You’re going to see me talk a lot about analytics in the 2021 MLB Betting Guide. I’m a firm, steadfast believer in the power of data, not only in how I handicap baseball and evaluate teams, but how the teams evaluate themselves. In the case of the Baltimore Orioles, I spoke in last year’s Guide about the hires of Executive Vice President and GM Mike Elias and Vice President and AGM Sig Mejdal and how the Orioles were going to “help the team into the 21st century and make up for nearly 20 years of lost ground”.
We only got a 60-game sample of what the new-look Orioles might be like, but the proof was right there in front of our very eyes. Playing in a tough AL East, with teams whose payroll charts look like skyscrapers compared to that of the Orioles, Baltimore was a .500 team by BaseRuns record.
As mentioned in the Glossary, BaseRuns is an alternate standings metric you can find at FanGraphs that strips down the season into individual plate appearances without context. Sequencing is one of the biggest factors in whether or not teams have success. Do their hits come with nobody on base or with runners in scoring position? Hits with men in scoring position cause runs. Hits with nobody on base create opportunities, but don’t always translate to run production.
The best example is these six outcomes – K, K, FO, HR, 1B, 1B. If they went 1B, 1B, HR, K, K, FO, that sequence would score three runs. If they went 1B, HR, 1B, K, FO, K, that sequence would score one run. It is a way to expect positive or negative regression in the future and to see if a team got lucky or unlucky.
In the case of the Orioles, they had 574 plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, but only had a .245 average. That ranked 21st, even though they were seventh in batting average overall as a team at .258. The Orioles were sixth in batting average at .257 with nobody on base. Had more of those hits come with RISP, they would have posted a better record.
Am I grasping at straws? You might think so, but I am not. The Orioles were a team that was -252 in run differential in 2019 and -236 in BaseRuns run differential in 2019. They were -20 in 2020 and +5 in BaseRuns run differential in 2020. This is a team that saw tremendous improvement, with the caveats that it was a 60-game season and only against nine opponents.
This is a team that legitimately improved and it will be obscured by the short season, the asterisks associated with that, and simply that the Orioles haven’t been relevant since 2016. For a team that lost 300 games from 2017-19 and became the first team to allow over 900 runs since 2008 during that 2019 season, this was a significantly better squad.
Will it last for the full season? Have the Orioles unlocked some run prevention potential while fielding a more competitive offense? Is this another example of a team showing improvement after an organizational buy-in of analytics?
The answer may surprise you.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Yankees||-200|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+350|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+350|
|Boston Red Sox||+2000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+5 (4.75/4.69)||-236 (4.49/5.95)|
|3rd Order Win%||30.2-29.8||58.8-103.2|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-12||11-22|
Additions: Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Jahmai Jones, Garrett Stallings, Jean Pinto, Mac Sceroler, Ashton Goudeau, Chris Shaw, Yolmer Sanchez
Losses: Hanser Alberto, Renato Nunez, Andrew Velazquez, Branden Kline, David Hess, Kohl Stewart, Bryan Holaday, Dwight Smith, Alex Cobb, Jose Iglesias
All in all, it was a quiet winter for the Orioles, who are looking to simply stay the course and see what happens going forward. You don’t often see a team release the previous season’s leader in home runs, but that’s what happened with Renato Nunez. Jose Iglesias led Orioles position players in fWAR. Those would seem to be meaningful losses.
But, what the Orioles lose in terms of production, they gain in terms of playing time for internal options. Not listed among the additions is Trey Mancini, who missed last season while getting treated for cancer. His presence in the middle of the order is a big deal for this unit to say the least.
Both Matt Harvey and Felix Hernandez found a landing spots where they have a good chance of making the rotation and Baltimore is expected to use a six-man rotation. Freddy Galvis will start from Day 1 and Yolmer Sanchez has been a fairly useful big leaguer.
|Batting Average (BA)||.258 (7th)||.246 (21st)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.321 (16th)||.310 (24th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.429 (13th)||.415 (24th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.323 (14th)||.308 (25th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||104 (13th)||88 (22nd)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.309 (8th)||.293 (21st)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.9% (12th)||23.2% (15th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.3% (28th)||7.5% (26th)|
When you look at teams that have made a major push in the analytics department, you often see gains on the pitching side first. It is easier to pore over the analytics and find areas of improvement on the pitching side. You can help hitters with pitcher tendencies, scouting reports, and some swing adjustments, but offensive strides feel like more of a long-term game.
We’ll have to see if it was a one-year blip and possibly the byproduct of facing more familiar pitching with 40 of the 60 games against the AL East, but the Orioles saw a 1.8% increase in Pull%. When you think about doubles, triples, and home runs, you usually think about pulled contact. Using the metrics at FanGraphs, pulled balls resulted in a .332 batting average league-wide with a .646 SLG. In total, 1,386 of the 2,304 home runs were pulled last season.
