How For Real Are The Orioles?

That’s a question a lot of people are asking these days, as the O’s sit atop the standings in the AL East. Short answer: probably not.

The team has legitimately played well so far this year, but they’re not this good. Right now they’re on pace for 100+ wins, and everyone knows they can’t keep that pace up. Here’s what level they need to play at for the rest of the season to hit various win totals:

If they play like a __ win team They’ll end up with __ wins
68 75
70 77
72 79
74 80
76 82
78 83
80 85
82 86
84 88
86 89
88 91
90 92
92 94

As you can see, the wins the team has already banked has lifted their floor up a fair bit, but to actually make the playoffs they’re probably going to need to play like a “real” playoff team from here on out.

Here are guys who might be over-performing:

Adam Jones – .302/.350/.591, +6 UZR, 2.5 fWAR

Can he keep it going?

Probably not. Jones’ line is carried largely by his home run production – 11 already (on pace for ~47 homers) – and, though he does have legitimate power and is hitting the ball in the air more than he used to, he’s still a groundball hitter and just isn’t going to maintain a 23.4% home run per flyball rate. If his HR/FB rate was 17% instead (which is higher than his career 13.6%, as well as last year’s 16.7%), he’d be hitting a still very good but not amazing .282/.331/.510. Also, Jones probably isn’t going to post a +25 UZR this year (I’d take an even 0 going forward). After a -20 total for 2009-11, that would be quite a reversal. Still, he does look better out there – I don’t recall often having the thought this year, “if Jones was as good of a center-fielder as people thought he was, he would have caught that ball”, which came up not infrequently watching games in previous seasons (and still does with Nick Markakis).

On the bright side, Jones’ 5% walk rate is – while still bad – the second highest of his career. And he’s cut down on his strike-outs thus far. So while he’s probably not a 6 +win player, maybe Jones has finally crossed the 3 (and maybe even 4) win threshold. (He’s likely to literally finish above 4 fWAR this year just due to his crazy start, but he could play like a 4 win player from here on out, which would push him into the 5-6 range).

Matt Wieters – .274/.357/.540, +2 DRS, 1.6 fWAR

Same thing as with Jones regarding the homers – 8 already, on pace for ~37, 19% HR/FB rate. At least he’s elevating the ball more, which partially explains it (42% flyball rate, compared to ~38-39% previously). Drop his HR/FB% to 14.5% (higher than 11% career and 13.6% last year), and he’s hitting .258/.343/.476. That would still be great for a Gold Glove catcher though. It’l be fun to see whether Jones or Wieters leads the team in fWAR this year – the former has the head start, but the latter is probably playing closer to his true talent level so he shouldn’t see as much of a drop-off.

Robert Andino – .286/.338/.405, +1 UZR, 0.8 fWAR

Andino’s plate discipline type numbers have take a poor turn, going from ~2 K/BB last year to almost 4 K/BB this year. He’s not chasing more balls though (slightly fewer, actually), but he’s taking more strikes and whiffing much more often when he does swing. A .367 BABIP solves a lot of those problems, at least temporarily. And though 3 home runs isn’t exciting (for non-Pujols hitters, at least), Andino hit just 5 total in 2011. He came into the season with 11 career home runs, and is one pace to more than double that up. Still, once the BABIP comes down, things could get a little dicey. Still, a lot of people expected Andino to take a step back this year, and with this start he has a good chance of matching or surpassing last year’s 1.8 fWAR.

Chris Davis – .274/.317/.462, +1 UZR, 0.4 fWAR

Above replacement level! The season with Davis is a win-win, in that if he keeps this up (and he could – his .346 BABIP isn’t that much higher than his career .336, and his 20.8% HR/FB rate isn’t insane given that he really does have a ton of pop, and even if it comes down he can make up for it by hitting fewer groundballs (44.6%, compared to 37.4% career) then, hey, 1-2 win season from him is 1-3 wins more than expected. And if he doesn’t (the BABIP and HR/FB% probably will fall some), then we could have the really fun fact of Davis posting a higher fWAR as a pitcher (0.1) than as a position player.

JJ Hardy (?) – .252/.299/.490, +1 UZR, 1.2 fWAR

Home runs again. (It’s not even just Camden Yards either, as the team has hit 1.5 home runs per game at home and 1.7 per game on the road.)

