The Most Enjoyable and Successful 'Disappointing Season' Ever

The 2013 Orioles did not reach the postseason and that is disappointing.

Everybody from the fans to the players to the coaches viewed the postseason and ultimately a World Series victory as the season’s ultimate goal so falling short of that has to be considered a disappointment.  I am fairly certain it is impossible to find any Orioles fan or anyone associated with the organization who considers the 2013 season a total and resounding success.  To suggest there are people out therethat feel that way is nothing more than a lazy, straw-man argument.  No playoffs is a letdown for everyone.

There is a saying in sports that only one team each season has their season end on a non-disappointing note.  There is one winning team followed by a whole lot of non-winners.  That is true to a certain extent.

At the same time, all disappointment is not created equal nor does disappointment equate to total failure.  There are levels of letdown and one can be disappointed while also feeling a sense of success and satisfaction as well.  They are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

In many ways, the 2013 baseball season for the Orioles might be the most satisfying and successful ‘disappointing season’ for the organization that I can recall.

As was discussed ad nauseam in Baltimore last winter, the 2012 Orioles had a season that was so unusual that t it raised as many questions as it answered.  Just how good of a team was the 2012 Orioles and what could we reasonably expect of them in 2013?  Teams do not regularly turn over their pitching staff midyear using non-prospect internal options to the level of success that the 2012 Orioles did.  No team had ever had more success in one-run games, few teams had experienced greater success in extra-inning games, and – well, everyone knows all of those talking points by now so I will leave that particular dead horse alone.

The point being is that regardless of whether you thought the 2013 Orioles were a 90 win team, 85 win team or 75 win team coming into the season, I think most everyone agreed that there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the team.  Any team’s season can turn on a dime but given the oddities of 2012 and the lack of long track records within the organization, the 2013 Orioles carried far less certainty and far more variables heading into the year than most teams.  2013 before it started was almost as much about finding out exactly what the organization had as it was about reaching the playoffs.  Not everyone agreed with the approach but that uncertainty was almost certainly why Dan Duquette chose to not make any big moves or wholesale changes in the offseason.  What changes can you make when you are not even sure exactly what it is you have in the first place?

Well, now we know exactly what it is that the Orioles have and what they have is the foundation of a team that should be expected to contend as currently constructed.  There are very few teams in baseball that will be able to say that entering the 2013/2014 offseason.

In Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy the Orioles have an offensive and defensive core that rivals any team in baseball.  None of those players are perfect and the Birds would be much better off if a few players in particular stepped up their games in certain areas.  I imagine that goes without saying.  There are no perfect players nor are their perfect teams but that that is a very strong core.  The bullpen was bound for regression this season in terms of performance in high leverage situations and as expected that regression took place.  The good news is that for the second straight season the Orioles had an above league-average bullpen which should continue to be a strength going forward.

Those unproven starters that caused so much consternation amongst O’s fans this winter proved with another full year under their belts to collectively be a major league quality rotation even if not necessarily a playoff-caliber rotation.  Like with the rest of the 2013 season for the Orioles, there are both positive and disappointing elements in there.  There was a chance – given their small and muddied track records – that guys like Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman would all prove to be one year flukes who are not major league starters.  All three silenced those doubts.  At the same time, only Chris Tillman took what could be considered a step forward.  The rotation does not need to be rebuilt from scratch although there is certainly some work to be done.

Looking at the big picture, there was a lot that did not go right for the Orioles in 2013 and as odd as that might sound that might be a good thing.  The team won 85 games with a rotation that had the 4th worst starter’s ERA in baseball and lacked a top half of the rotation starter (or two).  As any observant hardcore O’s fan can attest to, if 2012 was a season where a lot of breaks went our way, 2013 was the opposite.  Even in winning their final three one-run games of the season, the 2013 Orioles still had a .392 winning percentage in one-run games.  That is the 80th worst in the past 30 seasons of Major League Baseball which puts the 2013 club in the bottom 10th percentile during that time frame.  As late as last week, they were in the bottom 6th percentile in that regard.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, I am not sure I watched a harder luck team in my time closely following baseball than this year’s team.  I recognize that is a fine-line statement to make.  Every fan generally thinks that the breaks go against their team, when the truth is that usually the breaks come close to evening out over the course of a full season.  At the same time, nearly every playoff contender every season benefits from a surplus of good fortune and positive breaks and the opposite is true as well.  There is not a whole lot other than good or bad fortune separating an 85 win team from a 93 win team a lot of times.  Maybe I am looking through orange-colored glasses just a bit but I do not think I am stepping that far out on the ledge in stating that the Orioles certainly fell on the “hard luck” side of the ledger this past season.

One does not have to squint very hard at all to see how this 85 win could have easily been an 88 – 90 win club.  It wouldn’t take turning all of the team’s bad breaks into positive breaks either, not by a longshot.  There is no sense in playing the “what if?” game but a few more bounces go the team’s way and they still probably land in the same overall “hard luck” spot but with 88+ wins to their name.  Call it spin if you must, but that’s the impression I was left with after watching every game this season and it is not an impression I have gotten from any other Orioles’ team over the past 20 seasons.  The standard numbers for judging good fortune – run differential, Pythagorean record, performance in one-run games – at the very least confirm the idea that the Orioles were not the benefactors of a large number of good breaks.

The Orioles competed the entire season.  They were in playoff contention from the opener in Tampa Bay all the way through when they left Tampa Bay for the final time of the season on September 23rd.  I have been unable thus far to find a quick way retrieve the data from Baseball Reference on teams with 85+ win seasons that did not have a winning streak of more than five games during a season, but my assumption is that list is a very small one.  The 2013 Orioles are now on that list.  The positive in that is it shows how remarkably consistent the team was.  They were never able to get on a winning streak but to hammer out 85 wins without that is in some ways even more impressive than if they rolled off seven or eight wins in a row at one point.

On a more granular level, we got to witness one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of major league baseball from Chris Davis.  Davis became the third player in baseball history to have 50+ homeruns and 40+ doubles in a single season joining Babe Ruth and Albert Belle.  His 370 total bases are tied for 97th most all time.  Jim Johnson showed the dangers of a sinker ball closer in tight games while still managing 50 saves, an ERA under 3.00, and a much improved strikeout rate over 2012.  For the first time in MLB history, we witnessed a closer earn back-to-back 50 saves seasons.

Manny Machado fell off in the 2nd half but still turned in an age 21-season that was better offensively than most of us likely would have imagined possible.  Defensively he is one of the few players at any position in the game who can truly be described as “brilliant”.  J.J. Hardy quietly put together a tremendous offensive and defensive year at short while Adam Jones has solidified his role as a .280+, 25-30 HR annual threat.  Chris Tillman blossomed into a top-half of the rotations starting pitcher.

The Orioles were the only team in the American League East to boast a winning record versus the Boston Red Sox at 11 – 8.  In fact, they are the only team in the American League to have a winning record versus all three American League division winners after going 11-8 versus Boston, 4-2 versus Detroit, and 5-2 versus Oakland.  This was no 85-win team that beat up on a bunch of inferior teams to get there but had trouble against real competition.  Had the Orioles made the playoffs, they would have matched up just fine versus any of the other American League teams.

I could go on but it is clear to me that in many important ways the 2013 season was a satisfying and successful one, even if the year ended earlier than we all would have hoped.  It is good that we are disappointed – it means there are hopes and expectations.  At the same time, 2013 was a largely enjoyable and in many ways successful season which should not be ignored just because of the end result.

When a team has a disappointing season but still wins 85-games in the face without much good fortune, then they are doing something right.  For two straight years, the Orioles have done a lot of things right.