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Are the Orioles lucky or good?

Even now that they’ve been atop the AL East for the good part of a season, there are still voices chiming in to say that the Orioles’ success owes much to luck.

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SPORTS-BBA-TIGERS-ORIOLES-BZ Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris wrote a piece about luck. “‘Luck’ is a dirty word in baseball,” Sarris wrote, but “how much a team has benefitted from events in the past that might be unsustainable says something about their true quality and how likely they are to continue being good (or bad!) going forward.” Looking at a combination of wOBA on balls in play, preseason projections, run differential, and injuries, Sarris’ conclusion was that baseball’s luckiest teams were probably the Orioles, Brewers and Reds.

Would you believe that there are a lot of Orioles fans who read The Athletic? And that none of them liked the piece (at least not those who outed themselves in the comments)? Shocker, right? A lot of posters made arguments for why “luck” doesn’t fairly capture what the Orioles are doing right now, and some, it struck me, were very solid:

  • Being on track for 100 wins with one of the toughest schedules in baseball has to be more than luck.
  • The Orioles are very well-coached, which is why they do the little things right: taking tough at-bats, manufacturing runs, taking the extra base, playing good defense. Timely hitting isn’t just getting lucky, it’s also about approach.
  • They’re “merciless on the basepaths.”
  • Their defense is “insanely sound.”
  • They’re versatile, with lots of guys who can play multiple positions on the field and a roster that can plug and play matchups.
  • They have a lot of lefty hitters.
  • They have a strong bullpen.
  • They’ve suffered their fair share of injuries, too: Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Dillon Tate, Mychal Givens, Austin Voth, Félix Bautista, and they were without John Means all year.
  • Their run differential, which, while not impressive compared to, say, Atlanta, is skewed by a few bad starting pitching performances in April/May from Cole Irvin, GRod, and Dean Kremer.
  • One-run games may be a statistical coin flip, but not all such games are created equal. Building a lead that a bullpen squanders before holding onto a win might be luck. But falling behind before shutting down an opponent in the final three frames and clawing back to win sounds like ability.
  • “Unexpected” is not the same as “lucky.” Is Yennier Cano becoming a surprise All Star reliever “luck”? Ryan O’Hearn suddenly reviving his career? A core of young talent from the best farm system in baseball reaching the majors? Or did these things happen because the Orioles have great coaches, scouts, trainers—a great overall “system”?
  • You can’t capture “clubhouse feel” with stats: these Orioles do seem to have a great thing going. As one fan put it, “Chemistry and good luck seem to go together just like bad chemistry and bad luck do.”

Basically, these objections to Sarris’ analysis group into two claims: (1) The stats are conveying the wrong message, and (2) He’s missing something. Let’s take a stab at unpacking. Start with his explanatory variables.

Balls in play – This category measured the delta between a team’s expected production on balls in play (xwOBA) and their actual one (wOBA). The Orioles didn’t actually make Sarris’ Top 3 here. The Red Sox did, though it’s helped them very little. The Red Sox’s wOBA/xwOBA gap is 0.014. The Orioles’ is 0.002. These numbers are so small that my head is starting to spin, and I don’t think this metric tells us much, other than the Orioles are hitting about as well as they’re expected to.

Preseason projections – The Orioles have the highest difference of any team between their predicted win percentage (.480) and their actual one (.623). But I’m pretty unimpressed with this indicator, as well. One, because preseason baseball projection systems seemingly always underrate the Orioles, and two, because as Sarris admits, “projections certainly do take a middle-of-the-road approach for prospects” because this is safe and risk-averse. Did the projections predict that rookie Gunnar Henderson would be the No. 7 offensive player in bWAR this season? No? Well, then, the model got it wrong, but not because Henderson is getting lucky. It’s because he’s reaching his potential.

Run differential – There’s no doubt the Orioles have been in lots of one-run games, which has contributed to a +126-run differential that’s certainly not up there with Atlanta’s +219. But while Sarris called this an “iffy” total, in fact, the only teams with higher ones are Atlanta, Tampa Bay, the Dodgers, and the Rangers.

