Baseball is not always Fair

Don't you love when things work out exactly as they ought to?  Yes?  Then I'd suggest not re-watching the first three games of the 2014 American League Championship Series.  A look at how baseball - like life - is not always fair.

Life and Baseball

Baseball is my sport of choice for a lot of reasons.  It was my favorite sport to play and watch as a child.  It straddles a fine line between being just simple enough for casual fans to understand yet complicated enough that you can really dig deep and be fascinated by all the intangibles that come with each 9-inning game.  But the most important reason for my love of baseball might be the strangest.  Baseball mirrors life and at its core, life is a game that is as unpredictable and unstable as anything, yet also offers redemptive and uplifting moments in a similiar fashion.

The first two games of the Baltimore versus Kansas City American League Championship series has demontrated these qualities almost perfectly.  On a basic level, both games were highly contested, with the difference being the Kansas City bullpen being slightly better than the Orioles offense.  On a deeper level, the story is a little different.  

Kansas City produced three hits in the first inning that lead to two runs.  They were a seeing eye single between Hardy and Flaherty to left field, a hard hit double that just stayed fair down the right field line, and a broken bat bloop single that just barely fell in over the head of Hardy.  That produced the first two runs of the game.  To the casual fan, which apparently includes the TBS National Broadcast team*, this seems like a team playing and executing "great" baseball.  

I equate the first inning of yesterday's game to a stretch of time in every day life.  At the beginning of the week at work (or school), you get a project completed just in the knick of time, through nothing more than being in the right place at the right time.  That's the seeing eye single.

The next week, you are late getting to work and get pulled over for speeding.  The cop takes mercy on you because you don't decide to be a complete jerk to him when he gets you going 75 mph in a 55 mph zone.  You get some luck but also use some interpersonal positive quality to help yourself out.  That's Lorenzo Cain's double.  It just stayed fair and but he is one of 760 people to get to Major League Baseball each year at its highest level, so his speed and general ability helped get him to second, along with the little bit of luck that kept the ball fair.  

Finally, it's after work the following week and you are late to pick up your (insert friend, child, etc.).  They are 10 miles away, with the only route being a heavily congested one.  It should take at least 20 minutes during rush hour.  Today, for whatever reason, traffic is light, you make it there in 15 minutes and are actually one minute early.  It wouldn't be possible nine out of ten tries.  Neither would Eric Hosmer's broken bat bloop to left on a well executed pitch by Bud Norris, but it worked this time.

In the baseball and real life scenarios, the degree of error is very small for all three cases.  They could have very easily all swung in the Orioles way or against the person who was at deadline, speeding, and late to pick someone up.  If Norris located his pitch to Aoki an inch further in, maybe he isn't able to slap the ball right between Hardy and Flaherty.  If the person pulled over for speeding is rude to the officer, not issuing a ticket doesn't even come into the mind of the cop.  Small margins of error exists on both sides of the spectrum.  

And baseball, as with life, is just not fair all the time.

* To be fair, I haven't seen the broadcast as I was at the game.  But from people I trust on Twitter and prior experience listening to Ernie Johnson and Ron Darling, I have little doubt that this isn't accurate.

********************************************************

Some other thoughts that may or may not relate to the life and baseball theme:

* Paul and I both remarked how both games were excellent, despite the final outcome.  We were both physically exhausted after each game from screaming and cheering to the last out.  We have both seen much more excruciating losses.  Raul Ibanez and his miracle pinch hit home runs in 2012 after Alex Rodriquez was pulled from the game due to ineptness (despite being paid an ungodly amount to be anything but inept) comes to mind.  But so do regular season losses to the Red Sox and Yankees from 2007-2010.  OPACY would be filled with 50% Orioles fans at best (usually much, more worse, especially those Red Sox games in 2008-2009) and if the Yankees or Red Sox won, their fans reactions made you think this individual game was the most important of the season.  Those were the definition of high risk, high reward games.  O's win and it was almost like 2 wins in 1.  A loss felt much worse than your normal loss over the course of a regular season.

* The Kansas City wives section, with their mock seven nation army chants after taking the lead in both games (regardless of what you think about the chant), for lack of a better term was void of class.  You aren't any different from the Red Sox, Yankees, or any other major market team when you do stuff like that in the opposing teams stadiums.  Orioles fans were certainly guilty of this too, as the exodus of fans to Chicago in August for the three games series against the Cubs comes to mind.  I like to think karma, along with good solid play from the Cubs, played a role in that sweep.  Karma didn't play a role last night but that doesn't mean it won't over the next couple of games.