The Orioles didn’t hit more fly balls, as we often see from teams that embrace analytics, but they did pull the ball more frequently. Their Pull% was the fourth-highest in baseball. Again, we’ll have to see if that is a one-year change based on the schedule and the opponents or if that is an organizational change. Judging by the fact that the team’s Pull% has gone up each of the last two seasons under Elias and Mejdal, I’d postulate that it is a philosophical change to generate more power.
When we consider that Trey Mancini was out of the lineup for the season, that makes Baltimore’s increased Pull% and overall numbers even more impressive. Mancini whacked 35 home runs in 2019 while posting a terrific .291/.364/.535 slash line with a .373 wOBA and a 134 wRC+. Every team would benefit from adding a hitter like that to the lineup and now the Orioles will have him back. With any luck, Anthony Santander, who popped 20 dingers in 405 PA in 2019 and 11 in 165 PA in 2020 will be healthier as well.
I will caution that looking at overall offensive numbers from 2020 can be a bit misleading. Teams had a higher degree of familiarity with the pitchers that they faced and the cold months of March, April, and even parts of May were not part of the schedule. Baltimore isn’t as bad as some other cold-weather cities, but we know that Oriole Park at Camden Yards can play much smaller in the warmth of the summer months.
The 16-point spike in BABIP is a pretty interesting development to me, particularly with a higher Pull%. We’ve seen a lot more shifting in baseball over the last few years and the platoon advantage has basically died off. In the case of the Orioles, they were 11th in total number of LHB vs. RHP plate appearances and only batted .223 in those events. They were 19th in BABIP at .271.
Unfortunately, I don’t see much of a reason to buy-in to the BABIP spike. The Orioles were dead last in average exit velocity last season in the 60-game sprint at 85.6 mph. Others that lagged in that category were below average offenses like Kansas City, Colorado, Miami, and St. Louis. While exit velocity is far from the be-all, end-all on offense, the Orioles were at 88 mph in 2019, which ranked 24th. At least the Orioles were 23rd in number of 95+ mph batted balls with 515.
The more quality contact you make, the likelier you are to have success. Furthermore, the likelier I am to believe that your offensive increases were sustainable. Mancini will help in this department, as he ranked in 71st percentile in average exit velocity and 72nd percentile in Hard Hit%, which is percentage of batted balls at 95+ mph.
Guys like Jose Iglesias, who is now gone, BABIP’d their way to good offensive seasons with a .407 mark. Ryan Mountcastle had a .398 BABIP in his 140 plate appearances with below average exit velocity numbers. The BABIP will regress, which will lower the batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage of this team in all likelihood.
While I would expect Mancini and Santander to add some more power production, and young guys like Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and DJ Stewart could improve, this doesn’t look like an offense I would trust to stay at its 2020 level for the upcoming season. I would expect a regression back towards the bottom-10 in baseball, especially with the low walk rate and the outlier in the BABIP department.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.51 (16th)||5.76 (30th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.60 (20th)||5.56 (30th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.63 (18th)||5.23 (30th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||21.7% (25th)||19.5% (29th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.5% (10th)||8.8% (17th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||69.7% (24th)||68.5% (29th)|
After being 30th in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, not to mention 29th in K%, I’m not surprised to see the Orioles spike a little bit in those categories. These are the types of gains that we often see in the first year or two with expanded use of analytics from the front office and the coaching staff.
It’s not like this was a group of household names. In fact, Keegan Akin led the pitching staff in fWAR with 0.8 wins above replacement player. Alex Cobb is gone, taking his 10 starts of respectable action with him. John Means was pretty bad last season, particularly when it came to preventing home runs. He was fortunate to post a 4.53 ERA because of an 82.8% LOB%. His 5.60 FIP was a byproduct of his high home run rate. If we regress his 21.8% HR/FB% back to league average, we see a 4.45 xFIP.
Means was a big overachiever in 2019. He posted a 3.60 ERA with a 4.41 FIP and a 5.48 xFIP. What was most intriguing, and maybe a bit damning, is that Means allowed four runs on just 10 hits across two starts at Sahlen Field and one start at Yankee Stadium. He did give up four of his 12 home runs in those three starts out of his 10, but Sahlen Field played very small for the Blue Jays and for opposing teams. The fact that Means fared well in those tough venues and actually had his issues at home is interesting.
An ERA in that 4.50 range with a FIP more or less in the same place is about the best I think we can expect from Means. As the de facto ace of the staff, that simply isn’t good enough, but he’s a leopard whose spots aren’t going to change. That leaves the growth potential to guys like Akin, the 25-year-old who worked 25.2 innings with a lot of strikeouts, some command issues, and some bad luck. Akin had a 4.56 ERA, but a 3.27 FIP. A 62.1% LOB% and a .358 BABIP hurt him.
At least the Orioles seem to be putting some more swing and miss in the rotation. Akin has decent minor league strikeout numbers. So does Dean Kremer, another 25-year-old that made four starts in a cameo role for the Orioles. He struck out 22 in 18.2 innings, but also walked 12.