Fans who claim that the O’s run differential was dragged down by poor pitching early in the season seem to be right. This nifty graphic from BaseballSavant shows how each team’s run differential unfolds over the season, with Oakland taking a steep trip to the cellar, Atlanta launching upward, and the Orioles creeping along just above the .500 mark and then exploding in the summer. This suggests that first, the bats carried the team, then the pitching followed suit. Rather than “lucky,” maybe the right descriptor is “improving.” Or “the rotation is not terrible anymore.”

Besides, as many fans pointed out, not all close games are created equal. The Orioles lead the league in comeback wins, at 48. Clawing your way back to victory more than any other team—this might be luck. But it might also be a good bullpen, which the Orioles have.

Or a good offensive approach. Consider that the Orioles have one of the highest rates of success at making productive outs, the highest percentage of baserunners scored, and the highest successful sac bunt rate, at 80%. They’re third-best in pinch-hitting, based on wins above average. I hate to sound like a high-school coach from the last century, but isn’t this not “luck” so much as “Fundamentals!”?

Injuries – Finally, Sarris looked at number of games missed per player per team due to injury. The Angels are second, and the Yankees are third, both with over 1,500 missed games. But the Dodgers also have more than 1,500 days missed, and they’re chugging along. The Orioles do fall in the top three luckiest here, with fewer than 800 days missed. Then again, so do the Guardians, and it still hasn’t made them a juggernaut.

This category is problematic. Wouldn’t we want to look at missing WAR, not days? Mychal Givens missed time this season, but then he turned out not to be that good anymore. If lost WAR is the metric, then probably no team will top the misery of the Angels, who bought at the deadline and then lost their superstar Shohei Ohtani, along with Mike Trout, and are now out of the playoff hunt. The Orioles have gotten lucky, maybe, that they were able to make up for the lost production of Cedric Mullins with Aaron Hicks, of Ryan Mountcastle with O’Hearn, of John Means with Grayson Rodriguez.

Then again, isn’t that good scouting, roster depth/composition, and coaching? The Orioles’ roster is balanced in a way the Angels’ isn’t, so they lost less when their starters went down, and they made up for it much better. Ryan Mountcastle isn’t Shohei Ohtani, but Ryan O’Hearn is better than the band of scrubs the Angels have tried to deploy to fill Shohei’s at-bats at DH. That’s also because Orioles coaches have helped O’Hearn, as opposed to just plopping him in the lineup and hoping he succeeds.

Now let me wrap up with a couple of things Sarris didn’t acount for.

Strength of schedule – Even adjusted for more balance this year, the O’s schedule is still the third most difficult in the American League, according to ESPN. Nobody wants to hear the Orioles playing a sad violin this year, but compared to the Minnesota Twins, who play 52 games against the AL Central, the Orioles are unlucky.

Defense/Baserunning – No doubt about it, Baltimore is stacked in both these categories. They’re second in the AL in fielding percentage and third in total defensive runs saved. As for baserunning, Gunnar is the league’s No. 1 most valuable baserunner, and the Orioles have eight players worth positive value in runner runs, more than any other team but Cleveland.

Intangibles? - One other factor I’d love to quantify but can’t quite at this time: roster composition, balance, and immaculate general vibes. Are the O’s maybe the most balanced, or the most versatile team? Although they have no true (current) superstar, they do have many game changers. One could look, say, at how many regular lineup players are OPS’ing over .750 or averaging over 1.5 WAR, or the magnitude of the gap in WAR/OPS between hitters 1 through 9. Then there’s that intangible “locker room” quality that James McCann and Kyle Gibson have both raved about, which I’m not even going to touch, but which I agree is there.

At the end of his article, Eno Sarris allowed that maybe the Orioles’ past luck is not a huge deal for them and that this really might be a good, young team capable of staying on the right side of the projections. That, or this “luck” thing is highly oversimplified or at the least, overstated. After all, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Or, better yet, what that baseball sage Branch Rickey said: “Luck is the residue of design.”