You know the old, well-worn Hollywood script where the little guy overcomes long odds/a decidedly bigger guy/his own demons to get the girl/save the world/buy back the farm/etc? I always wondered what came after that final scene.
Do they use whatever confidence derived from that seminal moment for the rest of their lives? Or do they gradually fade back into being the little nerdy loser guy? That’s part of why sports are so great – you always get to find out what happens next.
I think your AL and NL East leaders right now, the Orioles and the Nationals, will show you exactly what can happen to the little guy.
Right now, they are both enjoying a definitive moment in the sun. The Orioles are tied for first with the Rays at 29-19 in the most challenging division in baseball, and the Nationals are two games up in their division – the only division where every team is above .500.
I see the two teams going in very divergent paths after this, and there is only one reason why: sustainability. One team has it, the other team doesn’t appear to.
Over the course of a long 162 game season, almost all pitchers – good and bad – have their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) normalize around .300. What exactly does that mean? That means that pitchers who can keep balls out of play (via the strikeout) are largely more successful than pitchers who cannot.
There is no pitching staff in baseball that is as good at keeping the ball out of play than the Washington Nationals.
Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are playing ping-pong going back and forth with the NL strikeout title, with Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson lurking, averaging just below a strikeout per inning themselves.
But it is only May 28. Doing something for the first two months of a season and doing them for the full six month season is a whole different story – but these guys all have the pedigree to suggest this isn’t a mirage.
Each of the five pitchers in the rotation averages more than 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings for their entire career. If you exclude fifth starter/new long-man Ross Detwiler, that number surges to a quality 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
That isn’t just the starting rotation, however. Every member of the bullpen aside from sinkerballer Chien-Ming Wang and second year player Ryan Mattheus are above 5.5 K’s per nine innings as well.
This makes sense, because as a dyed in the wool Nationals fan, I was overjoyed when they signed Edwin Jackson. To me, that meant that for the entire season, the Nats would have at least five quality starting pitchers. That’s never been the case before. There was always at least one Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Matt Chico or Ryan Drese in the rotation. Now, they’ve got two Major League quality starters (John Lannan and Ross Detwiler) who aren’t in the rotation right now.
When your pitching is that good, that can cover up for a lot of deficiencies at the plate. And rest assured, the Nationals have plenty of those – but that’s an issue for another column.
I’m not necessarily ready to predict that the Nationals are winning the division this season, but as it is, it’s still very much in play to me.
Now, to the Orioles. Aside from the fact that they are in a division with two of the undisputed best teams in baseball (the Yankees and Rays), that’s not the biggest reason I think they will come back to earth.
Right now, they lead the universe in home runs with 72 home runs, and 16.4% of their fly balls are leaving the yard. That is by no means sustainable.
In the last six years, the single best home run to fly ball ratio was the 2005 Reds, who saw an absurd 15.0% of all fly balls go over the fence. For perspective, the second best season was turned in by the Yankees last year, and they saw 14.3% leave the yard.
Also over the course of the last six years, the players on the current Orioles active roster hit 10.3% of fly balls for home runs (in unrelated news, Fangraphs is pretty much the coolest site on the web. It’s cooler than DCSportsFan… You know what? If you’re still reading this, just go check that out in a different window. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)
That screams that a big, painful regression is probably in the Orioles future, especially considering they don’t start any impact rookies that may skew the numbers away from what is expected.
Of the Orioles’ 219 runs on the season, 105 of them came via the home run. If the Orioles team had been hitting at their last-six-year norms, they would have hit a pedestrian 45 home runs so far this season. That would have resulted in roughly 66 runs if the distribution was the same as the real season.
While it would be way too quick and dirty to apply that data directly to run differential, it is safe to say that the Orioles’ +17 would if nothing else, be a lot closer to even and possibly even negative if they haven’t gotten so much help from the long ball.
As for the Orioles' pitching, it's been roughly league average. I feel totally comfortable with their pitching staff continuing to do what they do now.
I still don’t think the Orioles will sniff a playoff spot, but a third or fourth place finish is within reach (especially if the Red Sox continue to be the total mess they’ve been so far this season) with a little luck and a lot of help.