Getting by without star players: the 2012 Baltimore Orioles

Elsa

One of the problems with the 2011 Orioles seemed to be a lack of star talent. Their stock did not improve for the 2012 season, but they won anyway. How did that happen?

Last week, I tried to make some sense out of the improvement of the 2012 Orioles by looking at whether they had managed to address one of the big problems from the 2011 season: that too much playing time was given to scrubs. For position players, the situation was about as bad; for pitchers, there was improvement, but not enough to explain the jump from 69-93 to 93-69 or even coming close to that.

Another thing to consider to possibly explain the Orioles' rise from the depths is whether they improved the remainder of the team, meaning they would end up with more cumulative positive contributions from more different players.

One way we can attempt to measure this is Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR). It's important whenever this statistic is used to remember that it is not the be-all, end-all of player evaluation. It's not automatic that the best player in baseball was the one with the highest WAR, or that the 5th-highest WAR was the 5th-best player in baseball, and so on. On top of this, WAR confers no advantages within a single game or series of games, other than that it generally reflects superior talent. The final series between the 2011 Orioles and Red Sox remains the perfect illustration of why WAR sets nothing in stone.

However, that's not to say it is useless for trying to evaluate players.

THE ASSUMPTIONS

One way WAR can be interesting is to use it to look at how the talent is distributed around the league and whether teams make the most out of when they have talented players. I've broken down the players into three groups.

Decent or better (2+ WAR): These are players who should have a spot on any team in the league. Position players and starting pitchers who have nice enough, but not great, years, will fall in this category. A small number of relievers will qualify as well - in 2012, there were seven relievers with a 2+ WAR. You don't want your team overpaying these guys, but you'd probably rather have any 2+ WAR second baseman than Robert Andino, and you'd rather have any 2+ WAR starting pitcher in your rotation than Tommy Hunter.

Of course, there's some measure of expectations due to salary as well. A 2.2 WAR season from someone like Alex Rodriguez is much more disappointing, since he had a $29M salary. He still provides value to the Yankees, just not commensurate with his contract.

Good or better (4+ WAR): These are players who've had a good year, if probably not top-of-the-MVP-race caliber. Most 4+ WAR players are position players, though a handful of very good starters will do so. Across all of Major League Baseball, there were a total of 65 players with a 4+ fWAR in 2012. Players who are capable of hitting this level yearly for a period of several years are worth a lot of dollars. Adam Jones played to this level for the first time in his career.

Excellent (6+ WAR): These players are playing at a star level. There can always be debate about whose star is the biggest, but almost everyone can accept that these are among the top players in the league, except maybe for the Yankees beat writer who deemed Derek Jeter (3.2 WAR) as the third-most valuable player in the AL while neglecting to vote for Robinson Cano (7.8 WAR) entirely. There were 16 players with a 6+ fWAR in 2012, with 14 of them being position players and only 2 of them being pitchers. Six played in the American League and ten played in the National League. By comparison, there were 23 players with a 6+ fWAR in 2011.

The charts below show how the talent was distributed across the American League. Within each division, teams are listed in the order that they finished in the 2012 regular season standings.

THE CHARTS - AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

Team Decent+ Good+ Excellent High WAR Player Player's WAR Total Position WAR Total Pitcher WAR
Yankees 9 2 1 Robinson Cano 7.8 30.8 20.3
Orioles 6 2 0 Adam Jones 4.6 15.3 16.6
Rays 11 3 0 Ben Zobrist 5.9 22.3 23.2
Blue Jays 4 1 0 Edwin Encarnacion 4.4 15.8 7.6
Red Sox 8 1 0 Dustin Pedroia 4.5 20.8 13.7

CENTRAL

Team Decent+ Good+ Excellent High WAR Player Player's WAR Total Position WAR Total Pitcher WAR
Tigers 9 5 2 Miguel Cabrera 7.1 21.1 24.8
White Sox 7 3 0 Chris Sale 4.9 18.9 18.2
Royals 6 1 0 Alex Gordon 5.9 17.3 15.0
Indians 6 0 0 Carlos Santana 3.4 11.9 7.8
Twins 6 1 0 Joe Mauer 5.0 22.5 5.6

WEST

Team Decent+ Good+ Excellent High WAR Player Player's WAR Total Position WAR Total Pitcher WAR
Athletics 8 1 0 Josh Reddick 4.8 23.7 18.1
Rangers 11 5 1 Adrian Beltre 6.5 26.5 23.9
Angels 9 2 1 Mike Trout 10.0 37.4 10.0
Mariners 5 1 1 Felix Hernandez 6.1 13.5 13.5

Note that good+ and excellent players are included in the decent+ category, and excellent players are counted in the good+ category.

