The Baltimore Orioles won just 69 games in 2011. Thanks in part to a strong bullpen and a breakout season by Adam Jones, the Birds upped their win total to 93 in 2012 and lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in five games.
Coming off the heels of their first postseason berth in more than a decade, Orioles fans were rightly excited for baseball to resume this spring. Would the team build on its 93 wins and second place finish in the AL East? Would the club prove that they were real competitors, not just a flash-in-the-pan aided by a Red Sox team that turned out to be a punching bag?
The Orioles famously went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012, a tremendous feat for any team. Even with a strong bullpen that sort of record is heavily aided by luck. Small victories are difficult to pull off, which is why so many teams build around the closer as the one guy they trust to protect a lead when it counts.
Orioles’ closer, Jim Johnson, saved 51 games last year, leading the league in saves, while Brian Matusz emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen as a lefty specialist. Essentially every move Buck Showalter made with his pitchers worked as well as he could have hoped.
Fast forward a year and Jim Johnson, while still very good, blew 9 saves on his way to a second-straight 50 save season.
Orioles magic in one-run games evaporated. Going 20-31 in one-run games this season, the O’s didn’t have the same type of success as last year. Finishing with an 85-77 record, six games behind the second place Rays, the same number of additional saves blown by Johnson over the 2012 season, and the O’s would have been in the battle royale with the Rays, Rangers, and Indians for the Wild Card.
A deep rotation wasn’t a strength of the 2012 team or the 2013 incarnation. Given the margin of their loss, one more good starter could go a long way for the Orioles.
Chris Tillman stepped up in a big way this year throwing over 200 innings of 3.78 ERA baseball. The righty struck out just under eight batters per nine innings and walked three batters per inning. That’s not ace level performance, but over the last few seasons the Orioles have seen Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and others fail to hang on to a rotation spot, so Tillman is a step in the right direction.
Jason Hammel, last year’s rotation leader, posted an ERA just under five in an injury-shortened 2013 season.
Dylan Bundy, the O’s pitching phenom, who made a brief debut down the stretch in 2012, missed the entire season trying to rehab before sucumbing to Tommy John surgery, putting his future in doubt for the 2014 season as well.
First baseman Chris Davis did everything he possibly could, and more, by putting up a monster season. 53 home runs, 43 doubles, an OPS over 1.000, 103 runs, and 138 RBI set the pace for the former Rangers prospect. It took Davis a few years to get adjusted to the majors, but when he put things together the result was nearly unbelievable. If he can duplicate even eighty percent of this performance in 2014, the Orioles will be back in the mix for a playoff berth.
Manny Machado, who turned 21 in July, had a big first half (.310/.337/.470) followed by a second half slump (.240/.277/.370). While he ended the season with an injury scare, the hope is that the third baseman escaped with a prescription for rest and rehab rather than surgery.
Was this a good season for the Orioles? Probably. With the emergence of Chris Tillman, the power of Chris Davis, the continued presence of Matt Wieters, and only scratching the surface of what Manny Machado can do, Baltimore is in position to continue building.
Had this season come before the breakout of 2012 things would look better for the fans, but this year’s Orioles were better, but not luckier, than last year’s model.
General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have breathed new life into a team that sat along the bottom of the standings for too long. The Red Sox and Yankees aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and the Rays are too well built to ignore, but the Orioles can use the new playoff format to make their push. And with just a little bit of luck, they might be back in the postseason next year.
Cross-posted at The Sports Post