Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part I: The Baltimore Orioles

Thing three is the first of a four-part series (assuming teams 3 and 4 are still relevant to this exercise two and three days from now) discussing teams that have gotten off to surprisingly hot starts in this first week and a half or so.

The first victim is the Baltimore Orioles. Before I get into it, I just want to point out that the American League East standings as of Wednesday morning looked exactly the opposite of how I think most people expect(ed?) them to look at the end of the season: Orioles, Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, Sox (I had a totally unnecessary table in here, but it was coming up with about a mile of space ahead of it for some reason).

You gotta love April.

What they’re saying: Actually, I can’t find anybody who’s all that excited about the Orioles yet, despite their 6-2, first-place start (as I sit down to write this on Wednesday night, they’re hopelessly behind the Rangers, so they’ll fall to half a game behind the Jays once the latter finish off the Twins, but still, 6-3! The Orioles!). On Tuesday, someone asked the Yahoo universe whether the O’s were contenders…but the answer was pretty uniformly “no.” Earlier this week, the CBS Sports rankings guy rated them 15th and generally seemed skeptical, but at least he called them “interesting.” The common sentiment among Marylanders seems to be “they look like contenders…for now.” Or, perhaps more commonly: “the Ravens’ season starts in only five months!”

This lack of optimism could be because the team has had eleven straight losing seasons, or maybe because they started 6-1 just last season, about which at least one young O’s and “fundamentals” fan got very excited. They then lost six of their next eight, though they didn’t hit the wrong side of .500 for good until July 12, which is easy to forget when they follow that up with one of the worst second halves of recent memory.

So, no real buzz about these guys yet. But is there any chance that this is anything more than a bad team having a good week?

Well, no (Sorry, Cal). But let’s look at why.

Why they might keep it going: Well, the best prospect in baseball is waiting in the wings, and should be here soon, and placeholder Gregg Zaun is hitting .136/.269/.273. George Sherrill isn’t a real Major League relief ace, but he’s also unlikely to end with a six-plus ERA. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are immensely talented young players who might really have taken huge steps forward from last year to this one.

Why they won’t: A few reasons.

  • They’ve played .750 (now essentially .667) ball while being outscored. Before even counting the thumping tonight, the O’s had scored 50 and given up 50. Consider: they’re playing the best they can possibly be expected to play, and they should still really only be playing .500 ball. As I type this, the Rangers are up 17-4, so that becomes -13. Run differential and Pythagorean records really don’t mean anything at this point, but I do think that when a surprisingly “hot” team has actually been outscored, that’s sign one that things aren’t all they seem.
  • Coming into Wednesday night, Jones and Brian Roberts both have BABIPs of over .500, which is just silly. Generally, if you put the ball in play and it doesn’t go over the fence, you have a little better than a 30% chance of getting a hit; the theory on it all is still kind of in flux, but anything much over .300 is usually considered to be luck, and a good sign that you’re in for a bit of a hard fall when your luck evens out. The whole team is BABIPing .334, which is lucky but not insane, but still–when two of your big bats are finding the holes better than 50% of the time, you just can’t help but win a few ballgames you probably shouldn’t expect to.
  • Okay, seriously–I watched the last inning of the O’s 7-5 win at Texas on Wednesday night, and with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Sherrill gave up two towering fly balls that missed clearing the fence by a combined total of about five feet. That’s just not the kind of thing that yells out “sustainable pattern of success.” I know that I said he’s not a 6-ERA pitcher, but so far, according to FIP, he’s pitched like a 5.35 one. And Guthrie has pitched like a 4.50 one, twice his actual ERA. This is really, when you look at it on paper, one of the most unimpressive pitching staffs in the Majors, and nothing from these first nine games really changes that.

What PECOTA is saying: Baseball Prospectus does this crazy thing every day where they take the teams’ current records, simulate the rest of the season a whole bunch of times (a million, actually) based on the performances projected by their PECOTA system, and then post the standings and each team’s odds of reaching the playoffs (sorry if that link is subscription-only). Before the end of the games tonight, with the O’s at 6-2, BP had them going about 77-85, which means .464 ball the rest of the way, and with an 8% chance of reaching the Great October Crapshoot.

I think both of those numbers are high. There’s just too much of this that’s unsustainable (didn’t even touch on Melvin Mora or some of the non-Sherrill relievers), and PECOTA has been getting a lot of bad baseball-nerdy press for seriously man-crushing on Wieters, which has to affect those simulations. I think they end up about where they did last year–we’ll call it 71-91, a two-win improvement–but with steady mediocrity, none of the surprising-respectability-followed-by-soul-crushing-collapse stuff from ’08.

I’ll be sure to revisit that prediction after Roberts hits .390, Guthrie wins the ERA title, and they win the Series.

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