The Orioles made their triumphant return to the postseason in 2012.
The odds of them getting back there in 2013, if you trust Baseball Prospectus' projection, are less than 5 percent.
It's one of those preseason predictions that had Adam Jones saying last month that "Sometimes I wish the media would just shut the hell up."
It's not that the numbers crunchers at Baseball Prospectus hate the Orioles. It's just that much of what the O's did last year either isn't quantifiable (like deftly shuttling players up and down from the minors) or isn't easy to repeat (bullpen success, dominance in one-run games).
At least that's the explanation from Baseball Prospectus Editor in Chief Ben Lindbergh, who was kind enough to sit down for a phone interview.
Here's our Q&A, which touches on the Orioles, predictions for the AL East and the state of sabermetrics in 2013:
There's been a lot of numerical negativity surrounding the Orioles this spring, what's the main takeaway that you see when you look at them?
I was as guilty as anyone else [last year saying that] the Orioles weren't going to last, and that they didn't have the run differential that would go with their record, that their record in one-run games would regress. And they managed to sustain that the entire season and made a lot of us look wrong.
A lot of people say this about the sabermetric sort of people, that we're a little too negative about the Orioles. And I think maybe there's something to that. … Clearly [the Orioles] made some big strides, but I guess the numerical negativity this winter is just that they had that best record ever in one-run games, which is not something that teams have shown any ability to sustain from season to season. Even if it is partially a result of a good bullpen and not just good luck, it seems that bullpen performance is one of the least stable aspects of a team from season to season.
A good hitting team can often be a good hitting team the next season, and a team with good starting pitching often can be able to sustain that. But bullpen performance fluctuates a lot from year to year, so there's just some concern that they were fortunate in their one-run record last year and that they won't be as much this year. And they had a quiet offseason while a lot of their division rivals were busy, so there's not a lot of improvement, at least on paper, to overcome that regression that would be expected.
When you look at the projections that you had for a lot of the Orioles' key players, their numbers are going down. Is there anyone in particular on the Orioles whose numbers could go up significantly this year?
Of course there's Machado, and if you look at his projections, they're not particularly encouraging. Our projections tend to be pretty conservative with guys that young, but with guys that talented, of course there's the possibility that they will exceed that and put things together very quickly. The risk with him is just that he skipped Triple-A, he hasn't really had a lot of higher-level experience and I think we've kind of gotten spoiled by seeing guys such as [Mike] Trout and [Bryce] Harper succeed at such young ages, which really isn't he norm – even for talented players.
I guess based on his talent and his age, [Machado] is kind of the biggest breakout candidate. And it wasn't like the Orioles' success [in 2012] was based on a lot of guys having flukey seasons, I don't think. It's not that a lot of their guys had seasons that were completely out of line with their previous history and that we'd expect them to decline by a lot. It was really just when they scored their runs as opposed to how many they scored.
So, I don't think there are a ton of guys that are in for a huge step back this year. I don't think there were too many guys who were just kind of mirages. It just seems like they probably won't be quite as fortunate in when they score their runs this season.
As a club it seems like the Orioles are embracing sabermetrics more and more now under [executive vice president Dan] Duquette. How do they rank, looking it them against the other teams, in terms of how well they use the advanced numbers.
It's hard to say, because we don't really know what goes on in front offices. They're not one of the more vocal teams when it comes to embracing stats. They don't have people in their front office who used to be [Baseball Prospectus] writers or guys who were writing about sabermetrics on the internet, like a lot of teams do.
They don't have a very vocal, public stats presense, so I don't know. But there really isn't a team in baseball without someone working on stats all the time. I know there was someone from the Orioles down at the [SABR Analytics Conference earlier this month in Phoenix], so certainly they have people doing that and looking at that. I would think that just based on the fact that historically they haven't been a huge proponent of sabermetrics leads me to think that maybe they're still playing catch-up in that area and maybe aren't ahead of the pack. But it's hard to say from outside. It's possible that they're really advanced about those things and just like to keep quiet about it, which certainly makes sense.
One of the things you wrote this spring was about how there probably isn't going to be a "next" Orioles or A's this season. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking there?
