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What Really Could Have Been?

The other day I was out at lunch with some of my friends in the office, and in between jabs at our various rooting interests someone brought up the idea that maybe the Orioles aren't as screwed as everyone thinks. I have to admit that struck a chord for me, if only because of the sudden juxtaposition of last year's gleeful anticipation with today's gloomy disposition. The Orioles have lost only one arguably key player in Luke Scott while jettisoning a lot of dead roster weight. Yet, I don't see anyone - and certainly not myself - thinking about how better days are up ahead.

It is, of course, all about the pitching. The 2010 Orioles gave up the fifth most runs in baseball, but had enough youth and promise that many were predicting a big step forward in 2011. Instead, the team gave up about 90 runs more last season, finishing dead last in all of baseball in every single run prevention category. Had the '11 Oriole offense not improved as substantially as they did over the 2010 model, they may very well have lost nearly 110 games.

Our collective pessimism is well earned indeed.

However, what is slowly coming into focus about the current offseason in Baltimore is that the central plan is to live or die with that same core group of pitchers. Over and over I have heard sound bites from Buck Showalter discussing a three year timeframe for evaluating young pitching. And look at the pitching moves being made: Tsuyoshi Wada, Dana Eveland, and Darren O'Day are little more than tweaks and insurance policies to avoid throwing sub-replacement level players into the fire. Unless the next month changes the conversation in a big way, 2012 is going to have a very similar theme to 2011: It's time for the young pitchers to sink or swim. And this time, there's no more mulligans.

The question of whether it is realistic to expect the pitching corps to come back and finally turn the corner is a long and complicated one. I don't have an immediate answer to that question, and it deserves more attention than what I have to give right now. For now, suffice it to say that I don't think it's right or fair to jump to any immediate extreme. We are, after all, talking about sports and biomechanics and all kinds of probability laden things; the answer is likely to have some heavy shades of gray in it.

I do want to explore the alternate reality where the pitching turned the corner last year. Is the difference between the huge hole we find ourselves in today, and the promised land of competitive baseball really just those four pitchers? Is relying on what the Orioles currently have - even in a best case scenario - a good strategy?

I have often tried to express the importance of separating baseball into its two obvious and independent components: run scoring and run prevention. With the offense the Orioles put out for the 2011 season, which scored a roughly league average number of runs, they would need to improve the run prevention unit by about 150 runs allowed (compared to the 2011 team) in order to aim for a .500 record. In order to be competitive, they would need to reduce their runs allowed by at least 250. For comparison, the playoff-bound Rays and the O's scored nearly the exact same number of runs in 2011, but Tampa had the AL's best run prevention unit (614 runs allowed) while Baltimore had the worse unit in baseball with 860 runs allowed.

A hypothetical thought exercise: If Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Zach Britton were all healthy enough to pitch 180 innings in 2011, as opposed to the 107.2 innings they actually averaged, they would have needed a collective ERA of about 2.50 to cover the distance between .500 and where the Orioles ended up. That would have made them essentially the Phillies trio of aces. And that just gets the Orioles to .500.

I'm cheating a little there; their added innings would have wiped out Brad Bergesen and Alfredo Simon's contributions to the rotation to get the innings to fit, but in reality they would have wiped out the Mitch Atkins and Jo-Jo Reyeses of the season, so maybe the true ERA needed was closer to 2.75 or so. The point, hyperbolized or not, is that with the bullpen, defense, and the offense the Orioles have built, relying on their young starting pitchers to make the 12 win difference on their own was folly.

Another simplification for illustration purposes: Arrieta, Matusz, and Britton accounted for just 0.85 total averaged Wins Above Replacement in 2011. Arrieta and Matusz in 2010 combined for 3.75 averaged WAR, so yes of course there was a big step being taken backwards. But to get within sniffing range of .500 in 2011 with no other improvements on the team, those three guys needed to get between 10.5 and 15.3 WAR. That's not quite requiring them to be Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, but it is asking them each to be top 40 pitchers in all of baseball. And again...that just gets the O's to .500.

Not that that was an impossible task. Certainly the acumens of Matusz and Britton in particularly suggested real hope for a .500 run last season. I definitely bought into that hype. And if the Orioles had won 80 games in 2011, that would definitely have painted the current offseason in a completely different light. In my heart, I know that that was possible, right at the tips of my fingers. But in my head, I understand that that was a huge jump to expect, a best case scenario, and would not leave much room for further growth. It was just too much to ask.

What if Matusz, Arrieta, and Britton had put in just okay seasons? What if the Orioles won something like 74 games last season with the difference just coming from those three guys? That would have constituted a tangible step forward for the youngsters. That would also still leave a big gap to jump towards competitive baseball, a larger gap than one or two free agents could fill. That would probably also have been pretty unsatisfying.

I have said again and again that the problem with this team is that the core foundation just isn't there. We can talk about the failures of the young pitching til we're blue in the face (and we should, as it's an alarming point of failure for the franchise) but the reason the team is bad is because they are bad at every aspect of the game as a team. The responsibility here does not rest on any one, two, or three shoulders. It was a team effort that brought down our hopes for the Orioles.