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The Orioles are exceeding expectations. So why are their playoff odds so low?

As disheartening as a three-game sweep to the Toronto Blue Jays was for the Orioles this week, their surprising start to the season still has them as a .500 club with 40% of their games completed.

It’s unclear if the top pick in the 2021 draft will indeed go to the team with the worst record, but if so, the Orioles have probably already won their way out of contention for that. The only other incentive this season, then, is reaching the expanded playoffs, in which the top two teams in each division and two wild cards qualify.

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Every day, websites such FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus update their postseason odds that, despite the Orioles being in the middle of the pack in the raw standings, never place the team as high in their projection-based playoff probabilities.

Those sites do, however, see the Orioles as a far better team than the one expected to win 20 games in this 60-game season when it began four weeks ago.

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“You’ve got a team that’s basically .500 playing like a .500 team overall,” Harry Pavlidis, director of research and development at Baseball Prospectus, said Wednesday morning, before the Orioles’ loss to the Blue Jays dropped them to being an actual .500 team (12-12).

“We’re projecting them to play the rest of the season, on average, four games under .500 — which isn’t terrible. It may be conservative because of the improved performance. Some players’ performance is actually legitimate, there may be some things we have to do to adjust for that. But the basic idea is they got to where they are. It seems pretty fair.”

At FanGraphs, too, the ZIPS projections, which are powered by player performance, have seen the Orioles’ forecast climb based on some of the improvements in their lineup and the production there. Their recent losses, however, had them projected to finish 26-34, meaning they’d go 14-18 the rest of the season.

The Orioles had a 14.9% chance of making the playoffs at FanGraphs after Wednesday’s loss, down from 19.7% before the game. Those odds dipped at Baseball Prospectus, too, from a 22.7% chance of making the playoffs entering Wednesday to 15.8% after the defeat.

Those odds might not dictate whether executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias decides to shop veterans such as starting pitcher Alex Cobb or reliever Mychal Givens at the Aug. 31 trade deadline, or drive the Orioles to call up a top prospect to add to a playoff push.

But they might push fan interest, and there’s plenty that goes into them, including current-season performance, preseason projections and strength of schedule.

Dan Szymborski, a Baltimore native and senior writer at FanGraphs whose ZIPS projections provide one of the longest-standing forecasts in the baseball world, looks at a career’s worth of data for a player and projects how they’ll perform in a given season based on those indicators, past precedent and several other factors.

“The best way to think of a projection is a whole array of possibilities at a single point in time,” he said. “The ‘middle’ is always uncertain and every at bat or inning pitched shifts that whole array to one side or the other. I compare baseball projections to hurricane forecasts. We know where players are, but where they’re going is like a big cone that comes out. And many things can change that path.”

For both players and teams, the preseason projections are typically better indicators of how a season will go than those that incorporate performance in the early part of the season. In-season projections are calculated with that in mind. If enough individual players’ projections jump up, and the team compiles real-life wins the way the Orioles have, that can make for what Szymborski called a “very large shift for a team” at this point in the season.

Once the new playoff rules changed, FanGraphs’ ZIPS projections had the Orioles as a 20-40 team with an 8% chance of making the playoffs, according to Szymborski, accounting for the uncertainty of the short season.

Had the Orioles played to that level, they’d hypothetically be 8-16 at the 24-game mark. Playing at that projected .333 winning percentage over the final 36 games would have them 12-24. What little improvement they do have, with an expected 14-22 finish, is owed to the improved production from some of their young hitters.

ZIPS projected Hanser Alberto to have a .693 OPS, and taking into account what he’s done already, his rest-of-season OPS was projected to be .730 entering Wednesday. Renato Núñez’s rest-of-season OPS, per ZIPS, is .803, up from .763. Chance Sisco’s was up from .725 to .787. All of that’s based on the evidence that their performance is improving, and accounts for slightly rosier projections for the team as a whole.

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“ZIPS remains generally skeptical of the pitching, but it sees the offense as a far more competent group than it did a month ago,” Szymborski said.

The same preseason pessimism was true at Baseball Prospectus, where their PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) statistical projections are combined with playing time estimates through their human-generated depth charts.

Those essentially project how many runs a team would score or allow in a season, based on the expected production and how frequently each player is on the field. That’s run through the schedule and simulated 1,000 times, and what the world sees is something of a midpoint.

Pavlidis said the Orioles got a boost by the new playoff format in their projections, too, but their chances before that were “very, very, very, very, very, very small.” Their odds improved at Baseball Prospectus because of the expanded playoffs as well, but most of the improvement comes from the real-life winning of games.

“Then, they actually play the games and they came out of the gate hot,” Pavlidis said. “What’s happened is they suddenly have far advanced themselves in the eyes of PECOTA, in terms of where they can finish in the standings. But PECOTA still thinks the players are who they are.”

So as it stands, because of the years of evidence baked into these modeling systems that show that players often perform to certain levels based on past performance, as well as a difficult schedule that still features 15 of 36 games against the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, there’s not going to be a lot of optimistic math behind the team’s fortunes the rest of the season.

Their saving grace might be the new playoff format. The Blue Jays were in the eighth spot at 31.6%, per FanGraphs, but with three teams between them and the Orioles.

If those odds are going to shoot back up to their highs from earlier this month — the Orioles’ odds peaked at 27.8% on Aug. 15 — all they can really do to fuel that is start winning again.

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