COMMENTARY

The Orioles stand out the most for one simple reason: their number of players in each category is exactly the same as last year (6/2/0). On balance, they ended up with the same number of players performing at roughly the same level - their total position player WAR was, in fact, identical to last year. How did they manage to leap from where they were to a wild card berth?

One way this might be explained is that the American League East was not as powerful this year as in previous years. In 2011, the Yankees had 6 good+ players and the Rays and Red Sox each had five. Each of these teams had multiple excellent players in 2011 as well, with the Red Sox having three and the Yankees and Rays having two apiece. There was one excellent player in the AL East this year - Cano.

While the possible step back of other teams may have been a contributing factor, it seems likely that the biggest reason is that the Orioles were a better team. There are ways that WAR can quantify this: the year's total pitcher WAR was about eight wins better than last year's. That's pretty good.

We know from our look at negative WAR players that about three of these wins came just from fewer innings thrown by the Jeremy Accardos of the world. The other five wins came from the other surprises on the staff, and one can probably argue that Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day had a much greater impact on the Orioles than their fWAR indicates when considering the Orioles' absurd 29-9 record in one-run games and their outstanding success in games when leading after 7 and 8 innings.

Did the dearth of star-level performances, particularly within the division, open the door for the Orioles to take advantage with this unique season of alchemical Orioles magic? The Dan Duquette roster merry-go-round cannot get enough credit here, stabilizing the right spots with the right players at the right time. Nate McLouth notched a 1.3 WAR in only 55 games - over a full season he may well have played into the 4+ category at that rate. He filled in problem spots in left field and in the leadoff spot of the lineup.

Manny Machado also had a 1.3 WAR in 51 games, shoring up the hot corner with his sparkling defensive play. We watched Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds over there. We know what Machado added to the team, and despite what fWAR says, there's a very good chance this was greater than winning one more game than they would have won otherwise.

THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

Fangraphs WAR is not without its merit, though the Orioles, much like they did with their run differential, seem to be the exceptions to the rule. One thing that is probably not a coincidence is that every sub-.500 team in the AL had only one or zero 4+ WAR players. On the other hand, Oakland is a pretty weird exception too, with only Reddick at 4+ WAR - but they had a greater number of 2+ WAR players, too.

It doesn't much matter how many players are in what category if they aren't clicking at the right time. The Texas Rangers have to ask themselves how they melted down with five 4+ WAR players. The Detroit Tigers ought to ask themselves why they barely took the Central division when they too have five 4+ WAR players, and when they were the only team in the AL to have multiple star-level players.

This is especially interesting when considering the MVP award. Trout had the same amount of WAR as every pitcher on his team, combined. Of course the Angels could not overcome this to make it into the playoffs over tough Texas and Oakland teams. Meanwhile, Cabrera had Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder who also boosted him into the playoffs - barely - in a weak division.

THE FUTURE

The real question for the Orioles is: can they count on this kind of thing happening again? Things seem so much more bright right now than they did this time last year because of the 2012 season. Yet, the more we try to make sense of it, even now that the season's over, it still makes no sense. It seems so improbable that they could possibly win this way another year, but then, it seemed just as improbable they'd win this way once.

Perhaps the rest of the league will step back up in 2013 and the magic will fade. Perhaps the Orioles will find a way to have a solid roster starting from Opening Day and they just won't be as lucky and won't have as good of a year. Or maybe everything will click again, only with better players, and they will dominate. Who knows?

Last year, this was a cause of great consternation for me. Things looked hopeless when considering the talent of the Orioles relative to the rest of the league. Well, that's what I thought, but then last month I was at a playoff game in Camden Yards. Whatever happens this hot stove season, and whatever Fangraphs WAR thinks about this past year or the next one, life is pretty good in Baltimore for a while.

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