A decade ago, the Orioles were suddenly and unexpectedly much better than was anticipated in the 2012 season. This kicked off a stretch of several seasons running in which assorted expert- and computer-based prognostications continually and kind of hilariously underestimated the quality of the team. Only after five years did the Orioles tail off from this overachievement.
Those days have come back, or at least Orioles fans can hope that they have. The PECOTA system, first developed by number cruncher-turned-political pundit Nate Silver and still housed at Baseball Prospectus, foresaw 61 wins for the 2022 club. As we remember, they awesomely won 83. Taking aim at the 2023 team with projections released yesterday, PECOTA sees some improvement but not enough, projecting a 74-88 record with a 3% chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
This is feeling familiar. The Orioles also got no respect from the systems after their 2012 success. Now it’s up to the 2023 Orioles to see if they can beat PECOTA by at least ten wins, as the 2013 team did (85 wins vs. 75 projected). So did the 2014 and 2016 Orioles. We don’t need to talk about when the wheels fell off the cart.
A joking response to all of this the last time around was, “PECOTA hates the Orioles!” Some people who ought to have known better seem to have seriously believed it. Do not be one of those people. Neither these systems nor their creators have any animus against the Orioles or any other team. What they might have is a whole lot of baked-in assumptions about what successful baseball teams look like recently and historically, and about what kinds of players can sustain unexpectedly-to-the-models good seasons from 2022.
PECOTA is not alone, of course. The most motivated projections of all might belong to sportsbooks, who need to find the right number to make money on over/under win totals. Multiple books now operating in Maryland have set that at 76.5 for the 2023 Orioles. The over is paying less than the under, so it’s the betting favorite, but still. A dedicated and decently optimistic O’s fan might feel like that’s free money on the over.
Elsewhere, at FanGraphs, the ZiPS projection by Maryland-raised Dan Szymborski is the most optimistic of this number bunch, seeing an 80-82 record for the 2023 team. I like ZiPS as a reference point not only because Szymborski has passionate opinions about pit beef sandwiches, but also because his projections for players are freely available at FanGraphs. That makes it easier for everybody to refer to specific projections. BP’s PECOTA projected standings are free but player-specific projections are for subscribers only.
You don’t have to consult a projection system to have some questions about how set up for success the Orioles might be this year. A whole lot of people in Birdland, myself included, are disappointed by the lack of a significant free agent starting pitching addition. Are they going to be able to find five acceptable starters out of the group they have? They might! But their odds of doing so would be better if a free agent with front-of-the-rotation talent had been enticed here, or if the Orioles traded for one.
The Orioles offseason activity had them kind of engaging in a very Dan Duquette era-like plan in the way that it amounted to, “Hope everything that went right last year keeps going right, and that enough things that didn’t go right last year also go right.” There were years where the team overcame challenges, like 2014 when Matt Wieters and Manny Machado both suffered season-ending injuries, and years where they didn’t and the projections were right about them.
The team’s transformation after Adley Rutschman arrived last season, with the knowledge that he’s now poised for a full season, is certainly one reason for optimism about doing better than the mid-70s for wins. The list doesn’t stop with him, depending on an individual’s hype level for Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, and others.
A big source of uncertainty for the team is whether the bullpen will be able to be a part of the Orioles overachieving again. Out of the trio of Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, and Dillon Tate, ZiPS only sees something good coming from Bautista.
I think if Pérez, Tate, and Mychal Givens all post ERAs over 4, the Orioles will be hard-pressed to reach even 80 wins, let alone go over that. If Dean Kremer and Rodriguez are the only full-season starting pitchers with ERAs under 4, it will also be tough for the O’s to get to the 80 win mark.
PECOTA is presumably also not so sunny about these pitchers, and probably tougher than ZiPS is on some of the Orioles position players as well. 4+ WAR projections for Rutschman, Henderson, and Cedric Mullins, with eleven players at a 2+ WAR projection - including prospects Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz, who are unlikely to even get enough playing time for that - is really optimistic about this group. We can all hope that those fun times are part of the near future for the Orioles and fans.
Where will it all end up? No one knows. That is the anxiety-inducing fun of it all for a sports fan. Your favorite team will be whatever it is going to be and you can do nothing about it except watch. No one could have predicted the Orioles ascent from the depths last year. No one is predicting they’ll ascend into the top tier of teams this year. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it, just that a bunch of things are all going to have to go right.
Perhaps if the Orioles exceed expectations again in 2023, PECOTA will finally catch up and project good things from them in 2024. Then again, in 2014, PECOTA projected 75 wins for the second consecutive year, and those Orioles won 96. So I won’t be holding my breath here. I’ll just be hoping for another fun Orioles season.