While a lot of baseball writers continue to scratch their heads and furrow their brows in a vain attempt to understand the Orioles’ current situation relative to their run differential, they are missing this fundamental point – it no longer matters. The Orioles are 71-57 with 34 games remaining. A .500 record from this point forward leaves them with 88 wins, which just might be enough wins to earn a Wild Card spot. It doesn’t matter if the Orioles got to this point with smoke and mirrors (they didn’t) or if they were beneficiaries of an unprecedented amount of good fortune (they weren’t). Any team in baseball – even the 2012 Astros – can go 17-17 over their final 34 games. In fact, the Astros posted a 17-13 record in a 30 game stretch in late April and May which shows that such streaks aren’t even impossible for truly bad teams. It is such a small sample size (21% of the season) and the bar is set low enough at .500 that it is silly to state that this feat is impossible for any team. So even if in your heart of hearts you believe that the Orioles have been massively lucky to this point, it really doesn’t matter anymore. That luck could dwindle but as long as they play at an average clip until the end of the season, they have a shot. If they play a few games over .500 – which again is not a stretch by any means – their chances improve even more.
In addition, what the Orioles did or did not do during the first four months of the season no longer matters because this is simply not the same team. I mean that in the literal sense – the roster has turned over a great deal with THIRTY different players making their Orioles’ DEBUTS this season – and also in a more figurative sense. The team that has taken the field these past two nights against the White Sox still boasts the same outstanding bullpen that they showed off in April and May. Nearly everything else, however, is different. The names of the starting pitchers have changed – we have gone from Arietta/Matusz/Hunter to Tillman/Britton/Gonzalez/Saunders – but the results have changed as well. This group has been pitching at a far higher level on a far more consistent basis for nearly two months now. It is unfair to simply project out runs allowed or the team’s ERA and state that they can’t possible keep winning this many games with that poor level of performance. It is unfair because they are not attempting to win games with that poor performance – the Orioles have already improved, if not fixed, the root causes for those poor pitching performances. The starting rotation the Orioles trot out now and for the remainder of the season is in no way, shape or form the same rotation that helped dig the significant run differential hole during the first half of the season.
The offense is playing far more relaxed and with a greater sense of purpose now than earlier in the season. The patience up and down the batting order is visible. There are not a whole lot of guys that are stepping up to the plate without a plan on a consistent basis. The running game – a virtual non-factor for the O’s through the first four months – is starting to become a positive factor largely thanks to Nate McClouth. Nick Markakis has been a revelation in the leadoff spot and is playing at a level higher than we’ve seen from him since 2008. Again, it is not the same team from the first half of the season.
The fact that it is not the same team has also been used as a weapon against the Orioles. How can a team that utilizes a 29 year-old career minor leaguer as their 3rd/4th starter and a 35 year-old who has been out of Major League Baseball since 2007 as a bench player really be a playoff team? Without looking it up, I would say the answer is “quite easily”. The Rays are squeezing an .808 OPS out of thirty-two year old Jeff Keppinger – a guy who has a .730 career OPS over eight career Major League seasons. Only Ben Zobrist – who himself was once an unheralded utility infielder carrying the Rays to their first postseason appearance in 2008 – has a higher OPS for the Rays. There are examples of these types of players on nearly all of the playoff contenders, yet some pundits choose to focus more on the fact that the Orioles’ are starting and getting modest contributions from Nate McClouth in leftfield than any unexpected contributors on other contending teams. Call me crazy, but getting a .798 OPS in 81 plate appearances from a thirty year-old former All-Star is far less shocking then getting a .808 OPS from a thirty-year old utility infielder/journeyman. The point being, the O’s are getting some unexpected contributions but that is something all good teams benefit from and is usually a result of strong scouting. The Orioles did not luck into this – they didn’t sprinkle Nate McClouth with any magical pixie dust – these were good, shrewd moves that most contending teams make.
I have tired of hearing about the Orioles’ luck. I am through reading analysis about the team’s run differential. I am even done with all the talk about the Orioles being a “team of destiny” or how they “refuse to go away”, the latter of which erroneously implies that they should go away. The Orioles are currently one of the two American League Wild Card teams – 3 ½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East. They are a team that has lost only one of their last ten series – including series wins against the Tigers, Rays, and Yankees and at least a series split against the White Sox. In other words, the Orioles are a good team. It is time to stop worrying how they got to this point and start treating them as such.