Yeah, I mean it just seems like every year we try to find that breakout team or that team that's going to surprise everyone. And it's kind of a fun exercise, but it's one that usually doesn't lead to anything. If we could pick surprise teams consistently, then they wouldn't really be surprise teams.
But the fact that the A’s and the Orioles both really surprised … and exceeded their expectations by so much, I think there’s kind of a tendency to think that maybe that’s the new norm and that this is something that happens every year. It doesn’t, really. Most seasons there isn’t really one Orioles or A’s, let alone two.
So, I think with the new wild-card format there definitely is a lower barrier of entry to the playoffs, and it's certainly possible that a team can get a little lucky and stay healthy and be good enough to sneak into the playoffs when people weren't expecting it to. But I really wouldn't expect any team to take as big of a step forward as the Orioles [did in 2012], because even though the Orioles really did fundamentally get a lot better last year, they also had some luck. And it's impossible to project which teams will get lucky in any given season, so I wouldn't expect anyone to win exactly the way that they won.
You mentioned teams in the division making a lot of moves in the offseason. Can you handicap the AL East the way you see it heading into the year?
It's tough. I think a lot of the teams are really going to be bunched together. Our projections are still bullish on the Yankees – despite the injuries and their age, I still think they have the core talent to be the best team in the division for one more year at least.
And then the Orioles are projected to be in last and the other three teams are kind of bunched together in the mid-to-high 80s win range. I guess I would probably be a little more optimistic about the Blue Jays than our projection system would be. And the Rays will be right there again, as they are season to season.
So, I think it'll be very close. I think just looking at the numbers the Orioles are probably clearly the worst team – or the likeliest to be worst. But they're also a team that I could easily see exceeding that projection, because they really kind of developed a new strategy for winning last season. They did something that we haven't seen teams do. They kind of treated their 40-man roster as an extension of their 25-man roster, and they treated their Triple-A team as an extension of their major league team. The roster was just so fluid all season, and even though they didn't have a lot of core stars, they were so aggressive in just making sure that the team was fully stocked and prepared to play every day.
It's not something that a projection system would incorporate, but the fact that Duquette and [Buck] Showalter were so aggressive in mixing, matching and making sure the team always had a full bullpen every day, those things really matter. … That's something we really can't project, but it's certainly a sustainable strategy and something I'm sure they'll employ this year. Their Opening Day roster didn't look a whole lot like their roster at the end of the season, and I'm sure that will be the case again.
It seems like every year sabermetrics become more and more mainstream and the gulf between the old school and new school is getting smaller. Do you see that from your position?
I think so. At this point I think really any gap between the old school and new school is purely in the media. There's still a lot of writers who have been writing about baseball for decades and some of them have been quick to embrace these stats and new ways of thinking about the game, and others less so.
But I think inside the game really there is not a team that doesn't look at stats and take stats seriously and do advanced things with stats that we don't even know about. I think the whole stats vs. scouts debate has tended to be overblown probably from the start and especially now. There just isn't a team that doesn't take both of those things into account, and there are a lot of teams that send their stat guys to scout school, and there are teams with scouts that have a background in stats.
Anything that you read on Baseball Prospectus or on any sabermetrics site is not something that would be news to any major league front office at this point, I don't believe.
OK, last question. Give me one bold prediction for the year. Doesn't have to be about the Orioles.
Ah, let's think. I guess one thing that people don't expect is that our projection system projects Mike Trout to have the biggest decline of any hitter this season – and yet still to be the fifth-most valuable hitter of everyone.
I think a lot of people look at how great he was last season – and he really was great – and they look at his age … and just think that he can build on last year and be better than that as he approaches his prime.
I think, as great as he is, there's a real chance that 2012 might have been the best season for him that we'll ever see. It's tough to project a player to improve on a season that great, and I think despite his age, he could be in for some regression and it's possible that's the best we'll ever see of Mike Trout, even though I expect him to be a superstar for the next decade. I think we should temper our expectations a bit and not be disappointed if he doesn't find some new, unimaginable, higher level. If he can maintain anything close to what he was last year, then he will be a Hall of Fame player.