Where to From Here?

 Nelson Cruz is one Oriole hitter playing up to and above his potential.  He might be the only one.  The team has nonetheless keeping its collective head above water through the first one-third of the 2014 season.  If the some other Orioles hitters trend closer to their performance of the last two to three years, this average-looking team could look a whole lot better come October.

Nelson Cruz is one Oriole hitter playing up to and above his potential.  He might be the only one.  The team has nonetheless keeping its collective head above water through the first one-third of the 2014 season.  If the some other Orioles hitters trend closer to their performance of the last two to three years, this average-looking team could look a whole lot better come October.

I have not written much here recently but frankly, there is not a lot to write concerning the Orioles.  The 2014 club has – to date – been an average team that has gotten average results.

The Orioles are currently one game over .500 at 28-27.  Their 234 runs scored to 240 runs allowed works out to an expected 27-28 team.  The offense has produced 4.25 runs per game, which is good enough for 8th in the American League and just below the league average of 4.32 runs per game.  The pitching and defense has allowed 4.36 runs per game which once again puts them 8th out of 15 teams and just above the league average of 4.31 runs allowed per game.

The team has produced at a league average level and has gotten the corresponding results of that production.  How much can really be written about a team that is playing league average baseball and getting league average results?

The only question really worth exploring at this juncture – the question that is on everyone’s minds – is whether this club has it in them to be more than a .500 team at the end of the season?

The answer is a boring one, which is why I haven’t felt the need to really write about it.  At this stage of the season, the answer to where the Orioles will go from here is still a big, empty “who knows?”

We live in a sports world where “I don’t know” is never an acceptable answer.  Not when there are newspaper columns to write, blogs to fill, and television time to program.  In this case, I think it is probably the most honest response to that question.  There are far too many variables and unknowns still at play to make any sort of confident assertion as to where the Birds go the final 2/3’s of the season.

There have been positive occurrences that might not continue such as Nelson Cruz’s hot hitting and a relative lack of injuries to name two.  There are also a lot of players who are underperforming who might climb back to their career norms.  If the scale tips in one direction or the other, the Orioles could end up climbing up the standings or falling down them.  There is also the very distinct possibility that things continue to even out leaving the Orioles as basically a .500 team the entire season.  I would be hard pressed to tab any one of those three scenarios as more likely than the others.

 The Orioles - smacked dab in the middle of the AL East standings - have been the textbook definition of an average team thus far in 2014.

The Orioles - smacked dab in the middle of the AL East standings - have been the textbook definition of an average team thus far in 2014.

Like I said, it’s a boring answer but it is also probably the most accurate.

Having said that, when all else is equal we like to stay on the optimistic side.  To that end, there are reasons to believe that over the final four months of the season, the Orioles are more likely to see an improvement in terms of results rather than a regression.

There are only a few areas where the team has overachieved to date.  Nelson Cruz is probably not hitting 59 homeruns or ending with a 1.055 OPS.  However I am not sure a big decline is in the cards, either.  Cruz’s power numbers have traditionally come from pulling the ball.  He has a .410 ISO on pulled balls for his career, compared to .293 on balls up the middle and .238 to the opposite field.  In 2014, he is still demonstrating great power when pulling the ball (.562 ISO) but is also hitting the ball with authority to the gaps including to right-center (.483 ISO on balls up the middle).  Pitchers are trying to get him out by going away and for now he is making them pay.  As we saw last year with Chris Davis, if a natural pull hitter demonstrates the ability to hit the ball up the middle or the other way with authority that can be a lethal combination.  Cruz will cool off but his current approach might have him on the way to a big season regardless.

The other area the Orioles have been somewhat fortunate is on the injury front.  The starting rotation has remained healthy, which is usually a big plus.  Chris Davis spent 15 days on the DL and Tommy Hunter will spend about 20 days on the DL but both cases would have to be considered minor.  Only Matt Wieters is a significant injury loss at this point but even he might make it back for the last 2 or 3 months of the season.

Beyond those two points, however, it is difficult to find any area where the 2014 Orioles are overachieving.  Some players are producing at the expected level, some are well below, and some – J.J. Hardy for instance – on making up for a deficiency in one area (power) with an increase in another (getting on base).  I wrote this at the end of April and I will write it again now:  there is a significant enough number of players underperforming their track records that if a few see positive movement towards their career averages then the overall performance to the team could tick up in the months to come.  There are a lot conditional words in that sentence, but it is not blind hope.  The track records are there for many of these players.

We all know the suspects here – the guys that are underperforming their track records.  Chris Davis is getting on base at a good clip but his power numbers and batting average are down.  J.J. Hardy – who has not hit less than 22 homeruns in each of his three previous seasons – has yet to a hit a homerun (even if he is making up for the lack of slugging with a much higher than normal batting average).  Manny Machado has yet to look comfortable at the plate for an extended period of time and has an OPS of just .612.  Adam Jones is not hitting got the kind of power he is capable of.  Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez all have ERA’s well north of their two year averages despite posting very similar walk and strikeout numbers.

This is all very broad, of course, but that is sort of the point. 

There is no magical formula that will turn the Orioles from a .500 team into a playoff team over the next four months.  There is nothing that necessarily “needs” to happen.  That is, there are not one or two elements that will make or break the season.  All we have to go by is a list of things that have gone right and could reasonably go wrong and a list of things that could reasonably go right but have gone wrong so far.  If forced to take a side, I would say that based on the incomplete list presented above, that the Orioles have more opportunities to improve over the next four months than they have trip-up points.

It has been frustrating at times this season – particularly at moments when the chips are down – to read and hear from fans throwing in the towel.  It is always frustrating, but it has been particularly irritating to me this season because the Orioles have assembled a good team with positive track records.  This isn’t a collection of 25 “if’s”, “hopes”, and “maybes”.  If someone jumped ship after the first month or two months this season, that either indicates to me that they never thought the team would be any good this season of they are simply choosing to ignore the true quality of the players on the team.  This is a (young) veteran team with good players up and down the roster.  Just because it hasn’t all gelled in two months doesn’t mean it won’t.  There is something to be said for trusting in the track records and overall quality of the players.

All of it might not come together, but there is at least reasonable hope that it will.  It is not the answer anyone wants to here because it is so indecisive.  I believe it is the reality of the situation, however.  The odds might be evenly split into thirds on whether the team improves as the season progresses, takes a step backwards, or remains even at .500.  If a team can say they at least have those odds to begin the season and can say it again 1/3rd into the season, they are at least contenders.  The difference between a contending non-playoff team and a World Series winner is often just good fortune and some luck.  To be able to honestly call the team a contender is therefore all any of us can really ask for.