Let’s be honest, the Orioles are running away with the American League East. A few years ago, I never thought I would get to say those words, but here in 2014, it’s totally true. The O’s are 21 games over .500 and have a nine-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. Their postseason odds have now soared as high at 97.1 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus, with a 96 percent chance of winning the division. Baseball in October is almost a certainty in Baltimore this year. There’s even a magic number being thrown around - and it’s not even September. In my lifetime, the Orioles have had 12 seasons of 71 wins or fewer. This season, they’ve already surpassed that number.
It would be easy to look at the Orioles success and point to a down season for the AL East. On Aug. 20, 2013, the AL East had four teams that were over .500. Collectively, the East had won 19 more games at this point last season than they have in 2014. The World Series champion Red Sox are in the last place and traded their ace to Oakland, the Rays lost Wil Myers and traded David Price to Detroit, slugger Edwin Encarnacion has played in just 92 of the Blue Jays’ 127 games, and the Yankees have lost C.C. Sabathia and Masahiro Tanka from their starting rotation.
So why shouldn’t the O’s be in first place? Everything has gone their way, right?
If I told you at the beginning of the season that in late August the Orioles would be without All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, that Chris Davis would be hitting below .200, that Manny Machado would be out for one third of the season and that Ubaldo Jimenez, who the O’s inked to a four-year, $50 million deal this winter, would be in the bullpen, there’s no way you would think that they could be in first place. It’s perfectly understandable.
While Wieters has been sidelined with an elbow injury, a 28-year-old rookie has taken over the duties behind the plate. Caleb Joseph has thrown out 45 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him this season, well above the league average (27 percent). After the All-Star break, Joseph’s bat has heated up. He’s slashing .286/.338/.603 in 69 plate appearances in the second half.
Things haven’t gone Davis’ way in 2014. After taking the league by storm and belting 53 homers in 2013, Davis has posted a 1.5 WAR and .246 BABIP. In his place, guys like Steve Pearce, Delmon Young and Nelson Cruz have stepped up to replace the power the O’s were expecting in the lineup. It’s seems like every time the Orioles have called upon Young, he’s delivered. In 198 plate appearances, Young has slashed .300/.328/.432. Pearce was the Orioles’ best hitter in June when he played in 20 games and hit .361 with five home runs and 13 RBIs. This season he’s reached career highs in games, plate appearances, runs, hits, homers and RBIs. As for Cruz, he was arguably the league’s MVP in the first half with his 28 homers and 74 RBIs. On Wednesday night, he tied his career-high homer total with 33.
I’ve been most impressed with the work the Orioles pitching staff has done. Since the All-Star break, Baltimore’s pitchers have posted the third-best ERA in all of baseball (2.92). Their starting pitchers have posted a 3.39 ERA in August. Even though Jimenez hasn’t lived up to expectations, the rotation has stepped up behind No. 1 starter Chris Tillman, who has held hitters to a .210 batting average and posted a 2.31 ERA in 14 starts since his early exit on June 5.
There’s no question the AL East is down this season, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a divide in this division. But let’s not act like the Orioles haven’t faced their share of adversity this season, too. The difference is that unlike the rest of their competition in the East, they’ve stepped up and taken advantage.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zamwi. 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.