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The Baltimore Orioles are performing better than expected this season. And by now, we should have known to expect nothing less.
At 23-15, the O’s are only a game and a half back in the American League East — close behind the resurgent New York Yankees — despite lukewarm preseason predictions and even early-season injuries. This is nothing new for the franchise: It has reliably duped the various statistical forecasting systems for years now. Here’s how Baltimore’s actual records have compared with what some of the most popular projection systems called for (including FanGraphs’s depth charts and Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA1, plus the Vegas over/unders for good measure) since 2012, when the Orioles won 93 games after being projected for only 72:
On average, the projections have missed low on Baltimore by 10 wins a year since 2012, including 2017 so far.2 And not to single out PECOTA specifically, but it has been low on the Orioles so often — 2017 is tracking to be the sixth-consecutive season where this happened — that it has become something of a running joke among Baltimore fans.
Even granting that predicting baseball teams is an imperfect science at best, there’s something else going on here — and it has a lot to do with manager Buck Showalter, one of the best in modern history at squeezing every spare win out of a roster. This isn’t the first time Showalter’s teams have shattered expectations; in addition to his work in Baltimore, he also won plenty of ballgames during his previous stints in Texas, Arizona and New York when the numbers said he had no business doing so. With the Orioles, though, Showalter has turned defying the odds into an art form.
Three years ago, I wrote that — for better and for worse — few managers really make much of a dent in a team’s record, relative to what we’d expect from a simple, manager-independent projection of talent. But Showalter is one of the select few who’ve risen above the fray. From 2010 (when Showalter took over the Baltimore job midseason) to 2016,3 the O’s won an average of nearly six extra games per season over expectation, which elevated Showalter into eighth place among overachieving managers since the expansion era began in 1961:
|WINS ABOVE PROJECTED PER SEASON|
|MANAGER||GAMES||DUE TO PLAYER PERFORMANCE||DUE TO STRATEGY AND LUCK||TOTAL||WAP OVERALL|
Some of the greatest hits in Showalter’s catalog include managing the 1994 Yankees to a 100-win pace (and the AL’s best record) before the season was shut down by a strike, improving the Diamondbacks’ record by 35 games in 1999 — still the biggest single-season improvement in winning percentage since 1903 — and overseeing the Rangers’ own 18-game improvement in 2004. But he seems to have saved his best managerial performances for Baltimore: On top of beating the projections by 21 wins in 2014, Showalter’s club famously outplayed its pythagorean record by 11.2 wins in 2012 — the 10th most since 1901.4
Correctly anticipating another surprise season from the Birds back in February, ESPN.com’s Sam Miller dug into the reasons for Baltimore’s consistent overachievement under Showalter. He ruled out the Orioles’ offense (homer-happy but ultimately just OK), their rotation (promising but mediocre) and their defense (solid, though not outstanding). Instead, the biggest reason by far for Baltimore’s perennially surprising record has been its dominant bullpen. Not only have the O’s boasted the best relief corps in baseball over the past six seasons according to wins above replacement (WAR),5 but Miller also found that almost every member of Baltimore’s bullpen beat his projections from 2012 to 2016.
A great bullpen can have an outsize impact on how well a team performs late in games. As Miller notes, the Orioles outscored opponents from 2012-16 by five times as many runs per inning from the seventh inning onward than during the first six. But coaxing unexpected greatness out of relievers is not supposed to be sustainable. Since baseball’s current, save-obsessed relief strategy began in earnest in 1990, the year-to-year correlation for a club’s relief wins above average6 is 0.25, a fairly low mark that suggests that bullpen success stories are mostly unsustainable.
Therein lies the paradox of relying too much on relievers: They can be incredibly valuable, but they also tend to be fickle. Some skippers, however, have a knack for getting value out of their bullpens year in and year out. By now it shouldn’t be surprising that, over the course of his 19-season career in the dugout, Showalter has gotten the fifth-most value from his bullpen out of any manager since ’61:
|WINS VS. AVG||WINS VS. AVG|
|MANAGER||TOTAL||PER 162 G||MANAGER||TOTAL||PER 162 G|
|1||Joe Torre||+37.0||+1.4||303||Jerry Narron||-9.8||-2.5|
|2||Joe Girardi*||+24.6||+2.5||304||Billy Gardner||-10.0||-2.2|
|3||Chuck Tanner||+23.7||+1.4||305||Bo Porter||-10.1||-5.5|
|4||Cito Gaston||+20.3||+1.9||306||Casey Stengel||-10.6||-2.9|
|5||Buck Showalter*||+19.5||+1.2||307||Leo Durocher||-10.9||-1.4|
|6||Jimy Williams||+18.9||+1.8||308||Jim Fregosi||-11.4||-0.9|
|7||Ralph Houk||+18.6||+1.0||309||John McNamara||-11.8||-0.8|
|8||Ron Gardenhire||+18.4||+1.4||310||Tony Muser||-12.9||-2.8|
|9||Johnny Oates||+16.7||+1.7||311||Sparky Anderson||-20.0||-0.8|
|10||Herman Franks||+15.1||+2.2||312||Jim Leyland||-32.4||-1.5|
Because relievers are generally so unpredictable, any projection of how they’ll perform in the future is going to be heavily regressed to the mean. As a consequence, having a strong bullpen — one that resists the pull of regression — goes a long way toward helping a team beat expectations.7 And while Joe Torre (and Joe Girardi) had the benefit of the great Mariano Rivera at the back of the Yankee bullpen, Showalter’s best relievers by WAR have been Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Francisco Cordero and Jim Johnson — fine pitchers all, but not exactly Rivera clones. Year after year, Showalter has been able to find an answer for one of baseball’s most unpredictable challenges (even if he did botch one very high-profile relief decision in last year’s playoffs).