The rest of the rotation is primarily filler. Maybe the Orioles can spin something out of Jorge Lopez, who is on his third Major League team in five seasons. Lopez worked 38.1 uninspiring innings for Baltimore after an early-season trade from Kansas City. I wouldn’t bet on anything of consequence from Felix Hernandez or Matt Harvey. They may get rotation spots by default, as the Orioles hope for Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, or Zac Lowther to do something in Spring Training or early in the minor league season to warrant a call-up.
Because the Orioles are in a rebuilding phase as they are only three years removed from the transition to Elias and Mejdal, this season will be defined by how guys like Akin, Kremer, and the guys on the prospect lists develop and contribute. As long as they stay healthy, they will get every chance to work through all of the hardships that come with learning how to be a Major Leaguer. And they should. What that means, though, is that the Orioles may have to live with a whole lot of bad to get the good when those youngsters show the flashes that have gotten them to this point.
Tanner Scott, Travis Lakins, and Paul Fry, the team’s three leaders in appearances, were all fine for the most part. All three guys had some ugly walk rates, but so did a lot of relievers last season with the weird ramp-up to the campaign. There are some clear regression signs for those three guys as well, as Scott had a 1.31 ERA with a 3.48 FIP, Lakins had a 2.81 ERA with a 4.01 FIP, and Fry had a 2.45 ERA with a 3.69 FIP.
Small sample sizes certainly played a role, as did the high walk rates. Scott did an excellent job limiting hard contact and looks like the go-to guy for a team that is likely to go with a closer-by-committee approach. Maybe failed starting pitcher prospect Hunter Harvey gets the role in hopes of developing him into something more. The Orioles did lose top reliever and save man Mychal Givens to the Rockies in a trade last season.
The Orioles bullpen ultimately wound up 30th in ERA and FIP in 2019. Last season’s bullpen ended up ninth in ERA and 11th in FIP. Baltimore was 29th in reliever K% in 2019, but jumped to 22nd in 2020. This is another area where analytics shows pretty instant improvement and the Orioles had that last season.
I’d expect some general improvement from a team going all-in with analytics, but those gains could very well be counterfeited by some drop-off on offense. It is also entirely possible that the veterans like Harvey and Hernandez are awful and hurt the growth and progress of the pitching staff in a statistical sense.
Positives & Negatives
For all the doom and gloom in the two previous sections, this was a competitive team in the small sample size last season and that represents growth in my opinion. Teams that change the way they do things and they way that they analyze their own players often find areas of improvement. Like I said, the Orioles seem to have isolated pulling the ball as a way to make strides offensively. They’ve been able to bring up some more swing and miss in the rotation with the young guys.
The Orioles were an average defensive team last season. When you have a low-strikeout pitching staff, converting batted balls into outs at an average or better rate is really important. There is some hope that catcher Chance Sisco can improve as a framer now that he’s played about a full season’s worth of games.
For as long as Freddy Galvis is an Oriole, and he’ll be a popular trade candidate on a cheap, one-year deal, he should be a quality fielder at shortstop and could even outperform what Iglesias did last season. Unfortunately, he’s also a worse offensive player, so whatever gains he brings on defense could be washed out by the offensive profile.
There is help coming from below. How fast it gets there is anybody’s guess, but prospects like Adley Rutschman, Richie Martin, Yusniel Diaz, Heston Kjerstad, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall could be on track to make their debuts this season. We saw rebuilding teams with nothing to lose fast-track some prospects in the 60-game sample. Perhaps the Orioles do that here. Rutschman is one of the top catching prospects in baseball, while Kjerstad has big power after playing his college ball at Arkansas. Rodriguez and Hall could be rotation upgrades right now, even as unpolished as they are.
Baltimore Orioles Pick & Prediction: Over 64.5
I have no delusions of grandeur about the Baltimore Orioles, but I don’t see a team that will be losing 100 ballgames this season. The relative strength of the AL East does make this a little bit more challenging of an over selection, but the O’s held their own in the weird and unconventional 2020 season with an imbalanced schedule. They made significant strides in a lot of key areas. I don’t know if the placeholders will help or hurt what is being built here, but protecting arms is much more important than winning games at this stage.
The 2019 Orioles went 54-108, but were a 60-win team by Pythagorean Win-Loss and a 59-win team by BaseRuns. They were 11-22 in one-run games that year and ran into some bad luck as a really bad team. They improved in the second half of that dreadful season and improved again in 2020.
Will the Orioles fly over this total? I wouldn’t think so, but I see this team improving at the margins with their best hitter coming back and some actual gains on the pitching side. They have a vision. They have a plan. They are communicating that vision. It is working. Progress is slow, but it is working. I think we’ll see some more of it here as they go over 64.5.
This one is actually pretty close to being a bet to me. We’ll see how Spring Training shakes out, but this is definitely on my short list of considerations.