Like most Baltimore pitchers, Gonzalez has played above his head this year. Will it last? Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
A common theme regarding the Baltimore Orioles in recent years has been random variation (or luck, for the uninitiated), and its role in their newfound success. The sabermetric cognoscenti — of which I consider myself a member — assert that they have consistently overperformed. While this isn’t particularly uncommon, we still tend to believe that it won’t continue; after all, regression to the mean is a key statistical principle, as is DIPS. Because of these, we usually don’t buy into the “maybe they just always beat the numbers” stance, and will usually project a minimal amount of luck going forward. In the case of the Orioles, though, they might actually keep this up.
Let’s look at 2014, on the pitching side of things. A few months ago, I noticed that June had seen Baltimore’s starting pitchers produce better results than their peripherals would suggest. Putting up a formidable 3.36 despite a horrid 4.80 FIP, they would inevitably fall back to Earth, or so I thought. In the three months since then, they’ve posted ERAs of 3.29, 3.55, and 2.01, respectively, to go along with FIPs of 3.96, 3.79, and 3.48. Granted, none of those months had as massive of a discrepancy as June, but they still feature overperformance. Add it all up, and you get a rotational ERA of 3.64 and FIP of 4.20. Coupled with similar serendipity from the bullpen (3.18 ERA, 3.54 FIP), this gives the Orioles a 3.48 ERA and a 3.97 FIP for the season as a whole.
This degree of good fortune seems rather unusual. In order to determine how unusual it is, I looked at history. To adjust for the fluctuation run environments inherent to this crazy game, I utilized ERA- and FIP-, which gauge Baltimore’s output thus far as 11% better than average and 2% worse than average, respectively. How many teams, since the turn of the 19th century, have met both of these conditions — i.e., how many clubs have compiled an ERA at least 10% below the MLB mean, as well as an FIP at or above the MLB mean?
Other than the 2014 Orioles, a mere 40. Their aggregate ERA was 3.21; their FIP, 3.72. With only slightly more than one occurrence every three years, this certainly doesn’t come around every day; nonetheless, it also doesn’t disappear entirely. And that makes sense — as Dave Cameron mentioned in the piece linked to above, some teams will inevitably surpass predictions. But what do they do going forward? In other words: Of those 40 squads, how many made the postseason, and what did their hurlers do once they arrived?
This is where it gets interesting. 17 of the 40 campaigns ended with a playoff berth of some kind; those 17 teams combined to pitch 963.2 October innings, in which they owned…a 3.21 ERA and a 3.83 FIP. On an individual team level, 13 of the 17 participants allowed fewer postseason earned runs than they should have; in fact, nine did so to a greater extent than in the regular season.
What does this mean for the Orioles? Well, a study in which n=17 obviously won’t supply us with any firm conclusions. Plus, the narrow nature of that sample size goes to show just how rare the 2014 Orioles are — and rare, in this case, isn’t something to take pride in. But this does tell us that, in the past, teams that exceed their forecast generally haven’t ceased to do so upon the conclusion of game 162. Perhaps, therefore, we should expect the same from the Orioles henceforth.
And this doesn’t come as a surprise (to me, at least). The Orioles have, as I said initially, paced the world in terms of luck for a good amount of time now, and they don’t plan on stopping. At some point, we might have to chalk this up to more than just chance; maybe then, we’ll alter our outlooks to reflect how well they’ll actually play. In the meantime, though, they have some playoff games to win, and I’d certainly like the pitching to help them achieve that goal. If this brief exercise is any indication, that could definitely come to fruition.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, as of Tuesday, September 16th.