That position player value comes from their fielding level (-0.9 wins; 11th of 14 in AL), base running (-0.3; 7th of 14 in AL), and offense (6.6; 12th of 14 in AL).  Somewhat sobering is that the average mark in base running is a bit of an outlier when you compare that value to other grades of base running ability.

Where can the Orioles improve?

Po. Primary ~WAR Rank
C Wieters 1.8 5th
1B Reynolds 0.1 10th
2B Andino -0.8 13th
3B Betemit 0.9 10th
SS Hardy 0.8 11th
LF Davis -0.3 13th
CF Jones 3.1 4th
RF Markakis -0.3 12th
DH Thome 0.5 12th

You will notice that the WAR does not exactly add up the same way as the team cumulative fWAR is presented.  There is some double counting when you go through fWAR by position on Fangraphs.  It serves us well enough though to let us know what this offense has largely been: Wieters and Jones.  They have had a great deal of underperforming at other positions.  It would be difficult not to improve the production from individuals in this lineup.  However, the Thome deal is unlikely to greatly improve things.  As much as people complain about the pitching, this simply is not that good of a group of position players.

The pitching has been largely middle rung.  An 8.4 fWAR yields them the 8th best performance in the AL.  The starters are at 5.9 fWAR (9th of 14 in AL) and the relievers are at 2.4 fWAR (6th of 14 in AL).   None of this is remarkable.  None of it.  The relievers are adequate, but the starters need improvement.  Again, it should not be difficult to improve upon the 4th and 5th slot guys on the team.  The team has to hope that Jason Hammel's knee comes out OK.  So much of this team depends on Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.

Here is the basic rotation from the first half:

Slot Player fWAR xFIP
1 Hammel 2.8 3.43
2 Chen 1.1 4.45
3 Arrieta 1.6 4.01
4 Matusz 0.3 5.1
5 Hunter -0.2 5.73
That major surprise here is to what extent fWAR values Arrieta and how conventional wisdom sees him (as he throws in Norfolk).  I consider him to be a strong late inning arm, but peripherals suggest he should be capable of being a mid rotation to backend arm.  Peripherals like these indicate that Arrieta should bounce back if given the chance.  What is known to pretty much everyone is that Matusz and Hunter were not helping things.  The Orioles plan appears to try out Chris Tillman, trade for an arm, and hope that Arrieta, Matusz, or Hunter redeems themselves.

With 77 games left to play, this is what we have to think about:

Wins PCT Final Tally Need
Based on fWAR 35 .455 80 ---
Wild Card 43 .558 88 8
Wild Card (home) 47 .610 92 12
AL East 50 .649 95 15
It is sobering to think that if fWAR is an accurate representation of the level of talent on this team that they need to find 8 wins.  The Orioles need three to four improvements in play while everyone else maintains their level.  If Thome can bring two wins, the team finds two wins internally, and then acquiring two more pieces to make up another four wins.  That is a tall order. 

It also seems somewhat similar to the 1996 Baltimore Orioles who were floundering about in July.  Pat Gillick wanted to deal Bobby Bonilla to the Indians for a package that included Jeromy Burnitz and Alan Embree while David Wells was set to go to the Mariners for Chris Widger and a minor prospect.  In August, the Orioles added Pete Incaviglia to add some pop to the bench.  Bonilla wound up increasing his OPS from .797 to .930, Wells lowered his ERA by 0.30, and Incaviglia brought a .860 OPS to the bench.  As a team, they maintained there level of play and won the Wild Card with a three game buffer.

That said, the Orioles in 1996 were a very good team.  They had a couple holes, but they were good.  There additions and refusal to subtract helped them maintain the same level of play they had in the first half.  That is a major difference between that team and the current one.  The current squad simply is not a very good team.  They are a below average team that has been able to take advantage of the situations they have been handed.  It is uncertain, though unlikely, that this is an actual skill.

In light of that assessment, I think it is plausible to say that the Orioles have a chance to take the second wild card, but that to do so would be to leverage most, if not all, of their minor league talent in order to acquire the players needed to raise the overall level of skill on the team.  Even if you believe that the current winning percentage is an accurate portrayal of the Orioles skill, then they are in line to win 40 more games.  That would mean they are a Zack Greinke away from the second Wild Card.  I do not believe that they are that close.  I have little reason therefore to even consider letting go of Manny Machado or Dylan Bundy.


Oriole Paul said...

I absolutely, 100% agree with everything you said. It is even MORE so if Hammel is injured. Would it be wonderful to go to the 'postseason' for the first time since any of my kids have been born...yes. Is it realistic...really, really...no. Lets move Reynolds, Matusz, Chavez, Gregg, Betemit, and even Markakis and give some of our AAA talent a chance to show us what we have at that level.

Catcher of the Wry said...

Yes, the team's record is obscuring the vision of many. It's totally amazing that a team with only two effective starting pitchers (and they have not been dominant) should be in the running for the playoffs. Defensively they really are weak at first (in spite of having five first basemen), third, and left field. And then there's the mediocre offense. I don't think any trade will save them from sinking out of contention. Still, April and May produced good memories...

fluffhead9315 said...

I think that our birds have been playing the best baseball I have seen since I was a little kid. They are exciting to watching throughout the game most of the time. I would love to see us make a playoff push. It would be great to see us trade for a topline front of the rotation guy, or another bat. However I feel that we are not quite there yet. So I believe that is would not make sense to trade the farm for something that may not even happen. We have a solid core with a few holes, I think once some of these young guys come up, over the next few years we could make a solid push. I am having loads of fun watching them and I am along for the ride. But lets think about the future not just these last 2 months.

Anonymous said...

Even if this team makes the playoffs, they are not a realistic contender to win it all. They just don't have the arms to survive. Don't leverage next year and the year after and the year after for a shot to lose in the first round.

elenorandedward said...

Couldn't agree more. Make the best trades you can looking ahead to the next two or three seasons, but don't have a fire sale, and don't mortage the future for the Wild Card. Build a proper winner, and be extra-happy with a playoff appearance this year or next should it happen on its own.