Trivia question: Who has the most wins in the American League in the last five seasons? If your guess was the Baltimore Orioles, you are correct, but I can almost guarantee you googled the answer. The Orioles have quietly been one of the most consistently successful teams in baseball over the last half decade, but have mostly flown under the radar. Perhaps this is because they have not won a game past the ALDS, or maybe they are simply overshadowed by the Red Sox and Yankees. Whatever the case, this article is not about how underrated the Orioles are, but rather how peculiar their path to success has been. Whether it is the adoption of sabermetrics into MLB front offices or the increase in spending in the international market, the Orioles have resisted almost every league wide trend and have succeeded by marching to the beat of their own drummer.
Starting pitchers are more valued in the MLB now than ever before. Teams regularly dole out 15-20 million for mid-to-back of the rotation starting pitchers. These moves are supported in large part to the notion that you can not win without great starting pitching. Somehow, the Orioles have proved this theory wrong. Over the last five seasons, the Orioles have not had a starting pitcher with an ERA under 3.21 and no Orioles starting pitcher has received a single top 10 AL Cy Young vote. When doing research on the Orioles starting pitching, I thought maybe despite the team not having an ace, they had more balance in their rotation than other teams. This inkling proved incorrect as well — Orioles starters rank 12th in the AL in WAR over the last five years.
My next thought was that despite the Orioles having subpar starting pitching, maybe they were doing something defensively to make up for this inefficiency. In an era where teams employ defensive shifts far more than ever before, maybe the Orioles were successfully shifting to help with run prevention. Unfortunately, I was wrong again. In fact, the Orioles have shifted less than any other team in baseball over the last three years (this is when shifting statistics started to be recorded), leading them to less Shift Runs (runs saved due to defensive shifting) than any other team. Old school manager Buck Showalter is not a fan of the shift, and the statistics show that his teams suffer for it, but it’s hard to criticize this decision when his teams keep on winning.
Offensively, the O’s are also a bit of an anomaly. Since Moneyball, teams have emphasized players with the ability to reach base via the walk. While teams increasingly place more importance on high OBP hitters, the Orioles have won despite not ranking 13th in the AL in BB% during this five year period. The O’s have also struck out more as a team than all but three AL clubs in that span.
As a brief side note, the Orioles also spend noticeably less than any other team in the international market. Obviously, teams can be successful without spending on the international market, but the fact that the MLB has had to implement stringent rules to regulate international spending shows that many feel the ability to capitalize on the international market is a competitive advantage. The Orioles have not spent more than 1.23 million in the international market since 2012, while nearly 50 individual players have signed deals for more than that number in the same time span.
These statistics all illustrate that the O’s path to success is extremely atypical, but the O’s have also done a lot of things right. First and foremost, they have had the most dominant bullpen in baseball over the course of the last five years. While having an elite bullpen is not nearly as conducive to success as having a dominant starting rotation is (just 34% of total innings have been thrown by relievers over the last five seasons), it certainly helps. A top notch bullpen is especially useful when you play a ton of one run games, which the Orioles do. Since 2012, the Orioles bullpen has lead them to a 127 – 103 record in one-run games. If you take out the 2013 season in which the Orioles went 20-31 in such games, the Orioles would boast a gaudy 107 – 72 record in games decided by one run. This success in one run games partly helps explain why the Orioles have surpassed their expected win total (win total based on run differential) four of the last five seasons. The Orioles clearly value their relievers more than other teams and it is one of the key reasons they have found success.
The second reason for the Orioles newfound winning ways is their ability to hit the long ball. Since 2012, the Orioles have hit nearly 100 more home runs than the next closest team. The Orioles do not just excel at hitting dingers, but at hitting extra-base hits in general. In the last five years, Baltimore hitters have an impressive .173 ISO, which is also the best in the MLB. The Orioles astronomical home run and extra-base hit totals are no coincidence as their 36.8% FB% is the 2nd highest in the MLB during the past half decade. The O’s high FB rate shows a clear organizational philosophy that encourages trying to hit home runs. Baltimore has ranked in the top 6 in the AL in runs scored every year during this span, and their affinity for the round-tripper is a big reason why.
The Orioles have been extremely unorthodox in how they have constructed their rosters en route to becoming one of the winningest teams in baseball. Overall, the Orioles success is a testament to the variety of ways it is possible to wins games in the MLB.
**As usual, all statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs and BaseballProspectus.