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Schmuck: Same as it ever was, Orioles off to better start than the pundits

The Orioles have sailed through their front-loaded divisional schedule to build one of the best records in the major leagues, which is heady stuff for a team that still can't get an ounce of respect from the so-called experts who handicap major league baseball.

Nobody around here needs to be reminded that the Buck Showalter Orioles have never played very well on paper. They've been picked to finish below .500 by the analytics crowd for the past five years and have won the most regular-season games in the American League over that period, so it only makes sense that this will be the year they finally regress to the mean – or well below it.

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Right?

There's certainly plenty of time for them to tumble down the standings. They've barely played a 10th of the schedule and they aren't exactly running away from the pack in the American League East, but their ability to dominate their rivals during this first wave of divisional play certainly beats the alternative.

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They entered Wednesday night's game with a 11-5 record against the AL East, but that represents only a small fraction of the games they will have to play inside the division over the course of the season, so how much does it really mean?

"It just means that we've seen them a lot early," said Adam Jones, who has been highly critical of the pundits who think they can predict what's going to happen over a long baseball season, so he's not willing to do that himself.

Obviously, it's ridiculously early to draw any grand conclusions, especially when so much has happened during this first month of the season that defies explanation.

How, for instance, do you explain the fact that the Orioles are 4-0 in the starts of struggling right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, even though he has pitched adequately in only one of those games? Or that the team that was supposed to have the worst starting rotation in the division earned 10 of its first 13 victories by two runs or fewer. Or that the Orioles are playing nearly .700-plus baseball while their power-laden lineup scored more than three runs just seven times in its first 19 games.

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The case can be made that the unflattering algorithms are getting it right, even as the standings prove them wrong. The Orioles have no business being where they are right now, especially with the game's best closer on the disabled list and their projected ace still at least a week away from his first start of the season. But here they are and it's not as if they're taking advantage of one of those soft, front-loaded NFL competitive balance schedules.

No one in the clubhouse is making too much of all this, but what the Orioles have done against the division so far can't help but feed the narrative that Showalter has been promoting since early in spring training. Though most of the big moving pieces in the lineup, rotation and bullpen are the same as before, this year's roster has far more depth and flexibility than last year's wild-card team.

You would think that storing up victories against your division rivals would – at the very least – be a big confidence-builder, but veteran reliever Darren O'Day said Tuesday that it's a stretch to ascribe any great psychological benefit to winning a bunch games this early in the season. The mathematical benefit is what's important.

"Just the simple math of it is that every win we get against the East is a loss for the other team," he said. "That puts us a little bit ahead of the race. It's a marathon obviously, so maybe we're a half a step ahead right now, but it's important. The goal of the regular season obviously is to win the division. Every win in the division is helpful. I'm not going to say that it's bigger than beating the Angels, but it's always helpful knocking your opponent down one.

"It's great to win series, but it's not like 'Oh no, they beat us two out of three, next time … they're going to do it again.' I think when you get caught up in the macro things you're going to miss some of the small stuff. It's good to come out and make a small statement that we're a good team, but it's a marathon."

If nothing else, the people at FanGraphs who predicted another losing season for the Orioles have updated their projection to reflect the strong start and now have them winning 84 games, which must come as a great relief to Showalter.

"If we lose the next nine or 10 games, will they readjust it and then say, 'We were right?'" Showalter said. "I've got to get in that business. That's a hell of a business. You can never be wrong."

pschmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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