Are the Baltimore Orioles Playoff Bound?

Oriole Park at Camden Yards press box view.

The Baltimore Orioles shouldn’t be 25-17 after 42 games, but they’ve managed to transcend mediocre metrics and precarious scenarios to start the 2017 season with a bang. One of their latest adventures – a wild, 13-11, thirteen-inning thriller in Comerica Park against the Detroit Tigers – showed the Orioles ability to gut out wins in unorthodox ways. When key contributors heal from injury, and return to expected form, Baltimore’s knack for clutch play could become an intangible strength that separates them from the rest of the AL East.

Before the regular season began, Orioles betting odds were approximately 25-1 to win the World Series. The strong start to the regular season has changed those numbers to roughly 20-1. Considering the challenges faced by competitors in the American League, Baltimore appears to have an opportunity to break out and have a great regular season. With an inside track for a post-season appearance, the Orioles have a decent chance to make some noise come October.

Slow Starting Sluggers Will Rise

The Orioles were close last year, finishing with an 89-73 record, good enough for a wild card spot against their bitter rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays. They were only four games behind the Boston Red Sox for top spot in the AL East. During the final stretch of the season, the team needed only a few more wins to catch up – instead, the post-season ended early on an Edwin Encarnacion walk-off homer in the 11th.

Throughout the 2016 regular season, the Orioles relied mostly on the long ball for run production, preferring to bludgeon their opponents into submission instead of winning through progressing batters. Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo combined for 122 home runs, seven players hit 17 or more dingers, and the Orioles finished first in homers in the MLB by a sizeable margin.

These crushers have gotten off to a bit of a slow start this year, hovering around the middle of the pack offensively as the quarter mark of the season approaches, including a dip in hits, runs scored, and home runs.

In particular, young superstar Manny Machado appears sluggish instead of a looking like a dangerous slugger. His batting average has stagnated around .220, far below his career average of .281 – still, he finds himself tops in RBIs on the team, leading the Orioles in dingers with ten, just a handful off American League leaders.

Manny Machado throws while falling forward.

Contributions from solid starts by Mancini and Schoop have eased the pain somewhat, giving Machado, Trumbo and Davis a chance to re-establish their swings. These Orioles batters will likely return to their bruising form, which could create one of the most dangerous lineups in the majors.

Starters Progressing To The Next Level

One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2017 season thus far would be the starting pitching of Dylan Bundy. This youngster has offered a series of sterling outings, embodying the improved performance of the rotation as a whole. The starters have propped up the Orioles as the offense grinds into gear, and the bullpen faces tough injuries.

Compared to 2016, which featured an Orioles starting staff with inflated ERAs, the overall quality of starts has improved, lessening the impact of injuries and slow starts. Chris Tillman has returned without skipping a beat, and Bundy appears to have the opportunity to become a consistent presence in the American League.

This type of one-two punch could establish a rhythm that makes it easier to stabilize the entire pitching staff. Injuries and uncertainty in the bullpen will eventually settle over the upcoming week. If starters continue to perform at an improved rate, the Orioles could finally have the type of pitching that gives them a shot at a lengthy run in the post-season.

Bullpen Will Welcome Back An All-Star

The bullpen of the Baltimore Orioles has been subjected to significant levels of stress during the early part of the season, forced to pitch way too many extra innings on a regular basis. In a bit of a twist on the usual story, Orioles starters haven’t been the main reason for losses. Relievers have coughed up leads in mind-boggling fashion too often, forcing manager Buck Showalter to go deeper in the pen than expected.

Deputy closer Brad Brach has struggled to lock things down, giving up untimely homers and clutch hits which have allowed rivals to climb back into games. Darren O’Day has been dealing with shoulder issues, limiting his innings and effectiveness. Even worse, all-star closer Zach Britton will be out for another month or so, which leaves the bullpen unbalanced.

Zach Britton pitches on the Camden Yards mound.

The good news is that the starters appear to be eating more innings than in years previous, which will help reduce the stress somewhat. Tillman returning to form will relieve the bullpen of extra innings. In 2016, Britton and Brach set ‘em up and knocked them down consistently, with Zach closing a perfect 47 of 47 outings. The Orioles had only 14 blown saves in 2016, but already have eight far this season.

Sometimes Winning Is Intangible

So far, Baltimore has managed to mitigate a tough start to the season, mostly through a better-than-expected opening quarter by the starters. The bullpen, considering the numerous injuries and assignment changes, can’t be blamed for the unstable start to the season. You can’t expect consistency in a revolving door scenario.

The bats will turn around, barring a rash of injuries. Machado and Davis should trend up towards their MVP potential, and the batting lineup as a whole will rarely want for power. If anything, the fact that the team has created so many wins despite poor analytics could bode well in the long run.

Certainly – the bullpen and the heart of the order must improve to take advantage of good fortune, otherwise the numbers will catch up. But the prospect of hitters and relievers returning to form while the starting rotation improves should elicit excitement for the organization. Ultimately, it was always going to be the starting pitching that was the limiting reagent for the Orioles, and a strong first quarter of the season could signal a breakthrough for the club in 2017.

submitted by Kent Tukeli

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