The playoff berths for the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles are without a doubt the two biggest surprises of the season (speaking strictly team-wise; for a review of individual players, see the sidebar). Both teams were near-universally picked to finish in the cellars of their respective divisions, and for most of the season baseball waited for the other shoe to drop, the cows to come home—what have you. But the AL West championship for the A’s and the wild card for the Orioles defy all clichés, and careful attention should be paid to how exactly these two teams managed to win 90 games.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has received much of the credit for Baltimore’s first postseason berth since 1997. It started in May, when Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci identified a quirky trend.
“Give him two spring trainings with a club (consider the first a writeoff for evaluation and culture shock) and you’ll see the payoff,” Verducci wrote in an article for SI.com. Basically, Showalter’s teams always perform well in his second full season as manager—and 2012 was Showalter’s second full season in Baltimore. Showalter Magic, right?
Maybe. The most amazing stat concerning the Orioles is their 29-9 record in one-run games. For nearly all of the season, the Orioles allowed more runs than they scored. Naturally, negative run differentials are almost always achieved by losing teams (the last team to get outscored on the season and still make the playoffs: the 2007 Diamondbacks); but Baltimore’s amazing record in close games overcame this symptom of inadequacy. For this, their bullpen is responsible. And Showalter is responsible for the bullpen.
Baltimore had the third-best bullpen ERA in the AL (3.00), but the top two teams (the Rays and A’s) came nowhere near Baltimore’s success in close games. That’s because Showalter managed his relief arms brilliantly. Without fail he brought in the best guys at the most critical times.
Leverage Index (LI), one of those new-fangled stats you may have heard about, measures the tension and importance of events in a game. Not all one-run leads are created equal: we know that a pitcher ahead by one in the ninth who has just loaded the bases is in a lot more trouble than a pitcher up by one in the first with no one on and two out. All LI does is quantify that difference; a neutral LI is 1; anything higher signifies a higher-leverage, or more tense, situation. One of the best uses of LI is determining which relievers pitch the toughest innings for a team.
For the Orioles, the four pitchers who pitched the toughest innings according to LI were four of the five best relievers on the team, according to ERA (minimum 20 innings pitched). These four—Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Darren O’Day—accounted for half of all the innings pitched by the Baltimore bullpen. In other words, Showalter made the very most of his best arms.
Oakland’s success can be explained with more conventional statistics. Of all 16 A’s pitchers (minimum 30 IP), only rookie Tyson Ross had an ERA over four (6.50 in 73.1 IP). The starting rotation finished third in the AL in ERA (3.80) while rookies accounted for 68 percent of the rotation’s total innings. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, who came to the team as prized returns from the Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill trades, respectively, have led the team in games started, innings pitched, wins and Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
On offense, the A’s mitigated their mediocrity through platoons. A platoon is when two players share time at a position, usually because, alone, each is incomplete offensively. The best example of this strategy is found at first base, where the A’s platooned lefty-masher Chris Carter with Brandon Moss, the bane of right-handers. With this method, Oakland squeezed every last drop of offensive production out of the first base position like it was the last bottle of ketchup. The only AL teams to get more offense—as defined by wRC+, which adjusts for park factors and context—from their first basemen were the Tigers (Prince Fielder) and the Angels (Albert Pujols). Not bad when you consider the money issue: Fielder was paid $23 million this year; Pujols, $12 million; Moss and Carter, $480,000 (the major-league minimum) each. No wonder they shocked everyone.