* On a more positive note, Omar Infante hit a dribbler off of Darren O'Day on a great pitch to open up the 9th.  Infante, a veteran, didn't celebrate at first base.  He certainly wasn't going to be sad about the outcome but he also didn't act like he just did something amazing.  It was refreshing to see, especially with how things have fallen over the course of the first two games.

* A talking point amongst baseball pundits has been Buck Showalter versus Ned Yost and how Buck would have the easy edge in outmanaging the pre-historic baseball convention of Yost.  With the Royals up two games to none, you would think that Yost has proved people wrong.  He hasn't.  Alex Gordon, arguably the Royals best hitter this year, still bats sixth while Alcides Escobar leads off with his 40 point lower on-base percentage.  Yost went with rookie left hander Brandon Finnegan in game one in the sixth inning and had to go to Kevlin Herrera to bail himself out instead of just throwing Herrera to start the inning.  Herrera may be the Royals most digusting reliever in terms of stuff, yet because it wasn't the seventh inning, Yost certainly couldn't start him.  Lorenzo Cain batting third all year is just as mind boggling and has worked out so far over the course of a 6 game playoff sample size, but eventually that logic should prove faulty, even if it isn't this year.  

* And finally, this series isn't over.  Many people think it is.  That's their opinion and if they have that opinion, I wish them well.  As we were waiting in the clogged up lines to exit the stadium, Dave Wallace met with Dom Chiti in the outfield grass in centerfield, no doubt to discuss what adjustments can be made pitching wise.  It was a moment as a fan that I took in.  While fans moaned and groaned on the way out (again to be fair, not all the fans but enough to notice), these guys were already discussing what happens next.  And as Buck, Adam Jones, and other players said post game last night, there isn't a sense of dread in this clubhouse because the games still need to be played.  If anything, the pressure now switches to Kansas City and the underdog status goes back to Baltimore for the time being.  

* STATS LLC tweeted last night that no team has ever come the LCS after losing the first two games at home.  Nothing like making history by turning the tide, starting with Game 3.

The Process (Spoiler: No Predictions Here)

“I’m not going to have the players see me supportive one day, not supportive the next.  It’s a process.  You can’t cheat the process.  Right now, the process looks slow.”

Buck Showalter, August 2011

I don't have a prediction for the winner of the Orioles versus Royals ALCS.  To do so would be out of character for me.  Predictions are just guesses and anyone can take a guess and have a shot at being right.  The fact is, I just don't know and if I had a crystal ball, I would certainly being using it for something more important than baseball.  I want the Orioles to win more than anything but to throw out a wild guess would ultimately be meaningless.  There are plenty of places where you can go read predictions until you are blue in the face.

What I can talk about is process, the day-to-day strategy and grind of turning around a franchise that was never truly hopeless but was also at a complete standstill.  The Orioles process from 2007 to now is a lengthy journey, filled with low low’s but also a lot of high high’s, even in cases where a casual fan or spectator might not understand the high.

If you have watched the process which took the Orioles from perennial losers for 14 straight seasons to the 2014 AL East Champions (with a World Series berth just four wins away), you have witnessed one of the best sports stories in Baltimore history and maybe even all of baseball.  It's not a story with heroes or amazing drama or everything else that makes for successful books, TV shows, or movies.  It’s not the 2004 Red Sox down 3 games to 0 and coming all the way back to beat their arch nemesis New York Yankees en route to their first World Series in 100 years.  This is about something much simpler.  It's a story about process.

A process, with strategy, implemented, and followed, doesn't usually generate success immediately, especially in sports and especially in baseball.  This held true for the Orioles from 2007-2011.

In 2007 when former General Manager Andy MacPhail took over, the first order of business wasn't to immediately improve the farm system or make a big splash in the fee agent market.  No, the first order of business was to buy new video cameras because technology had lapped the Orioles not so state-of-the-art video equipment.  How's that for your first week on the job?

The process saw highly touted Orioles pitching prospects Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrietta all struggle significantly in their first stint(s) with the big league team.  The big hope that loomed with highly rated prospects fizzled almost as quickly.

The process saw Dave Trembley removed as manager mid season in 2010, a lot of his own doing but also because the pieces to make the process successful just weren't in place yet.

The process saw Buck Showalter hired as manager in July 2010, a person so adept at the small and big picture that I couldn't picture anyone else in baseball coming close to doing the job he has so far in Baltimore.

The process saw trades, big and small at their respective times, stabilize and build the current incarnation of the Orioles. 

