Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are the Baltimore Orioles for Real?

With Matt Wieters’ two home runs yesterday (including a grand slam), the Orioles moved back into first place in the AL East, half a game ahead of the Blue Jays. With that sentence, ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the fifth dimension, a dimension of imagination previously unknown to man, where the Orioles, Nationals, and Dodgers all sit atop their divisions, and the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Mets all sit within striking distance. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

All kidding aside, the Orioles have been a shock. I mean, anything can happen in a small sample size, but I was expecting more or less awfulness from start to finish. Now, the obvious caveat: they’ve only played the Twins, Yankees, Blue Jays, and White Sox so far, and the Yankees swept them. But they managed leads in the games against the Yankees, and the Blue Jays are actually a good team this year. The Twins and White Sox might even be surprising if some players rebound. The Orioles are still the fifth best team in the division on paper, I think, but I saw some people during the preseason saying they wouldn’t be last in most other divisions in baseball like I originally thought. I think I can actually see that now.*

*Curse you, imbalanced schedule!

So, what exactly has been the driving force behind the Orioles success so far? The biggest key has been the emergence of their offense, but is it sustainable? Well, Nick Markakis got off to a hot start against the Twins, but fizzled as of late; after peaking somewhere over 0.5 fWAR early in the season, he’s slipped back to -0.2 through his first 10 games. But there are encouraging signs there; most of the negative value has come from his base running and fielding (-3.5 runs between the two), both of which take longer to stabilize than batting value. Over the past few seasons, he had slipped in his batting due in large part to less patience at the plate. After posting 6.3 fWAR in 2008 powered in large part by a 14.2% walk rate, he has posted disappointing fWARs (between 2.2 and 2.6) with walk rates of 7.9%, 10.3%, and 8.7%. So far this year, though, he back up to 13%, which is encouraging. He also has the highest Isolated slugging of his career, at .263. I don’t expect that to last, but more power is a good sign. His biggest problem has been his .214 batting average on balls in play, well below his career mark of .322. However, I expect that to move towards his career rate as the season progresses. Seeing as he’s managed a 119 OPS+ while getting unlucky on batted balls, moving towards his career average could make him one of the better corner outfielders in the league.

So Markakis hasn’t necessarily been the answer, but there are promising signs there. J.J. Hardy is not the answer, either, despite his All-Star level 2011. Hardy’s lack of hitting so far (68 OPS+) is likely also a function of bad luck. So far, he’s batted .161 on balls in play, compared to .278 for his career, meaning this is also probably just due to small sample size. He’s still been worth 0.2 fWAR on the strength of his fielding. I know I said that these parts usually take longer to stabilize than hitting, but that’s more or less in line with what Hardy’s done over his career, so I’m more comfortable accepting that he’s still valuable in that area.* When the hits start falling in, Hardy will return to being a dual threat.

*It’s still slightly high; Hardy’s UZR/150, which is adjusted for time, is about double what it’s been the past two years. But Markakis, in comparison, went from being about average (-4.8 and -4.7 UZR/150 the past two years) to Adam Dunn-level awful (-49.5). That’s probably a fluke, which is why I feel comfortable saying Markakis will rebound while Hardy will continue to enjoy success.

With the usual top hitters hitting bad luck, the offense has been carried by Chris Davis (179 OPS+), Robert Andino (133 OPS+), Nolan Reimold (184 OPS+), Adam Jones (190 OPS+), and especially Matt Wieters (230 OPS+). Now, as a disclaimer, there absolutely no way they stay at those levels. Jose Bautista led the majors last season with a 184 OPS+; 230 is early-2000s-Barry Bonds-level good. If Matt Wieters sustains a 230 OPS+ over a whole season while catching, then everything ever written at this site will be true. But even if they all fall of slightly, they’ll still be highly valuable. Which ones are more likely to keep it up?

Matt Wieters is the top choice right now. His BABIP isn’t wildly out of line with his career numbers. He’s cut down on his strike out rate again (every year so far, it’s gone down). His walk rate is wildly up (17.9, compared to a previous high of 9.4), so that may fall, but even then, it’s still improvement. His power will probably decrease as the season wears on, but even still, this may be the season he takes over as best catcher in the pros. Everything shows signs that he’s just continuing to improve.

Adam Jones is possibly the exact opposite. He’s striking out at just below his career rate, and walking even less than in the past. The one positive is that his BABIP isn’t wildly unsustainable. If he’s just discovered his power finally, there would be reason to believe he can keep this up. Right now, though, I still have my doubts. He may have a good season, and it may be the start of something more. But he hasn’t shown the same gradual signs of improvement that Wieters has, which would make me feel more comfortable putting stock in these early results.

Davis, Reimold, and Andino seem almost totally driven by BABIP luck. They sit at .478 (career .340), .375 (career .288), and .458 (career .303), respectively. None of them are showing above average ability to take walks of avoid strikeouts. Davis is the youngest of the three, and posted the best minor league numbers, so he may be able to carry some of his success forward. But realistically, they’re probably closer to starter-level performance than All-Star performance.

The pitching is probably not good enough to overcome these regressions. Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Tommy Hunter all have shiny ERAs (2.66, 2.08, and 2.77) but their stats don’t seem to back up continued success. Arrieta and Hammel are probably closer to solid number 2 starters than aces. Arrieta has a solid strikeout to walk ratio (4.00 even), but has been lucky with ball in play (.214 BABIP allowed, which should gradually get closer to .300). His fielding-independent ERA (FIP) is a still solid 3.33 though. Hammel hasn’t been quite as good, control-wise (2.00 K/BB), and has been even luckier than Arrieta (.206 BABIP, 84.9% strand rate that’s well above league average). He still has a 3.58 FIP, though, which is manageable.

Hunter is the worst off of the bunch, with a K/BB ratio below 2, a BABIP of .195, and a strand rate of 86.5%. He’s probably been a little unfortunate in giving up home runs (2.77 HR/9, which is difficult to achieve outside of the home run derby), but probably not enough to counteract the other areas. Barring an improvement, he’s due to get hit harder.

The only other major area of major concern is Brian Matusz. The former top prospect still looks lost. Granted, he hasn’t been as bad as his 8.38 ERA suggests. But he’s still walking more batters than he strikes out. The only encouraging sign is that his velocity is apparently back up. If he can’t locate his stuff, though, it won’t help much.

So, long story short, the Orioles shouldn’t give up on their rebuilding plans just yet. Matt Wieters is probably the only player on the roster worth locking up long term at the moment (and even then, I would only do so now if he is willing to sign for less before he truly breaks out). The Orioles may exceed expectations this year, but that doesn’t mean they should lost sight of the long term goal.

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