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What must go right for the Orioles to contend in 2015

The Orioles won the AL East in 2014 and can do so again. But to repeat, several players will have to make adjustments.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s weird to write this article about a team that, last year, ran away with its division. But baseball is a cruel sport; it doesn't take much for your team to get worse and another team to get better. The Orioles lost some key players this offseason, most notably Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller, and the offseasons of the Red Sox and Blue Jays look very good. As with the stock market, past results are not always indicative of future performance.

Meanwhile, this is an important year for the Orioles. Two offensive cornerstones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, are free agents after it. If their agent Scott Boras has anything to say about it, they’re no sure bet to return to the team. This could also be the last Birdland year for Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day, and seven other players. If one were to talk about such concepts as "windows", one could suggest that the Orioles’ window is narrower this year than it was last year.

In order to make the most of their chance, here’s what needs to go right in 2015.

Chris Davis must improve his strike zone judgement

The Orioles lost Cruz and should expect some regression to the mean from Steve Pearce. Adam Jones’ offensive output has also slipped a bit since his peak of 2012. This combination puts Chris Davis in the crosshairs of every fan who wants to see balls leave the yard. We know he can do it; over the past three years, his .ISO of .269 is second-best in the game. The key, then, is not the power. What’s troubling him is what's troubled him his entire career: making contact on good pitches.

A curious thing happened to Davis’ plate discipline in 2014: compared to 2013, he swung less often but also made contact much less often. His strikeout rate spiked; the drop in balls in play contributed to the drop in his batting average.

It seems as if he became more passive (maybe in an attempt to keep his walk rate high) but simultaneously less able to judge whether a pitch was hittable. This leads me to believe he was trying to keep his walk rate high by being selective, which is fine, but the other half of that approach is making contact when you do swing.

Davis hasn't demonstrated he can make enough contact to make his newly-passive approach work. Maybe he could focus on making contact. He has enough raw power to drive the ball out of the yard no matter where the pitch is located.

The rotation must keep overperforming their FIP

Somewhat hidden in the offensive outburst of 2014 was the fact that, starting around mid-July, rotation churned out one good start after another. Some say it was smoke and mirrors; after all, the rotation overperformed its FIP (meaning, its collective ERA was less than what its collective FIP would suggest) by .56 runs per nine innings, second-most in the majors.

That number seems small, but it's not: it represents 59.3 runs, or nearly six wins during the season. The problem is, performance in 2014 doesn't doesn't tell us much about 2015. Here are the numbers for the past eight years:

  • 2014: overperformed by 59.3 runs
  • 2013: overperformed by 7.3 runs
  • 2012: overperformed by 9.3 runs
  • 2011: underperformed by 47.9 runs
  • 2010: overperformed by 6.3 runs
  • 2009: underperformed by 4.8 runs
  • 2008: underperformed by 12.7 runs
  • 2007: underperformed by 12.1 runs

There's a trend of moving from underperforming to overperforming, which happened as the current rotation and defense took shape. But the degree of that overperformance is very much in question; 2014 looks like an outlier to me.

In particular, all eyes will be on Miguel Gonzalez. He's overperformed his FIP since coming into the league, as Alex Conway wrote about here. Of the 59.3 runs of overperformance in 2014, about half were Gonzalez's.

The rotation needs to overperform its FIP because the starters don't strike out a lot of batters and they're about league-average with walks. From 2012-2014, the Orioles’ rotation ranks 23rd in K-BB%. And in 2014, Chris Tillman, Gonzalez, and Wei-Yin Chen all saw their strikeout rates drop (although Chen barely walks anyone, so this matters less for him).

Confession: I don’t really know what it means to "overperform your FIP" in a specific, give-actual-advice-to-actual-players sense. I think defense has something to do with it, but that doesn't translate into advice for a pitcher, except to maybe pitch to contact more.

If they do, the Orioles are set up well. Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, and Jonathan Schoop will be on the diamond to start the year. Wieters should also be back behind the dish. In the outfield, FanGraphs projects Alejandro de Aza (LF) and Steve Pearce (RF) at the corners and thinks both of them will be above-average at their respective positions. Travis Snider is also projected at RF with a slightly-below-average defensive rating. We also know that David Lough will play occasionally and will be a defensive substitute late in games.

Schoop needs to step up

Schoop is another key for the Orioles looking to replace the offense that left the team. If he’s going to be the everyday second baseman, he has to hit more than he did in 2014. Last year I was meaner to him in these pages than I intended to be, but his bat did cost the team in high-leverage spots. Among players with at least 450 PA, his -2.69 Win Probability Added (WPA) was second-worst in the game. Stripping leverage from the analysis, his Context-Neutral Wins (WPA/LI) was -1.36, 13th-worst.

He’s young, he has a bit of power (.145 ISO), he’s learning, he plays good defense -- and the Orioles didn't have much of a choice besides him in 2014. But this year, Everth Cabrera may be waiting in the wings. Like Davis, Schoop must develop a better batting eye, but unlike Davis, Schoop probably doesn’t (at the moment, anyway) have the raw power to drive the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Schoop may want to think about focusing, for now, on an even smaller zone of hittable pitches than Davis. Treat every count like it’s 3-1.

There are other things that must happen for 2015 to be a success for the Orioles. Adam Jones and Steve Pearce certainly come to mind, and of course the bullpen is needed. But if you put me on MASN and made me responsible for a "Keys to the Season" graphic, I'd place Chris Davis, the starting rotation, and Jonathan Schoop in front of viewers' eyes.