Now, it’s easy to go overboard in praise of the skipper (all of these effects still only add up to a handful of extra wins per season). Good managing can only go so far without the talent to, well, manage. And despite their surprising early-season success, this year’s Orioles are still at a disadvantage in that department relative to a very tough division — one made more difficult by the Yankees’ ahead-of-schedule emergence.
All of which is to say: Baltimore still faces an uphill battle. But if Showalter’s history tells us anything, it’s that his teams tend to thrive on these kinds of steep climbs. Don’t be surprised if the 2017 O’s keep adding to that legend.
The DL shuffle
With all the talk about how teams are using — and (arguably) abusing — the new 10-day disabled list, John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions wrote an interesting story for BillJamesOnline.com about how frequently players are being put on the shorter DL now, compared with the old system at the same point in the schedule. According to Dewan, nothing really changed for the first week or so of the season — but starting in Week 2, DL assignments took off and they haven’t really looked back. It should be interesting to watch how teams continue to play with their newfound roster flexibility as the season goes on.
Is Derek Jeter … properly rated?
Derek Jeter has long been a popular object of derision for statheads such as myself, on grounds ranging from his overrated defense to his overblown reputation in the clutch. So you might expect that I shuddered at the wall-to-wall Jeter lovefest as the Yankees retired their longtime captain’s number this past weekend.
Oddly, though, I was fine with it. Jeter truly is one of the greatest Yankees ever, as well as one of the best single-franchise players in major league history. We can show it using weighted career WAR8 — borrowing from Doug Drinen’s method of balancing between peak and career value, by giving a player credit for 100 percent of his best season, 95 percent of his second-best season and so on. (I also added a timeline adjustment to account for the fact that MLB competition keeps getting better over time.9 So for instance, 10 WAR from, say, Mike Trout in 2017 would be worth the same as 14 WAR from Babe Ruth in 1921.)
|PLAYER||WEIGHTED CAREER WAR|
|1||Babe Ruth (1920-34)||78.2|
|2||Mickey Mantle (1951-68)||65.0|
|3||Lou Gehrig (1923-39)||63.2|
|4||Derek Jeter (1995-2014)||48.2|
|5||Joe DiMaggio (1936-51)||47.9|
By the same measure, Jeter is also the 17th-best single-franchise player since 1901, trailing only Mantle and Gehrig among lifelong Yankees. (Ted Williams of the Red Sox is No. 1, followed by Walter Johnson of the Senators and Mike Schmidt of the Phillies.)
Those accomplishments by themselves make Jeter an all-time great. But I’m worried a little that, as number crunchers, we may have railed against Jeter being overrated for so long that he’s somehow become underrated. Yes, he won some undeserved Gold Gloves. But few shortstops have ever hit as well as Jeter did, and after adjusting for position he wasn’t as much of a net negative on defense as he’s sometimes made out to be. Bottom line: A lot of the Jeter praise has been absurd over the years, but we shouldn’t let the urge to correct the record obscure how great Jeter actually was at playing baseball, and how long he did it.
The Walk Cycle
In Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto missed hitting for the cycle by one single. That in and of itself is somewhat rare — usually it’s the far-less-common triple that stands between a player and the cycle — but Conforto did unlock another achievement that’s actually rarer than the cycle itself: The Walk Cycle. In a Walk Cycle, the player (like Conforto) gets all of the extra-base hits necessary for a cycle, but instead of reaching first base via a single, he gets there by walking (which is nearly as valuable as a single anyway). While the traditional cycle has happened 254 times since 1913,10 the Walk Cycle has been accomplished exactly 100 times. It’s little consolation after New York blew a 7-1 lead, but Conforto should be proud of the sneaky-rare feat.
CORRECTION (May 18, 6:05 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly included Hank Aaron in the list of players who played for only one franchise. He played the final two seasons of his career with the Brewers. The rankings of best single-franchise players in MLB history have been updated to exclude him, which moved Derek Jeter from 18th to 17th.
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