SARASOTA, Fla. — The first week of February is one of Buck Showalter’s favorite times of the year, and not only because spring training is right around the corner. It’s usually around then that the top sabermetric websites release their win projections for the upcoming season, and Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, takes perverse pleasure in finding out how awful his team is going to be. The projections rarely disappoint.
His favorite is PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s projection model, which is short for player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm. When this year’s edition came out Feb. 7, it had the Orioles going 72-90 in 2017 and finishing in last place in the American League East. (Based on the team’s subsequent acquisitions, it has been revised up to 74-88 as of Monday.) Another manager coming off an 89-win season and a third trip to the playoffs in five years might be furious at the perceived slight. Showalter just chuckles.
“It’s fun to see people kind of scratching their heads about our team,” he said.
By now, a pattern has been established: In 2012, Showalter’s second season in Baltimore, PECOTA had the Orioles winning 71 games; they won 93. In 2013, PECOTA projected 75 wins; the Orioles won 85. In 2014, it was 75 and 96. In 2015, 78 and 81. And in 2016, 72 and 89.
“At least they’re consistent,” General Manager Dan Duquette deadpanned. Three of those Orioles teams — 2012, 2014 and 2016 — made the playoffs, advancing to the AL Championship Series in 2014, and those 444 wins from 2012 to ’16 are the most of any AL team in that span.
“They can’t quantify a lot of the things we’re good at,” Showalter said.
And what are those things?
“I’m not telling,” he said with a smile.
There is no doubt that certain aspects of the Orioles, historically, have appeared to be weaker than others, and that some of those weaknesses — generally speaking, starting pitching and on-base percentage — could be seen as crucial, or even fatal, ones. And perhaps some of the obvious things the Orioles have done very well of late, such as hit the ball out of the ballpark and close out games with their bullpen, could be undervalued.
But the Orioles also love the fact they are chronically underprojected because it plays into the image the franchise has developed for itself as the scrappy underdog, the small-market, small-payroll team in the big-market, big-payroll division. That leaves aside the fact that MLB’s final accounting of 2016 payrolls (used for luxury-tax purposes) had the Orioles with the 12th-highest payroll ($169 million) in baseball, which put them third out of the five teams in the AL East.
“We weren’t in on Chris Sale, but that is a function of our resources,” Duquette said of the Red Sox’s blockbuster trade this winter with the Chicago White Sox that brought them the ace lefty. To get Sale, the Red Sox gave up four prospects, including Cuban slugger Yoan Moncada, whom the Red Sox had signed in 2015 for $37.5 million, but who cost them more than $60 million total, including the luxury tax.
“We didn’t have $60 million to go out and spend in the international market,” Duquette said.
The undisputed king of the late-winter/early-spring bargain hunt, Duquette has worked his roster magic with typical aplomb this year. He waited out the free agent market for slugger Mark Trumbo, who had sometimes carried the Orioles’ offense in 2016 while leading the AL with 47 homers, until he fell to them for three years and $37.5 million in late January.
In late February, the Orioles signed outfielders Craig Gentry and Michael Bourn to minor-league contracts, making good on a vow to improve the team’s outfield defense in 2017. And just Monday, Pedro Alvarez, who hit 22 homers for the Orioles as a platoon corner infielder/designated hitter, showed up in Sarasota, a few days after the Orioles signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal. With no room for him in the infield, the Orioles hope to teach him to play the outfield and will use him as a part-time designated hitter.
With top starter Chris Tillman (shoulder) shelved until at least late April and half their starting position players participating in the World Baseball Classic (center fielder Adam Jones for the United States; second baseman Jonathan Schoop for the Netherlands, and third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Welington Castillo for the Dominican Republic), the Orioles have yet to see their 2017 team on the field together. Tillman’s absence means the Orioles will be counting heavily on young right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, their likely Nos. 1 and 2 starters when they break camp, to make big leaps this season.
Asked about the win projections that annually underestimate the Orioles, Bundy said Showalter makes sure the players know about them. “We hear about them from time to time,” he said. “If anything, it motivates us.”
The conventional wisdom about the Orioles is that they are entering a two-year window to try to win a championship. Three of their best players — Machado, Jones and Britton — all can become free agents after the 2018 season, and at least in the cases of Machado and Britton, there is not much optimism about the chances of their re-signing before then.
The degree to which the Orioles’ recent success and consistency can be attributed to Showalter’s skills as a manager is one of those largely unquantifiable factors. But it would help explain the constant under-projection if we accept that Showalter is one of the best in the game at deploying his hitters in the perfect spots and exploiting matchups with his bullpen. (Notwithstanding Showalter’s infamous blunder in the 2016 AL wild-card game, when he failed to use all-star closer Zach Britton in an 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.)
Most sabermetrically inclined analysts believe one-run wins and losses are largely a function of luck, but Showalter’s Orioles teams were 21-16, 32-23 and 29-9 in their past three playoff seasons (and 25-26 and 20-31 in the seasons in which they fell short). Likewise, Showalter’s Orioles have outperformed their “Pythagorean” win-loss records (or their expected record based on runs scored and runs against) by an aggregate of 16 runs over the past five seasons.
“We have to out-opportunity people. We have to out-relationship people. We have to outsource other teams,” Showalter said. “We talk all the time about the little things we have to be better at than the teams can outspend us.”
Showalter compiles many of those unquantifiable little things on something called a “non-quantify” list that is distributed to players after games. Asked for a recent example, Showalter pointed to a steal of third by outfield prospect Cedric Mullins in the ninth inning of a game Sunday in which the Orioles were trailing by a run.
“He waited until there was one out to steal third. If he tried with nobody out, he’s probably out” because the defense would have been more tuned into the possibility. “Now the infield has to play in, and Rickert hits a ball that tipped off the third baseman’s glove. If he’s at regular depth, the game’s over. That doesn’t show up. There’s 10 of those plays every game. The key is when you lose, show them the 10 things that could’ve been different and helped us win.”
Maybe this will be the year the projections are right. Maybe Showalter will lose his touch, the bullpen will crumble, the home runs will dwindle and the lucky one-run decisions will go the other way. But if Showalter has his way, the Orioles will keep winning, and he will sit down at his computer one morning next February to find out how bad his team will be in 2018.