Manager Buck Showalter of the Baltimore Orioles walks off the field after a pitching change during the game against the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
For the Orioles' lofty place in the Wild Card standings, they can thank their otherworldly 24-6 record in one-run games. What does it all mean, though? Seriously.
That sound you heard Wednesday night?
That was the Baltimore Orioles giving up a bunch of runs. Again. This time the chief victim was Joe Saunders, whose return to the American League -- after a two-year stint in the National League -- was met with a hail of Chicago White Sox line drives, resulting in seven runs off Saunders and an 8-1 ChiSox victory.
But of course, losing big is nothing new for the Baltimore Orioles. They've been outscored by 46 runs this season, they've got the fourth-worst run differential in the league, and they're making a serious push for third worst.
So how are the Orioles just 3½ games behind the first-place New York Yankees? How do they lay claim to the second American League wild card?
It's simple, really: The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are 24-6 in one-run games.
How difficult is that? Well, the first-place Yankees are 16-19 in one-run games and the third-place Rays are 18-23 in one-run games. In fact, every American League East team but the Orioles has a losing record in one-run games. The Orioles are 18 games over .500 in one-run games; the second-best team in the majors, by that measure, is the Giants ... just eight games over .500 in one-run games.
Typically, three explanations are offered when a team has a great record in one-run games:
1. Great Relief Pitching
2. Great Managing
3. Great Luck
Let's take those in order, shall we?
The Orioles have -- or have had, anyway -- excellent relief pitching. Their 3.03 relief ERA ranks third in the league. And that might undersell their excellence just a bit, as their top five relievers all have earned-run averages lower than 3.03. And of course it's usually those guys who are pitching in the closest games.
Last month, Camden Chat checked the bullpen's performance in each of the Orioles' one-run games; as you would expect, the bullpen pitched well in those games. But as the author pointed out, the correlation between good bullpens and success in one-run games isn't particularly strong. I mentioned that the Orioles sport the third-best relief ERA in the American League? The Rays and A's have the best relief ERAs; combined, they're 38-38 in one-run games. The Royals are fourth in the American League in relief ERA. The Reds are first in the National League. Both teams are five games over .500 in one-run games.
Having a good bullpen helps. It doesn't go a long toward toward explaining that 24-6.
What about Buck Showalter, though? Everybody loves Buck Showalter, right?*
* I mean, except for his players after two or three seasons.
Now, it's possible that Showalter discovered some secret sauce this season. But he's been around for a long time. If he knew something that other managers didn't, you would figure it's showed up in his record well before just this season, right?
Showalter managed the Yankees for four seasons, 1992-1995. The Yankees were really good in those four seasons; well, decent in the first season and really good in the next three. They won 76 one-run games, and they lost 76 one-run games. Yeah. I know.
Showalter managed the Diamondbacks for three seasons, 1998-2000. There were terrible in his first season, fantastic in his second, and decent in his third. They won 62 one-run games, and lost 74.
Showalter managed the Rangers for four seasons, 2003-2006. They were poor, good, decent, and decent; overall, Showalter's Rangers were essentially a .500 team. They 82 one-run games, and lost 94.
I know the maths aren't for everyone, so I'll add everything up for you. In Buck Showalter's first 11 seasons, managing teams that were usually at least pretty good, his teams went 220-244 in one-run games. It's not that Showalter wasn't a good manager in one-run games; based purely on the public record, he was a lousy manager in one-run games.
This is Showalter's third season managing the Orioles, second full season.
In less than half the 2010 season, the O's went 12-5 in one-run games. Impressive!
In 2011, the O's went 22-22 in one-run games. Meh.
You know about 2012.
Care to guess what Showalter's record in one-run games will be if the Orioles lose their next one?
Yeah. I know. You wouldn't make this stuff up.
Which brings us to luck. Given enough time, it usually evens out.
Bad teams usually have better records in one-run games than in their other games. Good teams usually have worse records in one-run games than in their other games. Buck Showalter's teams have played approximately .500 baseball over his whole career, so we would expect his teams to play approximately .500 in their one-run games.
Which is exactly what they've done. With an odd distribution.
What do you think, though? Do you think Showalter didn't know how to manage in close games while skippering the Diamondbacks and Rangers, but somehow figured it out during those two years he was working for ESPN?
Hey, anything's possible. What seems likely, though, is that the Orioles have just been exceptionally lucky in those games, down the stretch in 2010 and now again in the first five months of this season.
Does any of this mean that Buck Showalter isn't an excellent manager? Of course not.
Does any of this mean the Orioles can't do something amazing? Of course not. It just means they'll have to play better than they've played. The Orioles have two paths to the postseason: beating the Yankees, or finishing with one of the two best records among the non-division titlists. Both are quite unlikely. Put them together, though, and the Orioles do have a 1-in-4 chance of making it.
They just have to play better. You know, maybe even score more runs than they give up.