Interestingly, Hardy isn’t doing anything unusual when you compare to last year:

FB% HR/FB%
Career 38.9% 11.8%
2011 43.4% 15.7%
2012 44.5% 15.8%

Hit the ball in the air, and hit it hard. It’s certainly working as intended. As a bonus, Hardy is chasing pitches out of the strike-zone way less often than he did last year (while also swinging at strikes more often than in the past, if still a below league average rate – that’s a great combo), so his 6.1% walk rate could actually have run to move up some. The main difference between last year and this year is that Hardy’s BABIP dropped from .273 to .240. Even that out and he’s actually improving on 2011’s 4.8 fWAR season. He keeps that up for a little while longer, and he could be worth his entire contract (3 years, $21 M), and perhaps a little extra, in each individual year of the deal. Seems good. (By the way, Jim Hoey has a 5.52 ERA in Triple-A… for the Blue Jays. Brett Jacobson has a 6.55 BB/9 in Double-A for Minnesota. Thanks Andy!)

Under-performers?

Nick Markakis – .245/.333/.434, -4 UZR, 0.2 fWAR

That fielding figure is largely what’s keeping Nick down, as his 110 wRC+ is actually higher than the 107 from 2011 (and 2009). The walks are up – an 11.5% rate would be his highest since 2008 – and so are the home runs (6, on pace for ~26, 17.6% HR/FB). I so very, very much want to believe that he can maintain both, especially since he’s taking more pitches (in and – especially – out of the zone) and striking out more (normally not good, but my theory for years has been that in an effort to cut down on his K’s, Nick started trying to just put the bat on the ball; thus his contact rate went up, as his strike-outs – but also his walks and power numbers – went down). Once his .261 BABIP improves – and there’s no real reason it shouldn’t – he could be hitting in the neighborhood of .280/.364/.476 (.306 BABIP) if everything else stays as-is (unlikely, but a fan can dream). Combined with a reasonably bad UZR (say, -7), and he could post his first 3+ win season since ’08. Not going to approach 6.3 fWAR with the fielding, but I’d take it at this point. More realistically, the walk and home run numbers fall off as the BABIP improves and he finishes at his “new normal” of 2+ wins.

Wilson Betemit – .228/.294/.435, -2 UZR, 0 fWAR

Having him play the field doesn’t really help, but once his .267 BABIP improves (.338 career) he should at least be OK at the plate (even if the 21.7% HR/FB rate doesn’t keep up).

Mark Reynolds – .191/.324/.337, -5 UZR, -0.5 fWAR

He’s walking a ton – career high 16.7% rate – but it looks like the rest of the team has stolen his power. Only 2 homers, and a 7.7% HR/FB rate. That will pick up at some point. The -5 UZR is brutal, but the -21 full season pace would still amazingly result in a 7 run improvement from 2011. Even if you want to be pessimistic and say he’s not even more than a replacement level anymore (which wouldn’t shock me, but seems overly harsh), that’s still much better than what they’ve seen so far.

So, quick and rough estimate of fWAR:

On pace for Finish more like Difference
Adam Jones 10 5.5 -4.5
Robert Andino 3.5 1.8 -1.7
Matt Wieters 7 5.5 -1.5
Chris Davis 1.7 0.7 -1
JJ Hardy 5 4.5 -0.5
Wilson Betemit 0 0.6 0.6
Nick Markakis 0.9 2 1.1
Mark Reynolds -2 0 2

That’s an almost 6 win swing, between the pace these guys are playing at, and the place they’re more likely to end up at. It’s actually funny how much of this is on Adam Jones. If he really is even close to this good, then that will be pretty amazing. There are questions about whether the O’s should try to extend or trade Jones this year, but that actually depends hugely on Jones himself; if he’s actually much better than he’s shown in previous years, then the O’s near-term outlook is a fair bit brighter and it makes sense to extend him if possible. If this is a mirage, and later this year or next year Jones goes back closer to what he has been – an above average, but merely solid player – then trading him could be fantastic (since the near-term outlook is worse, and you should be able to get more for Jones given his blistering start). That’s going to be a big decision for them, and if they guess wrong – trading superstar Jones and having to wait longer to be competitive, or signing solid Jones to a huge deal and then having that cause issues for them when they finally are ready to be truly competitive – it could be pretty bad for the team.

Overall, the offense hasn’t been playing too far over their heads, but unless they make up for the inevitable decline in home runs (they’re on pace for 254) by improving in other areas, they’ll probably end the year at slightly below average instead of above (currently sitting at 105 wRC+).

Part II – the pitching staff – goes up tomorrow.