On Tuesday, Matt correctly noted that the Orioles shouldn't perform too poorly on offense this year. Full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, coupled with Chris Davis's probable bounce-back, will make this an above-average hitting club. But scoring runs is only half the equation; to win, you have to prevent the other team from doing the same. And Baltimore might see some struggles in that regard going forward.
Let's look at projections. FanGraphs confirms what Matt asserted: It foresees a ninth-place finish in batting WAR. The problem is, it also thinks rather poorly of the club's pitching, as it predicts they'll end the season with a 4.30 combined FIP, giving them the sixth-lowest WAR.
How could this happen? After all, last year the squad's hurlers accrued 14.5 wins more than replacement, good enough for a respectable 15th in baseball. What would cause them to fall from (relative) grace?
Chiefly, more home runs. 2014's team-wide K/9 of 7.23 should carry over, as should its 2.91 BB/9, but its 0.93 HR/9 won't stay the same. The 2015 group's 1.2 mark in the latter regard will theoretically top every other team; even the Rockies will only allow 1.1.
That shouldn't really come as a surprise. This blog's eponymous park lends itself to long balls — it ranked 7th in homer-friendliness in 2014 — and the Orioles have, for some reason, assembled a staff of mostly fly-ball pitchers. Those two ingredients haven't yet come back to haunt them, but they probably will soon.
Of course, fWAR is based on FIP, not runs allowed. If you prefer the latter when gauging a team's performance, then Baltimore looked even more formidable in 2014: Their 25.2 RA9-WAR led the majors. Do they have any chance of replicating that 52-point ERA-FIP gap (which also paced baseball)?
Probably not. Steamer prognosticates a 4.04 team ERA; that's fairly better than their FIP, but still much worse than last year (in which they put up a 3.44 ERA). Looking at it on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis, you can pretty clearly see how each man's backslide makes sense.
Wei-Yin Chen should maintain his modest peripheral-beating power, with a 3.92 ERA and 4.30 FIP (the latter's rise coming because of regression on his walk rate). Chris Tillman, however, probably won't do the same, as Steamer anticipates a 4.34 ERA — exactly a run higher than his 2014 figure. Even in front of Baltimore's sterling defense, a .267 BABIP and 76.7% LOB% are hard to maintain; when those numbers approach the league average, as they tend to do, his output will suffer.
Miguel Gonzalez, who got even luckier than Tillman — among pitchers with 100 innings, he had the highest strand rate by a pretty wide margin — should fall victim to a similar fate, with a 4.56 ERA and 4.94 FIP. Kevin Gausman, one of the biggest reasons behind the 2014 group's low HR/FB%, will probably see that mark get noticeably worse, as it tends to do; if that happens, he'll put up something in the neighborhood of a 4.19 ERA and a 4.27 FIP. And Bud Norris, who had a history of underachieving prior to 2014, Will in all likelihood revert to his old ways, to the tune of a 4.04 ERA and a 4.33 FIP.
With ERAs of 3.12 and 3.22, respectively, Darren O'Day* and Zach Britton will most likely become average relievers, instead of the stars they were when Baltimore won the AL East. Brian Matusz will remain Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter's home run ills will return, and the rest of the bullpen will play like FanGraphs' name for it: "The Others".
*I'll have more on his projection next week.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that true overachievers aren't as common as many people think. The fact that Baltimore seems to have a good deal of them may not be a coincidence — perhaps Dan Duquette sees them as a market inefficiency — but this many, to this extent, reeks of simple luck. Once that runs out, as is its wont, opposing teams will score much more than they used to.
Many teams would kill to be in Baltimore's position right now; they have a solid shot at contending, and a much larger one than they did at this time last year. But if the Birds do fall short, it'll almost certainly be because of their arms, not their bats or gloves.