If you are under the age of 35 you may find it hard to believe, but for nearly two decades, the Baltimore Orioles were the class of Major League Baseball and terms such as “The Oriole Way” and “Oriole Magic” were just as familiar to baseball fans as “Red Sox Nation” is today.
With the 2012 season now nearly a third of the way complete, it is way too early to declare Baltimore “back” among the upper echelon teams in baseball, but for the first time in quite a while the future in Baltimore does appear to be promising.
Following back-to-back extra inning victories over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Orioles sport an impressive 34-26 record and are right in the mix of the highly competitive American League East.
The hot early start is definitely a reason for fans of a franchise that hasn’t posted a winning record since 1997 to be excited, but this is not the first time in the last 15 years that Baltimore has teased fans into June.
In 2005 the Orioles had a 42-28 record on June 21st and a two game lead in the AL East. A 3-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays the next day started a stretch in which Baltimore lost 11 of 14 games and 60 of their final 92 games to end with a 74-88 record and 21 games out in the standings.
From that time until this season, Baltimore had never been more than five games above .500 at any point in a season and only in 2008 did they have a winning record this late in the season.
Long-time Orioles fans desperately want to get excited with the 2012 start and some believe that the return to the “happy bird” logo that was first displayed during the 1966 season (when Baltimore claimed their first-ever World Series title) is somewhat to thank for the strong start. However, when you start drilling down the numbers it seems apparent that the Orioles will need more than just a new hat to sustain their success throughout the entire season.
Some say it is better to be lucky than good, but over the course of a 162 game baseball season you can generally count on talent to eventually win out over good fortune.
The back-to-back extra inning wins over Philadelphia mark nine-straight extra inning victories for the Birds. In fact, they have played nearly twice as many extra inning games this season as any other team in baseball.
It is somewhat amazing that Baltimore has led the AL East for 53 days so far this season despite giving up more runs that they have scored. That is not typical for winning teams and one disturbing sign as the O’s look toward the remainder of the season.
Besides clutch hitting, the greatest attribute you can point to for the success of the Orioles so far in 2012 is pitching, especially from the bullpen.
Led by closer Jim Johnson and setup men Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala, the Baltimore bullpen has an amazing 2.41 ERA in 205 innings. They have the best bullpen ERA in baseball, but only the Kansas City Royals have used their relief pitchers more so far this season.
One cause for concern is that the starting pitching staff has an ERA of 4.63 and is averaging less than six innings per start. Baltimore has been fortunate to have the same five pitchers start each of their 60 starts so far this season, but unfortunately only Jason Hammel (6-2, 3.22 ERA) and Wei-Yin Chen (5-2, 3.49) have been exceptional in their performance.
The Baltimore offense offers more concern as to whether the team can sustain their early success. The O’s rank 10th in the league in runs scored, but their .246 team batting average ranks 19th.
Similar to the Orioles squads during the glory days under manager Earl Weaver, the 2012 Birds rely heavily on the home run. They rank fourth in the league in long-balls, including 17 by Adam Jones.
Now in his fifth season as the regular centerfielder for the Orioles, Jones leads the team in every offensive category and has been its steadiest performer this season. He had a 20 game hitting streak in May and hit the game-winning blast in Saturday’s win over the Phillies.
In addition to great pitching and offensive power, another hallmark of the Baltimore teams of the 1960s and 1970s was great defense. Unfortunately, that is another area where the Orioles fall short in 2012.
Baltimore currently leads the major leagues in errors and rank last in fielding percentage. Robert Andino has been a solid replacement for Brian Roberts offensively, but he already has nine errors at second base. Third base, once the home of the “human vacuum cleaner” Brooks Robinson has also been a rough spot with a total of 16 errors dispersed among the trio of players who have spent most of the time at the position.
Under the guidance of Buck Showalter it is possible that the Orioles can stay in contention in baseball’s best division throughout the entire season, but it will take more than late-inning heroics and a new look if the Orioles are indeed going to erase their 14-year losing streak and rekindle memories of past glory.