  • Adam Jones and Chris Tillman (and three other, including 2008-2009 closer George Sherill) for Erik Bedard from Seattle 
  • David Hernandez to Arizona for Mark Reynolds
  • Two lower rated pitching prospects in Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson (both out of baseball) for shortstop JJ Hardy, who will be the teams SS through at least 2018.
  • Relief Pitcher Koji Uehara to Texas for unspectacular Starting Pitcher Tommy Hunter and at the time, 4A player Chris Davis

The process saw September 28, 2011 be the first playoff game the Orioles would play in 13 years.  Sure, it was completely unofficial, but beating the Red Sox in an amazing 9th inning comeback to ensure that they wouldn't advance to the playoffs was simply gratifying.  The Red Sox and their legion of fans had wreaked havoc against the team, Camden Yards, and the fans for years.  Cathartic doesn't even begin to explain it.  It wasn’t officially a playoff game, but you can’t convince me that the 2011 Orioles didn’t play those final seven games against the Red Sox like a playoff series.

The process brought in shunned former Montrael Expos and Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette to Baltimore for interviews for the team’s GM position that was left vacant by Andy McPhail.  After being turned down by other highly touted candidates, Duquette, out of Major League baseball for almost ten years, accepted the job and has been exceptional at finding good free agent deals, making average to excellent trades, and surveying the waiver wire day after day to try to secure as much depth as possible for the big league club.

These are just some of the moments over this seven year process that bring us to where we are today.  There isn't a single one that can clearly answer why the Orioles begin play in the ALCS tonight against Kansas City.  That would be too easy. Processes are never easy to complete, nonetheless dissect.  We all like a good story where you can get clear, concise, and impactful answers.  This Orioles journey has had a little bit of everything.  It just doesn’t have any simple answers.

Beginning tonight, we can finally key in on one simple premisea that has been the direct result from this long, winding process: 8 more wins are all that stands between the Orioles, Baltimore, and their fans celebrating a World Series victory.

“We all want to deliver for the fans, more than anything.  It’s what keeps me up at night. They’ve been with us through thick and thin. There’s not a more loyal, supportive fan base in Baltimore, and at some point we will repay their trust.”

Buck Showalter, August 2011

Important Dates

I’m a big fan of dates.  There is something about the way my mind works that let’s me remember dates for all sorts of things, past and present, good and bad, inconsequential or significant.  The past four seasons have seen all sorts of memorable dates for the Orioles, some of which will be historically significant, some of which are only important to me.  With the O’s having secured home field advantage for the 2014 American League Division Series, now is as good as any time to take a look back.

July 29, 2010 – Buck Showalter is hired as the Orioles manager

The significance of this has been written about ad-naseum.  No need to rehash what has been written about by people far more qualified than myself.  In his first series as manager against the Angels, Buck lead the O’s to their first sweep of the year and the team would finish 2010 with a 34-23 the rest of the way, an amazing feat considering the team had been playing about .380 ball prior to his arrival.

September 19-21, 2011 – Orioles take 3 out of 4 from Boston in Fenway

The Orioles take 3 out of 4 from the Red Sox in Fenway, making a big dent in the spiral that was September 2011 for Boston.  The one loss, game two of a day-night doubleheader, was a route that saw starting pitcher Brian Matusz get clobbered once again during his tough 2011 campaign.  The three wins all featured saves by Jim Johnson, who has replaced Kevin Gregg as the closer in late August. 

September 26-28, 2011 – Orioles take 2 out of 3 from Boston in Baltimore, ending the Red Sox post season hopes

September 28, and into the early morning hours of September 29, was the high point of my Orioles fandom at one time.  Down 3-2 and facing Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds struck out before Chris Davis laced a first pitch fastball down the right field line for a double.  Nolan Reimold went down to his last strike before scorching a ball into the right-center gap, driving in pinch runner Kyle Hudson to knot the score at 3-3.  Robert Andino, on a 1-1 pitch, sent the Red Sox home for good with a single to left that Carl Crawford couldn’t make a sliding grab on.  Reimold and Andino will always have a special place with me, if just for their memorable September 2011. 

Click here to read the Orioles Observer five part series on September 28, 2011.

May 6, 2012 – Orioles Sweep the Red Sox in Fenway

The infamous game with Chris Davis being the winning pitcher after 17 hard fought innings from both teams.  Davis, having struck out five times as the designated hitter, proceeded to strike out Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez and induced a double play to give the Orioles the win.  The O's would continue to dominate the Red Sox for the next three seasons.

October 5, 2012 – The Orioles become the first American League Wild Card Champions

A little more than a year later, my fandom was once again topped as Paul and I were in Texas to see the Orioles win the first AL Wild Card play in game. 

