There was really no way to describe the Orioles' 93-win campaign in 2012 other than magic. A team that entered the season with virtually no expectations piled up an incredibly lucky first half, followed by a second half where they capitalized with some key promotions and trades. A unearthly bullpen propelled the team through an amazing series of one-run and extra-inning wins; contributors as unlikely as Lew Ford stepped up at key moments; Manny Machado came up at age 19 to lock down a leaky third base position; and Joe Saunders put away the team's first postseason win since the 1990s. It was a wild, magical ride.
As a result of all this improbability, there was a consensus that the 2013 Orioles would regress. I said they wouldn't. And here's the interesting thing: I was right. More interesting yet: I was wrong. Let me explain.
Let's compare some key rate stats of the 2012 and 2013 squads.
|2012 Orioles||2013 Orioles|
It's pretty easy to see that the 2013 team is hitting quite a bit better than last year's, and pitching only a little bit worse. And no matter what metric or eye test you use, the 2013 club is better on defense, too. So there's no reason to think it's a fundamentally worse ballclub. In fact, you'd think they'd be doing a little better, on paper. The 2012 Orioles had a Pythagorean winning percentage of .506; the 2013 club is running at .535. And yet, the 2012 club logged 93 wins, whereas this year's is on pace for about 88.
It's easy to paint all of this as regression to the mean, to say that the 2012 club was lucky and this year's club was doomed from the outset. The things is, it's true, but it's an oversimplification, too. Yes, the ridiculous 2012 bullpen allowed the team to go a historic 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning contests. The 2013 club is 14-23 and 6-5, respectively, in those same sorts of matchups.
But it's too easy to say that the club has simply regressed to the mean. If the 2013 Orioles go just .500 in one-run games, they're sitting at 74-55 right now, 1.5 games out of first, instead of 70-59 and 5.5 games out. Coincidentally, this is a lot like how the club would look if Jim Johnson hadn't been trotted out to blow nine saves in a slavish display of devotion to the "closer" label. The "mean" that this team was supposed to regress to was 82 wins, according to run differential. They're playing to their run differential this year, and it's a lot better than 82 wins.
Baseball is a magical thing. I'm glad that baseball seasons are decided by wins rather than run differential. But an interesting byproduct for a young team like the Orioles is that they could make the playoffs in a season where they were just average, and just miss them (but we'll see!) in a year where they were actually much better in terms of talent. The 2013 team is the better team for sure, even if the 2012 season ends up being the far better season.
This article is going to look awfully stupid (or at least pointless) if the Orioles do squeeze into the 2013 postseason. But it has a point. Unquestioning adherents to the "lucky 2012 Orioles because run differential" narrative missed something . The 2012 Orioles were lucky and good in the same season, and the good team is the one that carried over this year. And yet the folks who blew off the stats crowd heading into 2013 missed something as well. The Orioles really haven't discovered any kind of secret sauce to maintain a particularly great record in close games; the team has improved and regressed all at once this year.
People always say that they'd rather be lucky than good, but I'd rather my baseball team be good than lucky. Even if the 2013 Orioles miss the playoffs, it's great to see that a team that got lost in the wilderness for most of my adult life has actually built something meaningful. The core of this Orioles team is going to be around, and be in its prime, for a while yet, and it won't be too long before they're lucky AND good for an entire season. There's plenty to look forward to.