Along with a continued fascination for the post-playing careers of Cal Ripken Jr. and Ray Lewis and the personal life of Michael Phelps, nothing gets juices going in these parts like projection systems that knock the Orioles' prospects for the upcoming baseball season.
Prepare for another round of that (and perhaps, in months, the subsequent "I told you so" columns, as Baseball Prospectus' annual PECOTA release has the Orioles as a 72-90 ballclub this year, the third-worst record in baseball by their estimation. (That's been revised up to 73-89 since the projections were released this morning, likely on a playing time adjustment).
Pair that with the FanGraphs projection of a 79-83 record, and it seems that a third playoff appearance in four seasons for the Orioles in 2016 hasn't convinced the public-facing projections to change how they go about things. And it shouldn't.
As this phenomenon of the Orioles out-performing the forecasts for them continued last year, we used the occasion to dive into why this was the case. In its most basic form, these projection systems aggregate expected statistics based on past performance and the peripheral statistics they control to form a baseline of how many runs a team is expected to allow and score in the upcoming year
Those totals are then converted into wins and losses, and the resultant records are broadcast all over the Internet and debated by two intransigent sides. On the numbers side, they can point to years of projections being mostly spot on and providing valuable indicators for everything from individual players to team performance. Being wrong before doesn't mean they'll be wrong again, and the Orioles continue to feature a few tenets that don't compute well in these metrics, though they acknowledge things like luck, health, and good bullpen use impact the real-life results.
Offensively, they're not a team that prioritizes getting on base, instead swinging big and hitting a lot of home runs. They also swing and miss a lot, and none of that contributes to accepted ways to score runs consistently.
In the other half of the inning, they're dogged by questions about their starting rotation, which doesn't traditionally strike a lot of men out and plays in front of an outfield defense that doesn't cover a lot of ground. Their lights-out bullpen is a credit, but not enough to lower what's always a high runs-allowed total in the projections. FanGraphs has the Orioles projected to allow five runs per game this year (810 in total), while BP has them at 813 runs allowed.
If you look closely, those are a lot of the things that the same fans who toss these forecasts in the trash would say about the Orioles in real life. They've spent the offseason decrying the team for not really fixing any of those issues, yet will overlook that when looking into the past to point out how the Orioles end up winning more games than all those flaws say they should. And in a sense, everyone is right.
The pitching staff is the source of most of the division, though ask any baseball person if a rotation topped by Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and Dylan Bundy will be the worst in baseball and the answer will be a resounding no. The folks over at Camden Depot had a few reasonable quibbles with PECOTA on Twitter, most notably their playing time calculations and the system's view of shortstop J.J. Hardy and Tillman.
If you subscribe to such theories that Chris Davis only goes off every other year (and will again this year), that a full season of Hyun Soo Kim will improve the team's offensive consistency, and that the trio atop the rotation will each make 30-plus starts, then the Orioles could easily be a playoff team again.
If the team's lack of athleticism in the outfield remains alarming to you, as it does to Adam Jones, or you don't think there's enough depth on the roster to overcome one or two major injuries, or you don't buy into into the rotation, then you can rest easy with the projections that have been trickling out.
And if you're a neutral inside the baseball industry, the two poles that establish themselves in times like these seem puzzling. The Orioles, barring disaster, will be the same team that finds itself in the hunt year in and year out, so why get so worked up in February? No one on either side can be easily convinced by the other at this point.