Click here to read our in depth series about the road trip to Texas.

October 8, 2012 – Orioles win first playoff game at home in 15 years

The night after a disappointing late inning loss to the Yankees, the Orioles rebounded behind Wei-Yin Chen and defeated the Yankees to even up the series at one game a piece.  Jim Johnson struck out Alex Rodriquez for the final out, a fitting ending for an amazing season.  It only took 3 days for my highest moment as an Oriole to be topped this time.

September 16, 2014 – Orioles clinch the American League East for the first time since 1997.

Two years later, the Orioles finally got to celebrate clinching the playoffs with their fans at home.  This is something we may not see for a while in the American League East: a team clinching the division with more than a week of a half of games left to be played.  I’m still soaking it all in.   

Predictions, Projections, and How They Play Out

“What is it about our sports world, and society in general, that wants to know about something before it happens? I’m OK knowing about it when it happens. Our curiosity is going to be satisfied about this season. We’re going to play 162. And there’s no greater exposure of your strengths and weaknesses than a Major League Baseball season. I’m not talking about just physical either. There are no Cinderellas in our sport. You don’t get hot for a certain amount of time and have the football bounce a certain way one day. We have too round of a ball and too round of a bat. You can’t hide a bad defender. That white rat is going to find you.”

- Buck Showalter in an interview with FanGraphs

For the 2014 Orioles, pre-season predictions and projections were wildly off the mark for the AL East.  Predictions are one thing.  They are done by humans who are generally taking wild guesses as to who will be the division winners.

Projection systems, on the other hand, are supposed to be more reliable, using analytical data to give a more accurate forecast of where teams will finish.  The key word here is forecast.  And like weather forecasts, projection systems are worthy of our attention but at the same time need to be seen for what they are, analytical speculation. 

Let’s start with a sampling of the human predictions for the Orioles.

* Not a single voter picked the Orioles for the division or a wild card spot ** ESPN had 44 “experts” make their picks.  5 of the 44 (11.3%) voters picked Baltimore for first or a Wild Card position.  *** Picked Orioles to be American League Champions **** On the BP podcast previewing the Orioles, Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Paul Sporer talk about the Orioles outplaying their projections in 2012 and 2013.  It is then asked if the 2014 projections should be ignored or at least cast with a big shadow of doubt.  The response was that with a three year sample size, the projection would be accurate for 2014.  It wasn't. 

* Not a single voter picked the Orioles for the division or a wild card spot

** ESPN had 44 “experts” make their picks.  5 of the 44 (11.3%) voters picked Baltimore for first or a Wild Card position. 

*** Picked Orioles to be American League Champions

**** On the BP podcast previewing the Orioles, Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Paul Sporer talk about the Orioles outplaying their projections in 2012 and 2013.  It is then asked if the 2014 projections should be ignored or at least cast with a big shadow of doubt.  The response was that with a three year sample size, the projection would be accurate for 2014.  It wasn't. 

Human predictions are highly flawed because humans are flawed.  But it is still worth pointing out the misses, especially by some "experts" who would make you think they have a crystal ball with all of baseball's answers in front of them. 

Instead of picking the Orioles to finish 4th or 5th on gut or pure statistical analysis, Keith Law at ESPN didn’t do an official pre-season prediction.   His brief thoughts were that the Orioles were an 82-85 win team and would have been better in another division such as the AL Central.  That is a much more nuanced prediction, based off of two years of results, off-season moves, and rational analytical thinking (blending the seeing eye with advanced stats).  Law’s prediction lined up much more with what we had seen the prior two seasons from the Orioles and the two years of data that showed a team that was luckier than most in 2012, fairly unlucky in 2013, and was continuing to trend in the right direction.

The fallacy of just using hard line statistics and models leaves with you the 2014 PECOTA projection for the American League East.  Forecast models are just that, forecast models.  How many times has a winter storm been forecasted by various weather models only to completely fall apart at the last minute?  Same thing for stock predictions on Wall Street. 

Take a look at the 2013 Red Sox.  They had a plethora of free agent signings that went as well as could be expected.  They lost two closers to injury (and poor performance) before moving their $4.5 million, 7th inning man Koji Uehara to closer, who proceeded to be lights out for the rest of the year.  Daniel Nava, almost a journeyman at age 30, had a career year.  It’s not shocking he came back down to earth in 2014.  The 2013 projections couldn’t predict Nava’s stand out year, Mike Napoli’s second best bWAR season ever at 4.2 (2011 he was at 5.4 for Texas), or Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career season with 2.9 bWAR, doubling his previous best 1.5 effort in 2012.  And the Red Sox, the team that finished with 69 wins in 2012, went from worst to first and won the World Series. 

