Zach Wilt: For Orioles, one is the loneliest number

So this is what it feels like. The Orioles fell 6-5 to the Tigers yesterday. The loss concluded a 1-6 road trip in Washington, Kansas City, and Detroit, and became the O’s sixth straight one-run loss.

Those tight losses are something Orioles fans aren’t accustomed to, Our club is typically on the winning end of tight games. Lately though, it seems like they have been unable to flip the script and are losing a lot of winnable games.

A season ago, Baltimore was 21-16 in one-run games. Between 2012 and 2016, they had a 127-105 record in those contests. Remember 2012? The Orioles were unstoppable in close games, finishing the season 29-9 and astounding critics on their way to securing an American League wild card. Their 2014 AL East championship season was no different. Buck Showalter’s club was on the winning end of one-run games 32 times and lost just 23 of those games. Here in 2017, they sit at 8-7 in games decided by one run and seem to be trending downward.

You can make yourself crazy searching for answers on the differences between clubs like the 2012 or 2014 Orioles and what we’ve seen so far in 2017. I thought that the bullpen was a major contributor in a team’s success in one-run games, so I started there. The 2012 Orioles bullpen produced an even 3.00 ERA and 2014 had a 3.14. This season, the Orioles ‘pen has a collective 3.95 ERA and ranks in the middle of the pack at 13th in the majors.

Does adding just under a run to the ERA of the Orioles bullpen contribute in this much of a shift in the club’s chances in one-run games? It could. This season, O’s relievers have produced a 1.39 Win Probability Added (WPA), a statistic used to measure the win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next. A rating of 1.39 is right around average for the league. The 2012 Birds had a 13.59 WPA, while the 2014 club scored an 8.01.

It’s hard to point the blame on the offense. In these six one-run losses, the Birds bats scored an average of 4.67 runs per game. That’s a very winnable total. They lost contests 7-6, 9-8 and 6-5. It did seem as though the Orioles were able to get that big hit when they needed it in 2012 and 2014, but just haven’t been able to much this season. I crosschecked that feeling with a statistic that FanGraphs.com calls “clutch,” which uses WPA as a foundation for measuring how well a player or team performs in high leverage situations.

To no surprise, the 2012 club had a 1.77 clutch, the 2014 Orioles scored a 1.71. Both totals rank “great” according to how FanGraphs measures them. This season, the O’s offense ranks below average with a minus-0.4 clutch. They currently rank 11th in batting average (.258), 19th in on base percentage (.315), and ninth in slugging percentage (.427). While we have seen the Orioles bats starting to heat up as the weather gets warmer, they rank ninth in home runs (55) and are 10 behind the leading Brewers. The Birds finished first in homers in 2014 (211) and second in 2012 (214). I suspect that they will have to repeat a similar performance this season if they want to get back to winning close games.

Of course, starting pitching hasn’t exactly helped the close game situation either. Orioles starters have a collective 4.54 ERA (21st in the majors) this season. Over the last seven days, the rotation has posted a 7.58 ERA. That puts even more pressure on the bullpen and offense. We have seen the Orioles find success with a below-average rotation, in 2012, the club’s starters had a 4.42 ERA, while they trimmed it down to a 3.61 in 2014. I guess that’s the difference between a wild card and a division championship.

There are encouraging signs for the Orioles. They have seen a strong offensive performance from Chris Davis over the last week, and that is always scary for their opponents. Welington Castillo is back and he looks ready to mash, as well. Regardless of what he’s done over the first couple months of the season, Manny Machado is a sleeping giant that’s ready to break out at any second.

The Birds will have to get back to consistency from their bullpen and settle their starting rotation. They have always depended on strong performances from their pitchers late in games to pick up wins. This year will be no different.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’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 MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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