Though Buck Showalter didn't win the Manager of the Year award Tuesday night, he came very close, losing to the A's Bob Melvin by four first-place votes, with both skippers being ranked first or second on every ballot. Showalter's supporters we're surely impressed by the Orioles' 29-9 record in one-run games and 16-2 record in extra-innings, which some framed as a testament to Showalter's handling of his team. Given that the Orioles record in one-run games in 2012 was the best in major league history, this seems like a good time to break open the black box surrounding that theoretically lucky performance and see exactly how, when, and if possible, why the Orioles performed so well in such games.
To begin with, the Orioles' success in one-run games didn't really become extraordinary until June. They were 3-2 in such games in April and 5-3 in May for a favorable but not unusual 8-5 record through the first two months of the season. However, in June, July, and August, they went 15-1 in one-run games including a 12-game winning streak from June 22 to August 27. From June 2 to September 13, they were 18-2 in such games. That's where they built up that .763 winning percentage in one-run games for the season. After September 13, they went 2-2 in one-run games in the regular season, 4-3 if you include the postseason. So the Orioles outlandish success in one-run games was even shorter lived than the six-month season. It really only lasted 3 1/2 months.
It's also worth noting that seven of the Orioles 18 extra-inning games, including six of their wins, were one-run games, so there's significant overlap between those two records, which are typically quoted separately. A better representation would be to say the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games and 10-1 in extra-inning games decided by more than one run. Those winning percentages are still unusual, but framing it that way properly reduces the number of "lucky" wins the 2012 Orioles enjoyed from an apparent 45 to the actual 39.
As for how the Orioles won those games, the phrase "one-run game" typically conjures the image of a well-played, low-scoring contest, and that was in fact the nature of most of the Orioles one-run games in 2012. The average American League game in 2012 saw 8.9 runs scored. Of the Orioles 38 one-run games, 28 of them saw fewer runs cross the plate, with the Orioles going 22-6 (.786) in those games, and 19 of them saw five or fewer runs scored, with the Orioles going 16-3 (.842) in those games. As was the case in the Division Series against the Yankees, the fewer runs scored overall, the more favorable the conditions for the 2012 Orioles. The Orioles played two 1-0 games in 2012, both on the road against the Rays, and won them both.
One thing I tried to categorize as I went through the box scores was how the decisive run scored in each of those 38 games. I came up with four basic categories: home run (self explanatory), hits (if the run was scored by a sequence of inside-the-park hits), error (if the loser made a misplay, be it a fielding error, wild pitch, or hit-by-pitch, that set up the decisive run), and "manufactured" (if there was a bunt or stolen base involved in the decisive run coming around to score). All but two of the 38 games fit into one of those four categories. Here's what I found:
Just two of the 29 runs that resulted in a one-run Orioles win were "manufactured," and none of them followed a stolen base. The two manufactured runs came around with the help of a sacrifice bunt. The first was by Endy Chavez on April 22 in the top of the 10th of a tied game. The second was by Robert Andino on September 12 in the bottom of the ninth of a tied game (both games were tied 2-2, coincidentally). Similarly, just one winning Orioles run scored on a productive out, that coming in the top of the sixth inning on June 6 against the Red Sox when the decisive run scored from third on a Chavez groundout following a trio of singles.
I left that June 6 run as one of my two outliers from the four categories above, but if you want to put it in the hits category it would be just the fifth example of the O's stringing together a series of hits to plate a decisive run in a one-run game. The other outlier came on July 19, when, in the top of the eighth, the Twins walked two Orioles who were moved up by a groundout and scored on a Mark Reynolds single. Reynolds' hit was clutch, but it was the only O's hit in the inning. If anything, that run counts as an opposition error, which would make it just the fourth example of the O's scoring a decisive run in a one-run game as a result of their opponents' misplays.
By far leading cause of the Orioles' winning runs in one-run games was the home run. In their 29 one-run wins, the decisive run scored on a home run 17 times. Earl Weaver would be proud, but that goes a long way toward undermining the impression of Showalter's in-game strategy as a key component of the Orioles' success in one-run games, at least in terms of run scoring.
Where Showalter could be said to have his biggest impact on the Orioles' one-run wins was in his management of his bullpen. The Orioles used their pen for an average of three innings in their 38 one-run games and their relievers posted a 2.12 ERA in those innings (115 in total over the course of the season). What's striking about that is that their starters' posted a 5.35 ERA in their one-run losses, but a 2.65 ERA in their one-run wins, but their relievers posted a 2.84 ERA even in their one-run losses, much closer to their 1.88 mark in one-run wins. The Orioles' starter took the loss in six of their nine one-run losses.
What this tells us is that the Orioles did indeed win their one-run games the way they won the rest of the season, with pitching and home runs. Knowing that makes their one-run record seem like less of a fluke, but it doesn't make it any more repeatable.
For the curious, I went a step further than the above and tried to categorize the nature of each one-run game, though I'm not sure there's much meaning to be gleaned from the results. For example, nine of the Orioles one-run wins came in games in which they had held a greater lead only to let their opponent score just enough runs to lose. The best example of this was May 19, when the Orioles beat the Nationals 6-5 in a game they led 6-0 after four and a half innings.
I categorized seven of their one-run games as see-saw games, games with multiple lead-changes that fit no other prescribed pattern. The O's went 5-2 in those games. Five games were straight comeback wins. Seven saw them blow an early lead and come back to win (four in extra innings, three in regulation). The two wins left unaccounted for were their two 1-0 wins over the Rays, one of which saw the lone run score in the fourth inning, the other of which saw it score in the 14th.
As for their losses beyond the two see-saw games, three saw them fall behind early and never take a lead, though they did mount an unsuccessful comeback in two of them to get within one run of their opponent, and four saw them blow an early lead and unable to retake it, one of which they lost in extras.
Here are some other one-run game splits for your perusal:
Overall: 38 (29-9)
April: 5 (3-2)
May: 8 (5-3)
June: 7 (6-1)
July: 6 (6-0)
August: 3 (3-0)
September: 7 (4-3)
Oct: 1 (1-0)
Postseason: 3 (2-1)*
*Two extra-innings, all vs. the Yankees, one home, two road, all with five or fewer runs scored between the two teams; postseason games not included in the other splits
Home: 16 (12-4)
Road: 22 (17-5)
Extra innings: 6-1
Nine innings: 23-8
By team (minimum three such games):
TBR: 7 (6-1)
NYY: 5 (2-3)
WAS: 4 (4-0)
BOS: 4 (2-2)