Birds Before Nerds
Published: March 27, 2013
Most of the baseball world believes the Orioles’ amazing 2012 playoff season was a mirage, or a house of cards, which the 2013 season will rest atop like a lead bowling ball. They’re predicting the Birds, who amassed a gloriously shocking 93 wins a year ago, will be fortunate to win half their games this go-round. Of course, most of the baseball world wears black socks with sandals and lives in their mothers’ basements, so I think we can pretty safely ignore most of the baseball world.
The prevailing wisdom of bloggers in the baseball nerd-o-net seems to be that the Birds were little more than a big pile of lucky last season. Naysayers (who, truth be told, rarely actually say “nay”) prattle on about the 2012 Orioles’ stunning 29-9 record in one-run games and assure us it’s a feat that cannot be repeated. They point to the bullpen’s phenomenal success in wracking up 16 straight extra-inning victories or blather on about how only one Orioles starter, rookie lefty Wei-Yin Chen, made more than 20 starts. And don’t get them started about the O’s “inept” offense; they practically turn blue in the face moaning about the Orioles finishing a woeful ninth in the league in runs scored. You’d think the O’s lost 93 instead of winning 93 last year to hear them. The worst are the sabermetrics weirdos who make last year’s club sound like the baseball equivalent of Dallas season nine, and any day now Pam is gonna wake up from a horrible dream to find out Bobby never really died and the Red Sox will were retroactively awarded last years wild-card spot.
Well, I’m here to tell you those guys are a bunch of boneheads—and because my rantings appear on actual paper, someone thought my opinions were worth grinding up a tree over, so I must know something. First off, yeah, the Birds got lucky pulling together so many one-run wins, and it’s unlikely they could do it again, but they may not have to. The best fielders in baseball are awarded the coveted Gold Glove Award. At the beginning of August, it looked like half the O’s weren’t thinking of precious metals and were just hoping to turn lead to leather. Winning all of those one-run games was a remarkable feat made all the more astounding in the light of the Bird’s godawful defense. Then, in mid-August, things turned around. Manny Machado arrived like manna from baseball heaven and completely transformed the infield D. Machado was born to play shortstop, but at third, he is already one of the best in baseball and will be a favorite for a Gold Glove. Throw in Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters, who is arguably the best defensive back-stop in baseball; Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy; and an entire starting outfield of Gold Gloves, and the defense has become one of the best units in baseball. With leather like that, some of those one-run thrillers will turn into three-run wins.
And then there’s the bullpen. The common wisdom in baseball is that you can’t count on bullpens. While a good offense and even a starting rotation tend to remain steady from year to year, relief pitchers’ careers tend to be more mercurial, with wild fluctuations in production from year to year. Point taken, nerds, but while the Orioles will still be depending on a big year from the pen, they wont necessarily be expecting it from the same players. Over the course of last year, 26 pitchers threw for the Birds; if de facto GM Dan Duquette were profiled on an episode of Hoarders, you’d find his garage, his basement, and certainly his farm system with pitchers stacked floor-to-ceiling like curve-ballin’ cordwood. Duquette picks up pitchers off waivers, he gets them in the Rule 5 Draft, he gets cagey veterans, reclamation projects, specialists, and innings eaters. The point is, if Darren O’Day or Pedro Strop somehow fall back to Earth, the Orioles have developed a plug-and-play farm system that is likely to be a model around the league. Top off that minor-league 31 flavors sundae with cherry prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who will pitch for the big club by the end of the year, and the Birds’ bullpen should remain a strength.
The Orioles offense remains a concern, and the front office failed to land a big, shiny new bat in the offseason, but Machado* should be better in his first full season in the majors, and expect Adam Jones, who’s coming off a breakout year, to continue to improve. Nick Markakis and Wieters are steady, solid producers, and if the Birds can get 50 or more games out of the returning Brian Roberts, they could show a bit of improvement from last season. (And after this season, the Orioles should fill a truck with money and use it to pick up Robinson Cano.)
Honestly, the biggest problem the Orioles face is playing in the stacked American League East, where every team could put up a winning record. Baseball is not like the NFL, where 12 out of 32 teams—nearly 40 percent—make the playoffs, or hockey, where you make the playoffs just for good attendance. The Orioles have their work cut out for them. What they have going for them, though, is a front office with a long-term plan they’re sticking to, and Buck Showalter, the best manager in baseball. The same experts predicting the Birds’ total collapse this year were the same ones promising Baltimore a last-place finish a year ago. The Orioles won’t collapse, though they’ve got their work cut out for them. I’m just spitballin’, but I predict an 87-win season. Here’s hoping that’s enough to sneak back into the playoffs.
You can follow writer/comedian Jim Meyer on Twitter at twitter.com/jimmy2bad and see him perform at Super Art Fight Saturday March 29th at Ottobar.
* In an earlier version of t his story, the text mistakenly read "Bundy."
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