They were the losers of the offseason, the antithesis of the Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays. Rather than go out and buy better players, the Orioles trusted the players they had to get better and their manager and coaches to help them improve.
Most of the industry scoffed, just as most of the industry scoffed last season, when the Orioles defied mathematical logic by going 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra innings.
The thinking was the Orioles were lucky to reach the postseason for the first time since 1997. They shouldn’t have been fooled by their newfound success. They needed to do something.
And this weekend, as they visit the disappointing Angels (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET), it is quite apparent, yet again, that the Orioles weren’t so dumb after all.
Oh, the Orioles are only 4-5 in one-run games and 1-2 in extra innings. But they’re 17-12 overall, right in the thick of the AL East scrum. And as general manager Dan Duquette says, “Maybe we don’t have to win as many one-run games this year. Maybe we have a better club, and will get more consistent run production.”
Truth be told, I didn’t much like Duquette’s offseason, either. His biggest “moves,” if you want to call them that, were re-signing free-agent outfielder Nate McLouth, signing right-hander Jair Jurrjens to a minor league contract and selecting left-hander T.J. McFarland from the Indians in the Rule 5 draft.
But here’s something that maybe you don’t know about the Orioles: They’re the youngest team in the AL East, and not by a small margin. The players on the Orioles’ 25-man roster and disabled list average 28.84 years. The Red Sox are next at 30.14, followed by the Blue Jays at 30.42, Rays at 30.70 and Yankees at 31.20.
Here’s something else that maybe you didn’t know, a point that manager Buck Showalter references on occasion: The Orioles played 111 games without third baseman Manny Machado last season, 107 without McLouth, 58 without right fielder Nick Markakis and 60 without Wilson Betemit, their top hitter against right-handed pitching (who currently is sidelined by a torn knee ligament).
In other words, the Orioles were bound to improve not only through players maturing, but also by fielding a better, more complete roster. Sure enough, it’s happening, and there is no better example of the team’s evolution than first baseman Chris Davis, who is tied for the AL lead with nine home runs.
Davis, 27, has worked with the Orioles’ coaches to improve his approach, and the difference is noticeable. Yes, the season is only a month old, but Davis is swinging at 31.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 38.8 percent last season, according to Fangraphs.com. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down and he’s a better hitter overall.
“He has really matured in terms of knowing the strike zone,” Duquette says. “It has made a big difference in his personal development. But our hitters all say, to a man, they’re not trying to do too much. They’re looking for balls they can hit in certain areas of the strike zone.”
For the most part, the Orioles’ overall offensive trends mirror Davis’, and the team is averaging 5.03 runs per game, fourth in the AL, compared with 4.40 last season, when they were ninth.
The other aspects of the club aren’t too shabby, either.
The Orioles rank third in the majors in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus. Their bullpen remains the team’s backbone, offering rare stability in the late innings. And the rotation, while lacking an ace, is pretty much what it was last season, presentable if not spectacular.
The eventual promotion of right-hander Kevin Gausman, the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, could alter that equation. A trade for a pitcher such as Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee would provide an even bigger jolt. Orioles owner Peter Angelos is willing to increase the team’s $90.1 million payroll for the right player, sources say; that player just wasn’t available for a price the club deemed appropriate last off-season.
All things seem possible now, but the Orioles aren’t about to turn irrational. For so many years, they were a dysfunctional mess; now, under Duquette and Showalter, they’re an enviable, efficient operation, both in the majors and minors. In fact, so many players went back and forth to Triple-A Norfolk last season, the players voted small playoff shares to Triple-A manager Ron Johnson and pitching coach Mike Griffin.
Andy MacPhail, the team’s former president of baseball operations, laid much of the groundwork for the club’s current success, completing the signing of catcher Matt Wieters after the Orioles took him with the fifth overall pick in 2007, selecting Machado with the third pick in 2010, trading for Davis, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones, among other moves.
The beauty of the Orioles, first under MacPhail and now under Duquette, is that they routinely see value in players that others do not. The current edition of Baseball Prospectus points out that the Orioles acquired nine new players for their 2012 team for a combined $15.9 million. Those players included McLouth, Betemit and three starting pitchers — Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen. And the group overall was so productive, it cost a mere $1.5 million per win, or less than one-third of the going rate.
So much goes into building a contender — so much more than just spending money. Duquette and his staff make the evaluations. Showalter put the players in positions to succeed. And the players work hard to justify their coaches’ confidence, ignoring the perceptions of their talents within the industry.
It worked last season. It’s working again this season. It’s how the losers of the off-season win.