Players celebrate in their clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after winning 5-2 to clinch a wild-card playoff berth. (Video by Eduardo A. Encina)
In what has become an almost yearly ritual since the beginning of the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era, the Orioles have outkicked their coverage.
Take that, FanGraphs and many of the other "algorithm" stat sites that purport to possess some special insight into the relative viability of the 30 major league teams. The Orioles continue to defy pseudo-science and will be taking part in the playoffs for the third time in the five years that just about major sports media entity has picked them fourth or fifth in the American League East.
"People say that every single year, I really don't know why, but for some reason they like picking against us," said pitcher Kevin Gausman, who closed out the regular season on Sunday with a strong 7 1/3-inning performance at Yankee Stadium. "It's fine with us. We're kind of used to it. But this team is a lot of fun and we have a lot of quality guys, so it makes coming to the ballpark every day really easy and like I said, a lot of fun."
The Orioles won for the seventh time in their last nine games to secure the second American League wild-card berth and will play the Toronto Blue Jays in the first game of the postseason Tuesday night at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
If they had listened to the pundits, they would have been out of contention weeks ago and no one would have blinked when a big chunk of their fan following passed up the opportunity to attend some normally popular division showdowns in late September.
"Generally, people don't pick us in the offseason, which is OK by us," Duquette said Sunday evening, "but I don't know what criteria they use. Nobody has picked us to do much and this club always finds a way to compete."
Now, to be fair, just about everybody does predictions and everybody gets some right and some wrong, but when you create a set of analytics and tout them as being superior to all the old-school statistics that have survived for the last 150 years or so, well, you ought to not be completely wrong as often as some of the entities that have underestimated the Orioles over the past half-decade.
Sun baseball writer Jon Meoli wrote an interesting story at the end of spring training about the way FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus (among many others) had undersold the Orioles for a number of years and why both were underselling them again in 2016.
He quoted FanGraphs managing editor David Cameron explaining the process and the factors that led to the soft projections of the ALCS Orioles in 2014 and the World Series-winning Royals last year. Cameron conceded that no one can account for all the variables that intervene during a 162-game season, but defended the evaluation process.
"We have algorithms based on a decent amount of historical data, and it's generally proven to work in most cases," he said. "This is what those algorithms spit out."
The question now – after the Orioles have proven everyone so wrong again – is at what point do you acknowledge a gaping hole in your algorithm and do something to fill it?
It's understandable that the Orioles have been hard to figure. They looked like they were done a week or two ago because they have had a sketchy starting rotation all season and their big-swinging offense no longer was consistently supporting it.
Sunday's 5-2 win over the Yankees capped a tense week where the Orioles faced playoff elimination. But they won two of three games each in Toronto and New York after struggling all season on the road -- they were just 35-40 away from Camden Yards heading into the final two series.
The projections took that into account and assumed that would translate into a sub-.500 season, but they didn't account for Duquette stealing the top home run hitter in the game (Mark Trumbo) from the Seattle Mariners for a reserve catcher with bad Twitter judgment two offseasons after scoring a similar coup with Nelson Cruz.
They also could not have predicted that relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach (another Duquette steal) would be all but unhittable for most of the season. Britton just completed perhaps the greatest single season ever by a left-handed relief pitcher, which – despite his obvious talent – is not something that anyone could have foreseen.
Throw in all the minor league overachievers, free-agent flyers and Rule 5 guys that Duquette takes a chance on every year and who can really figure out what might happen?
"We have good internal leadership,'' Duquette said, "and really, we're able to compete because we've got those two young kids in the rotation who came through with great talent, right? [Dylan] Bundy and [Kevin] Gausman. And then Mychal Givens emerged and Britton has the great year that he had. ... Those are players who came through that you couldn't necessarily count on for the roles that they filled on this team. And then to have the veteran pitchers come around like they have the last month of the season, that gives us a good foundation going into the playoffs."
That's all true, but what the models should have been able to account for by now is the overall impact that Duquette has had on the teams he has built over the years and the ability of Showalter to make the most out of whatever talent comes his way.
Those are intangible things that lend themselves to that imperfect evaluator known as human observation, which is why the success of the Orioles was not such a surprise to those who have been around to see it happen.
The conflict between the stat geeks and the baseball dinosaurs comes down to whether you want to believe some algorithm or your eyes. When it comes to the Orioles, the eyes have it.