Zach Wilt: Qualifying the Orioles’ ‘luck’

Growing up, my dad always had old sayings that he would use to help teach me a life lesson. They were always simple, thought-provoking sentiments about whatever struggles I happened to be facing at the time, and many of them stick with me today.

One such saying has particularly been of interest to me throughout the last five months. As I have watched the Baltimore Orioles go from 69 wins in 2011 to 88 wins (and counting) in 2012, I can’t help but hear my dad saying, “You make your own luck.”

The baseball world is heavily divided between folks who believe advanced statistics are the end-all, be-all in analysis of the game and people who have refused to acknowledge statistics’ existence. Personally, I find myself right in the middle of this angry mob.

I’m not sure why it’s such a black-and-white issue, but the Orioles’ 2012 season is the perfect example of just how divided these two sides are on this sport.

I suppose my problem with some baseball experts’ analyses of the Orioles’ run this year is the use of the word “lucky” to describe them. I watched the Orioles in their previous 14 losing seasons and have to wonder why they were unable to be this “lucky” before. If luck is all it took to be successful, why haven’t the Pirates been so fortunate over the past two decades?

By now most of Baltimore has heard, or at least read, Keith Law’s comments about the O’s season.

“There’s literally nothing that the Orioles can do to convince me that they are a good team,” Law said on his podcast on ESPN on September 4. The Orioles were 76-59 and tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East when he made that statement. Today, they’re 88-66 and 1 1/2 games ahead of Oakland for the wild card lead.

Law, and many other baseball experts, points to the Orioles’ negative run differential as the reasoning behind why they are a bad team who has found a way to fool the baseball world for nearly six months. It was -19 on September 4; it’s -7 today. Does being outscored by your opponents and still coming out with a playoff-caliber record make a team lucky?

When examined a bit closer, the Orioles’ run differential against all opponents excluding the Angels and Rangers this season is actually +57, which means that when they lose, they lose big.

Nick Piecoro, a beat writer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, wrote a guest piece on last week titled “The Agony of Rational Rooting”. In it, he describes why he can’t root for the Orioles as he feels that teams that “have gone about it the right way” should win.

He wants to see more success from teams with positive run differentials and a “good process” over teams that he feels have gotten lucky. Removing my orange-tinted glasses and afro wig, I can understand where he is coming from but hesitate to classify the Orioles as a lucky team or one that isn’t deserving of the spot they have rightfully earned in the standings.

Is it lucky that Adam Jones has had a career season and has belted 32 home runs, 20 of which have tied the game or given the Orioles a lead? Was it a bad move for Dan Duquette and the O’s front office to sign Jones to a six-year, $85.5 million extension in May?

No and no.

In his preseason predictions, ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of baseball’s best minds, said that under the Orioles’ best case scenario this season, they would still fail to win 70 games. They won their 70th game on August 27 with 35 games remaining in the season. No one predicted that the Orioles would be where they are today, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving.

While those leery of the Orioles will point to Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta all failing to have that breakout season everyone has been expecting, they often omit Baltimore’s improved defense and the surprisingly effective acquisitions of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.

Baltimore recently had their 114-inning errorless streak snapped on September 22. It was their longest errorless streak of the season. The Birds have made just four errors in all of September.

A lights-out bullpen is often another sign of one of these “lucky” teams the experts say. The Orioles certainly have had great pitching from their relievers all season. I suppose they got particularly lucky with the acquisitions of Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala and the effectiveness of MLB’s saves leader Jim Johnson.

One guy was claimed off waivers before the Orioles even hired a GM, another is a 34-year-old veteran of the Mexican League who has bounced around between nine franchises and the last guy is a homegrown bullpen arm. Did the Orioles hit on all three, or are they part of a well-constructed bullpen?

I can call them “fortunate” for staying healthy, but I refuse to accept the “lucky” tag.

But, the statistic that could either fight for or against the “lucky” argument has been the Orioles’ success in extra-inning games. The Birds have now won 16 consecutive games in extra frames, the most in a single season since the 1949 Cleveland Indians (17).

You simply can’t quantify Buck Showalter’s value in those wins. How many teams play 18-inning games and still manage to get their closer in for the final three outs?

Of course, you could also ask how many managers have worked around losing their most effective starter and breakout leadoff hitter and still managed juggle a rotation and lineup?

By the way, the O’s are 10-5 since Nick Markakis went down with a broken thumb, and Nate McLouth is hitting .279 with two doubles and three homers in his spot.

“There are no Cinderellas in baseball,” Buck Showalter told Yahoo Sports’ Les Carpenter. “You play so many games all strengths and weaknesses show up. There’s something about our society, sports society. We all want to know about something - having been at ESPN - we all want to know about something before it happens.”

My dad and Buck are right: You make your own luck.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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