One week ago Orioles fans were bracing themselves for a long, painful season, void of any sunlight, as we expected to be locked in the basement of the American League East. Now everyone is bubbling with excitement as the Orioles ride a 5 game win streak and are tied for the best record in baseball at 5-1.
I like to think I’m an optimist, but I am not a believer, yet. I’m having a hard time looking past 2 things that make me think this fast start is unsustainable.
- Who did we play? We swept the Seattle Mariners. A sweep is an achievement against anyone, but in my opinion, the Orioles are getting more credit than they should because it was the Seattle Mariners, who are being overrated in the general public’s eye. Yes, they went 88-74 last year, but they played over their head. They were actually outscored last year, but they were outstanding in close ballgames because of a great bullpen. Using some fancy Pythagorean formula and their runs scored vs. runs against, the expected W-L record for Seattle in 2007 was 79-83. This formula is usually very accurate. The only other team who was more than a handful of games better or worse than their expected W-L record in 2007 was Arizona, who was basically the NL version of Seattle. They were outscored, but used a great bullpen to win a large amount of close games resulting in a 90-72 record instead of 79-83.
If Seattle’s bullpen is so strong, you’d think that all of our comeback wins would make the sweep more impressive, but that’s not quite true. Their bullpen is a shadow of last year’s. Their All-Star closer (J.J. Putz) is on the DL and their best setup man is now the Orioles’ closer (George Sherrill). Their second best setup man last year (Brandon Morrow) is in the minor leagues. What is left is a below average bullpen.
The Orioles didn’t sweep a playoff contender. They swept a team with an average offense, an average starting rotation (it would be much better if we had faced Erik Bedard), and a below average bullpen.
- The workload on the bullpen. The Orioles bullpen has thrown 21 1/3 innings so far in 6 games, an average of about 3 ½ innings per game. This doesn’t seem too bad because we’re dealing with a small sample size and the last two games the Orioles starters lasted 7 and 6 innings. In the previous 4 games Orioles starters only managed to finish 5 innings twice. Getting our starters consistently deep into ballgames was expected to be a challenge coming into the season, and nothing has been done to disprove that. If the starters can’t provide consistent innings, the bullpen will be counted on to bail them out time and time again and could very easily get burned out by mid-season. We’ve seen that happen before and it can get ugly. They do have some guys back there who can give multiple innings and that will make burn-out easier to avoid, but they’ve got to be careful.
Does this mean that we should expect the Orioles to start crashing and burning any time now and resume their post as the whipping boy of the American League like so many “experts” were predicting? I give a cautiously optimistic - No. The Orioles are definitely playing better than expected. They’re playing with a ton of confidence and the bullpen is indeed a huge upgrade over last year. The “experts” thought we’d flirt with 100 losses, but if team morale stays out of the gutter and the starters can give consistent innings, the Orioles could have a shot at a .500 season. This is assuming we keep the same players all year, as well. I don’t expect us to be in the running for a playoff spot come July, so pretty much anyone is still trade bait. Brian Roberts will be the hardest to replace if he gets traded. He’s the spark plug who gets the engine running and without him the offense will suffer.
These are all big “IF”s so don’t cross your fingers, but couple this surprise with the team actually having a direction (rebuilding) and the Orioles could be fun to watch this year.