Archive for the ‘Orioles’ Category

Happy Birthday…

June 8, 2009

Mark Belanger!

Just proving he knows how to hold the thing

Belanger has one of the greatest and most widely known nicknames not to appear on his BBREF page: “The Blade.” Standing 6’1″ and weighing approximately nothing, that plus the alliteration made it just about a perfect nickname (if a little on the nose).

Belanger won eight Gold Gloves, and to hear the people who watched him or played with him talk about his play at shortstop, you’d think he was the reason the award was invented. My own subjective evaluation of the collective subjective opinions of the greatest defensive shortstops of the part of baseball history most living people still remember would go like this: (1) Ozzie Smith; (2) Omar Vizquel; (3) Mark Belanger. And with Mark, like with Ozzie (and unlike with Omar), the reputation appears justified. BBREF and BP both report that he saved about 235 runs over the average shortstop for his career; consider that “the average shortstop” is likely to be the best defensive baseball player on the diamond on any given night, and that’s pretty freaking impressive. (Ozzie had 380. Ozzie is so far above every other fielder who has ever played that they should probably rename the position after him.)

On the other hand, Belanger was an almost unbelievably terrible hitter, with a career line of .228/.300/.280 and 20 homers in 6602 PA. The amazing thing is that he had three years in which he was a considerably better-than-average-hitting shortstop, 1969, 1971 and 1976 (95, 97, and 100 OPS+, respectively), but that just underscores how horrible he was in his other 13-ish seasons, putting up full-season lines like .218/.303/.259 and .206/.287/.274. BP has him as being worth 40.4 wins above replacement for his career, which is fantastic for a guy who couldn’t hit at all. When he could hit a little, he played like a superstar; he gets 8.4 wins above replacement for his 97 OPS+ year in 1971 (which BP says was also his best defensive year, at an incredible 40 fielding runs above average).

So, here’s something a sabermetrician never would have admitted 10 years ago (someday I’m going to go back and try to find all those Rob Neyer posts about how baseball is 60% offense and 35% pitching and 5% defense, so we can laugh at ourselves): historically great defender at the most important defensive position + historically awful hitter = pretty damn good player. Belanger is one of those rare little “gamer”-type guys who deserved all the accolades he got (or most of them, anyway).

Some fun facts about The Blade:

  • He batted second in the Orioles’ batting order 54 times in 1968 (.208/.272/.248); 53 times in 1970 (.218/.303/.259); and 29 times in 1977 (.206/.287/.274), just as a sample. Worse, he hit first or second 43 times in 1979 at age 35, a year in which he hit .167 in 242 PA and wasn’t even playing good D anymore. He did usually bat 8th or 9th, but would occasionally also fill in at leadoff. He’s exactly the type of guy you probably don’t want hitting in front of the likes of Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray. Why not just stick Jim Palmer in there?
  • He was intentionally walked three times from 1973 on (actually four, but the fourth was as a Dodger hitting in front of Fernando Valenzuela, and I’m sure most or all of his 18 pre-1973 IBBs were in front of the pitcher as well). In 1973, with a runner on third and one out in the bottom of the 11th, Texas manager Whitey Herzog made the…interesting decision to walk both Elrod Hendricks and Belanger, hitters 8 and 9, intentionally to get to the top of the order with the bases loaded. To be fair, leadoff hitter Merv Rettenmund had been just as bad as Belanger, and was actually pinch-hit for here, and the Rangers got out of it when Bill Gogelewski struck out the next two batters (the first on a foul two-strike bunt). This game would have been a lot more frustrating to me had I been around to follow it 35 years ago.
  • Post-DH Intentional Walk #2 is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. In 1977, Cleveland manager Frank Robinson has his old teammate The Blade, the O’s #9 hitter, walked to bring up leadoff hitter Al Bumbry. The pitcher (Don Wood) was a shut-down lefty and Bumbry was a LH hitter. But: (a) Bumbry was a good hitter, particularly so in ’77, and was a better hitter even against lefties than Belanger was against anybody; (b) Cleveland was already down 4-0; and (c) there were two outs and a runner on third! So rather than take the near-automatic out and end the inning, F-Rob puts him on base to face the much better hitter, who predictably lines an RBI single, and the O’s go on to win 7-2. I wish that all IBBs (that don’t come right in front of the pitcher) would end this way.
  • IBB #3 was another head-scratcher, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer walking Belanger in front of Larry Harlow (a very unlikely candidate to have already made two appearances on this blog), who had already homered in the game. Harlow singled, but no runs scored. O’s won 5-3 anyway.
  • A candidate for his best offensive game would be August 18, 1969. The O’s spanked the Seattle Pilots, 12-3, and Mark went 4-for-5 with three doubles and 5 RBI.
  • Another is May 11, 1974: 5-for-5 with a double, stolen base and three runs scored. Managed not to drive in any of the twelve runs the O’s scored against Cleveland.
  • He seemed to like playing against Cleveland. On at least one occasion, he made Earl look like a genius for batting him leadoff, going 4-for-4 with 3 R, 3 RBI, a stolen base and a triple in a 7-0 win. I’d like to find a big offensive game where he carried the team to a win, but they’re all blowouts. Apparently, if Mark could hit your pitching, so could the rest of the team.
  • I’m guessing this might be the weirdest game he ever played: August 25, 1968. In 18 innings, the O’s beat the Red Sox 3-2. The Blade (batting second) comes up nine times. Three of those times he gets a hit, and he scores one of those precious three runs. One other time, he has a sac bunt. Each of the other five times, Belanger strikes out.
  • So over the course of a long career, even the worst hitter will have a handful of amazing games where it seems he can do no wrong, the kind you remember forever. By the same token, of course, even the best fielder can make an absolute ass of himself. Just like his teammate Brooks Robinson more famously did, Belanger (who retired with the highest fielding percentage of any SS in AL history) once committed three errors in one inning. The errors led to three unearned runs and gave the Twins a one-run lead. Luckily for Belanger, his teammates bailed him out and the O’s won the game.

