You probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: this weekend’s series against Detroit is going to have a massive impact on the Orioles’ chances of making the playoffs. With the teams just one game apart for the final wild card, a sweep in either direction could give one team a cushion for a playoff spot and send another team into panic mode.
If this doesn’t feel familiar, it shouldn’t. Even in recent years when the Orioles have contended, they’ve never really had a series this important, this late. The 2014 O’s made the playoffs by a mile, so they didn’t play a truly critical series the entire year.
The 2012 O’s played a three-game set against Tampa Bay around this time in 2012 with a two-game wild card lead, but thanks to a tie for the division lead with the Yankees their playoff odds were still pretty high. Losing the series would’ve been bad, but it wouldn’t necessarily have killed them.
Let’s look back further. Skipping over 14 straight years of suck, the 1997 O’s were a similar story to 2014 - they won nearly 100 games and were able to breathe easy in September.
Then, we come to a series in mid-September of 1996, between the 78-66 Orioles and the 78-67 White Sox. Those two teams were in the middle of a two-horse race for the AL Wild Card spot, with a five-game cushion over the next best team.
That situation looks pretty similar to this upcoming series against Detroit - two teams in a virtual tie for the last playoff spot facing off with just a few weeks left in the season.
Without exact playoff odds it’s hard to say for sure which series was more critical, but we can safely say this is the most important late-season series for the Orioles in at least twenty years, and possibly more. You’d have to go all the way back to the final three days of the 1989 “Why Not” season to find one bigger.
A difficult week ahead
There’s one key difference between this weekend and that Chicago series in ‘96, though. After the White Sox, the 1996 Orioles got to play the Detroit Tigers, who were 51-97. Predictably, the O’s took all three games.
This year’s Orioles don’t have that luxury. Instead, they’ll immediately travel to Boston to face a Red Sox team that currently leads the Orioles by two games in the division.
The odds are undoubtedly stacked against the O’s over the next six days. The Tigers are similar to the O’s in terms of run differential and most other overall stats, but most would say they’re a better team right now - they’ve picked up their game in the second half while the Orioles have struggled since the break.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are better than the Orioles by virtually any statistical measure. They’re scored over 100 more runs than the O’s, while sporting a team ERA that’s almost a third of a run lower. Their run differential of +151 is second only to the Cubs.
Add that to the fact that the Orioles are on the road, and it’s time to get nervous. The O’s are 31-38 away from Baltimore on the season, and they’re playing two teams that are each 11 games over .500 in their home parks.
Fun with win probabilities
So, what chance do the O’s really have? My usual go-to statistical site - Fangraphs - only has game odds for tonight, but fortunately FiveThirtyEight is here to save the day.
They calculate the odds of winning for each game based on how good the teams are overall, while weighing recent performance more heavily and factoring in the starting pitchers, home field advantage, travel, and rest. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good system.
They have the Orioles’ odds of winning the next three games at 44% (Gausman vs. Fulmer), 47% (Jimenez vs. Zimmermann), and 42% (Tillman vs. Verlander). That doesn’t sound too awful, but those small disadvantages build on each other quickly.
Using those numbers, the Orioles have about a 42% chance of winning the series and an 8% chance of sweeping it. The Tigers have a 58% chance of winning, and a 17% chance of sweeping. We’ll have a full preview of the Detroit series up later, but suffice it to say that the Orioles are underdogs.
The Boston series looks even worse. Not only are the Red Sox better, but the O’s will be using the back end of their rotation. Starters haven’t been officially announced yet, but it’s likely to be Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo, and a struggling Dylan Bundy.
With those three as the presumed starters, FiveThirtyEight has the Orioles’ odds at 40% (Miley vs. Pomeranz), 37% (Gallardo vs. Price), and 40% (Bundy vs. Porcello). That gives the Orioles just a 33% chance overall of taking the series.
Baseball is all about small advantages. A .280 hitter isn’t much more likely to get a hit than a .250 hitter in any particular at-bat, but he’s still a lot better. Why? Over 600+ at-bats, that incremental advantage makes a huge difference.
We know that the Orioles will be at a small disadvantage in six straight games. How much of a difference does that make? Turns out, it’s a big one.
Multiply those odds together, and the O’s have a 0.5% chance of going 6-0. They have a 4% chance of going 0-6. They’re eight times more likely to get swept twice than they are to sweep both series.
The bottom line
The good news is, the Orioles probably aren’t going to lose all six games! The bad news is, the deck is stacked against the Orioles this week. They’ll have to win games they shouldn’t, against teams better than they are, in order to keep their current position in the playoff race.
Stranger things have happened, though. Any team good enough to call themselves a playoff team should be able to win a tough series against a good team on the road. Two in a row is tougher, but it’s still possible.
All three pitchers the Orioles are using this weekend are capable of tossing a gem, and the O’s offense should keep them in any game against Boston as long as Miley or Gallardo don’t completely implode.
To win the World Series, any team has to do some things that the odds say they shouldn’t. The Orioles will have to do a lot of that. Might as well start now.