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Projecting the Orioles in 2012 (Part I)

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I'll be the first to admit, this isn't an exact science. Projecting a baseball team's expected performance over 162 games requires making accurate assumptions about a dozen or more different contributing factors per player, not to mention taking into account how the competition has changed. There are a lot of balls in the air, and if you drop one it can throw the entire calculation off wildly. Last year, I spent a ton of time projecting the Orioles to win about 81 games. They did not even come remotely close.

But I do still think projecting the Orioles is an important game to play. Firstly it puts some critical thinking towards how the team is built. I made several mistakes last year, clearly, and now it is challenge for me to get smarter about it and try and view the team more accurately. Secondly, even when I am wrong about a projected win total - even wildly wrong - when you compare what I thought would happen with what actually did happen, you can learn things. For example, I wasn't alone when I talked about the young pitchers building off their strong run in late 2010, but now I've learned the hard lesson about how September stats and young pitchers have a tendency to break your heart. Or at least, I think I've learned that lesson.

My thesis remains the same this year as it was last year: if we project improvement in terms of runs scored and runs allowed relative to 2011's levels, we should have as strong a picture of what to expect as is possible. Today in Part One, we're talking about the runs scored half of that equation, and specifically we're focusing on the bench.

Our baseline: the 2011 Orioles scored 708 runs.

For a team that failed to win even 70 games, there isn't a lot of turnover among the Orioles' position players. The only positions with changed starting personnel are first base, designated hitter, and left field. The bench has been de facto General Manager Dan Duquette's big tweak this winter, and it has been more or less completely redone. The 2011 bench came to the plate 748 times and created 47 runs*. For comparison, the New York Yankees' bench had 1105 plate appearances and created 125 runs. Prorated to set the innings equal, the Yankee backups were 180% as effective offensively as the Orioles (before taking into account park factors, since this is just to get a quick look). So perhaps I was wrong earlier this winter to judge the bench upgrade strategy poorly.

*Methodology: I've used weighted on base average (wOBA) before, and I'm using it here, too. It is an encompassing look at offensive production on a rate basis, like OPS but better. It is available on fangraphs. It is easy to convert into "runs created", which is also available on fangraphs (as wRC). When I say "runs created" I am referencing fangraphs' wRC stat.

The reason the Yankees had so many more bench PAs than the Orioles was because New York had two regulars, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez, that spent a fair amount of time on the bench themselves. By and large, health was not a burden to the Orioles in 2011. Still, it is fair to project more batting time for the bench in 2012.

Backup Catcher: Craig Tatum and Jake Fox only totaled 163 plate appearances and 11 runs, but most indications are that the O's intend to play Taylor Teagarden more often. In his career so far, Teagarden has a dreadful career batting line (.220/.286/.417) but if he continued that pace, he would pick up about 20 runs in 200 PA. I would even expect a little bit more. That's not too shabby an upgrade.

Fourth Outfielder: Felix Pie, Matt Angle, and Kyle Hudson combined for 299 PAs and 17 runs created. Giving Endy Chavez those 300 PAs, most projection systems easily see him doubling the runs created. This is more of a statement about Pie, Angle, and Hudson (combined home runs: 1, combined on base percentage: .254) than Chavez, who only projects to around a .300 OBP.

The Rest of the Bench: The 2011 infield backups created 19 runs in 286 PAs, which is again pretty bad. I expect the non-Teagarden, non-Chavez bench members in 2012 to get more plate appearances and hopefully create more runs, but projecting Jai Miller, Matt Antonelli, Ryan Flaherty, and so on seems like fool's work to me. Let's say, since the error range doesn't seem very large, the rest of the bench makes the same rate of runs, but has 400 PA. That gives them 27 runs, but with the upside to improve that number.

In total, I'm projecting the bench to at least create 81 runs, with the upside to score around 100 in the 900 PA or so they are given. That's good improvement over last year, around 40 extra runs. The standard sabrmetric conversion of runs to wins is roughly 10 runs = 1 win*, so forgetting the defense of these bench players for a second, Dan Duquette has upgraded what was a woeful bench in a way that it is reasonable to project an extra four wins for the Orioles.

*Why? It's about Bill James' Pythagorean record formula, which is runs scored squared over the sum of runs scored squared and runs allowed squared. At an equal number of runs allowed and runs scored, the expected record is 81-81. To shift the expectation to 80-82 (as an example), we need to have about 10 more runs allowed than runs scored.

That seems like a lot, right? Well, remember, of the bench players in 2011, only Ryan Adams, Jake Fox, and Blake Davis, and Brandon Snyder had on base percentages over .300, and the entire bench only had 37 extra base hits in nearly 750 plate appearances. They were extremely bad on offense. Fangraphs has them as about 35 runs below average. I won't say the bench was a big culprit in the failure in the Quest for .500 of 2011, but they certainly helped that failure along. Look for that to change in 2012.