But for all the talk of the law of averages within the projection systems, it was pretty clear that the 2014 Red Sox were going to come back down to earth.  I wouldn’t have said that coming back down to earth would be last place in the AL East, but I certainly wasn’t assuming they were a lock for 1st or a Wild Card spot.

As a fan of the Orioles, I tend to try to take a more positive stance whenever possible.  Coming into the season, there were a couple of clear things in the AL East:

* Toronto would be better than they were in 2013. 

* Tampa would have good pitching once again but they overachieved at the plate in 2013 and should show a little regression.

* Boston would be formidable again, but they would have to come back down to earth after their incredible 2013 season of fortune, luck, and solid play. 

* New York would be an older team that would probably be able to survive due to that Yankee "charm" but were hardly a team that was going to run away with the division.

Toronto was better, Tampa regressed at the plate, Boston came way back down to earth, and the Yankees age took a toll on them through injuries, which weren't a shock.

The Orioles had to keep their heads above water through a tough April schedule and let the rest of the season play out.  They did that and through a vast improvement in Starting Pitching, combined with an excellent defense, were able pull away with the AL East by mid-August. 

And the great thing about playing 162 games, as Buck alludes to in the quote at the beginning of this post, is that your strengths and weaknesses are exposed to the world over 162 games.  Matt Wieters is lost by Mid-May for the year.  Chris Davis has a DL stint, followed by below average play, followed by a 25 game suspension.  Manny Machado comes back from his knee injury, starts slow, gets suspended for five games, and finally starts to heat up right as the stretch run comes, only to fall victim to his other knee.  Even Nostradamus would have seen this string of injuries and concluded that the Orioles were dead.

There would have been no need for Steve Pearce and his amazing season.  There would have been no use for Delmon Young to have a redemption year, being a good team mate while playing hard and well.  There would have been no use for Jonathan Schoop, someone who arguably should have been playing at AAA for the entire year, to struggle through 2014 at the plate but provide very solid defense and a few key home runs throughout the year. 

Fortunately for us, there isn't a Nostradamus. 

Look How Far We've Come

The O’s just finished a 9-2 home stand that surpassed any of my reasonable expectations.  Paul and I talked about the various scenarios coming into the home stand.  7-4 would be great.  8-3 would be amazing.  6-5 would be fine, especially with two four game sets, with one against the Rays.  The actual result is almost out of this world good.

The feeling I get from O’s fans on Twitter is that a lot of people don’t actually understand how amazing of a position the team is in.  I’m of the mindset that until the division is clinched, nothing is fully settled but simple math tells you that neither the Yankees nor the Blue Jays will come within striking distance of reaching the O’s for the AL East title.

The Blue Jays swept the Rays this week in a three game series and gained no games.  The Yankees took two out of three from the Red Sox and lost a game.  I don’t expect, nor should you, that the Orioles will win every game and sweep every series until the end of the year, but minor hiccups are bound to happen.  Having to face Cobb and Smyly this weekend could be one of the road bumps.  But these minor hiccups (i.e. the Cubs series) won’t break the season.

Other Thoughts

  • There is a pretty good chance that the AL East will be clinched at home during the next ten-game home stand.  The magic number stands at 15 prior to Friday night’s game against the Rays.

Let’s throw out a scenario.

The O’s go 3-3 on this road trip against Tampa and Boston.  That moves the magic number down to 12.  The Yankees play three against Kansas City and three against Tampa.  They aren’t going to go 6-0.  But for the sake of argument, we’ll say they get hot and go 4-2.  Magic number is still reduced to 10. 

And then both teams meet at OPACY for a four game set next weekend.  Splitting the series with the Yankees reduced the number to 6.  Three out of four makes it 4.  A sweep makes it 2.  It is well within reach that the Blue Jays or Red Sox series to close the home portion of the schedule will be a clincher.  And it will be much deserved, especially after watching Joe Nathan blow the save in 2012 after the Orioles swept the Red Sox in the final home series of the year and not get to celebrate clinching a playoff spot with the fans. 

  • On September 29, 2011, at around 12:30 am as Paul and I were circling Camden Yards celebrating knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs, I asked him in a serious tone, “What will be better than this?”  The answer: the playoffs. 

A little less than three years later, with 23 games remaining, the Orioles have a magic number that should be achieved in advance of the final week of the season. 

Two words – absolutely amazing.