Belanger would have turned 65 today. Sadly, he passed in 1998 at just 54, succumbing to cancer (or as his BBREF sponsor kind of irreverently says: “Unfortunately, he smoked cigarettes, and he died too young”). But happy birthday wherever you are, Mark.

All Those "Surprise" Teams…and the Jays

May 13, 2009

In the first week or so of this blog, away back 3-4 weeks ago now, I profiled the Orioles, Mariners, Marlins, and Padres, four teams that had started the season off much better than anyone anticipated. How about a month later (actually, just 22 days after the fourth post)?

  • Taking their records as of the day I wrote about them, the four teams were a combined 32-9 (.780).
  • Since? 28-66 (.298). .298!!!! These guys as a whole have been playing at a 114-loss pace since then, and I guess the Mariners have been playing a little better than the other three, but it’s not like any one team is dragging the pack down.
  • Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report now has the O’s with a 1.39% chance of making the playoffs (down from 8% when I reported on April 15); the M’s retaining a 23.34% chance (down from 28% on April 16, and from a high of 42% on April 25); the Fish with a 4.51% chance (down from 6.59% on April 18); and the Padres at 1.18% (down from 7.46% on April 21). Realistically, then, we’re 4 1/2 months from the end of the ball, and three of the four Cinderellas have already headed home.

A team I chose not to write about, though, is the Toronto Blue Jays. It was almost as much of a surprise that they were 10-4 on April 20th as it was that the Padres were 9-4, but what with sharing their division with the Orioles, I didn’t think anybody had really figured the Jays for last place at the start of the season.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that, if one of the surprises from the year’s first week or two were going to keep it going, it would be the team that was the best to begin with. The Jays are 12-8 (.600) since that 10-4 start and sit at 23-12, first place in the East, jostling with the Dodgers for the best record in baseball. And to the extent that run differentials mean anything at this point in the season (they don’t), they’re just about exactly at the record their run differential would predict.

So why does Baseball Prospectus still hate them? Through Tuesday, the same report has them ending the year at 82-80 and in fourth place, seven games behind the third-place Rays and fifteen behind the first-place Red Sox. It gives them just a 4.58% chance to win the division and 13.83% to make the playoffs at all.

Well, there’s Aaron Hill, who, much as I like him, won’t finish the year hitting .350 with a .550 SLG. And Marco Scutaro, a 33 year old who averages ten homers per 162 games (he’s already hit 5) and has a career .330 OBP (currently sitting at .406). And there’s the fact that they’ve already had nine different pitchers who have started at least two games for them, and aside from the awesomeness that is Roy Halladay and possible late bloomer Scott Richmond, none of them figure to be very good (assuming they can even stay healthy).

Mostly, though, it’s that they play in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. The Jays might be good enough to win the Central or West, but I’m pretty well convinced that those three other teams in the East, flawed as they’ve all looked at one point or another in the early going, are still the best three teams in baseball.

I’ll be pulling for the Blue Jays, though. If it’s a four-team race into August or September, that could be some of the most interesting baseball we’ve seen in decades. And if it’s a three-team race sans Yankees or Sox, well, that’s okay, too.

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part I: The Baltimore Orioles

April 16, 2009

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.