The Battle Between a Fan's Head and His Heart
However, through Sunday’s games, the Baltimore Orioles are 19-9, sporting not just the best record in the American League, but the best record in all of baseball. Their team ERA is the best is the AL. fueled by a rotation of guys few have heard of before the season, like Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel. Matt Wieters (.301/.381/.602 with top notch defense) has become the Matt Wieters he was hyped to be when he broke in to the big leagues. Just yesterday, the O’s beat the Red Sox in a 17 inning game in which the winning pitcher was a position player who went 0-8 at the plate (Chris Davis). Clearly, weird stuff is going on here.
My general position on this hot start was to enjoy it while it lasts. Those preseason evaluations of the Orioles’ roster still feel valid. As such, I was afraid until now to check the team’s advance stats to find out exactly how unsustainable this is. Luckily for the O’s in one respect, none of their hitters’ stats are all that out of the ordinary except for the aforementioned Davis, who has always been a quad-A player and thus probably won’t hit .299/.343/.526 all year (as that 0-8 day shows). Pitching-wise, it’s a different story, which is not good given that’s been the engine to this start.
The team as a whole has a Batting Average in Balls in Play (BABIP) of .265, one of the lowest in the league. For the uninitiated, BABIP is just as it says, the batting average a pitcher gives up (or a hitter hits) when the ball is hit in play. It strips out walks, strikeouts, and homers, the three things a pitcher has most control over. A low BABIP (average is about .300) indicates that a pitcher’s defense is getting to balls and turning them into outs at a larger rate than normal. If it’s low like it is for the entire Orioles’ staff, it’s an indication of them getting lucky. If the rate normalizes, the pitching is going to look a lot less impressive. Their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, another metric that strips defense and is read like ERA) is nearly a full run higher than their ERA. Like the BABIP metric, the team’s FIP points to future regression.
Intellectually dismissing a team’s hot start as a fluke and assuming they will head back down is easy when it’s not your team. However, when it is, it becomes an internal battle between what your head knows and believes to be true, and what your fan heart wants to see happen. I know that the Orioles are likely to come back to earth, and will probably still finish last in the AL East. After 15 years of frustration and losing and incompetence though, all I want is a baseball team worth cheering for. Is it rational? No, but fandom isn’t rational. I’ll admit I’ve been slow to believe for the reasons discussed above, but at the same time, yesterday’s 17 inning marathon is starting to make me believe. That’s what fandom does. No matter what happened in the past, and no matter how unlikely it is to last, at some point, you just have to take the plunge and give your heart to this specific team, to take the leap of faith that this team is going to be different, no matter how much the cold rational world tells you that it will end in heartbreak.
Bad teams in sports only have hope to sell to their fans. However, no matter how many draft picks and hot shot minor league prospects a team acquire, the only true way to excite their fans is to win, especially during a long dry spell without success. Right now, the Orioles are doing just that, and even if it doesn’t completely add up, as a long suffering fan, you’ve got to take what you can get. Weird things happen in baseball, and you never know how long unlikely runs will last. The Pirates last year only made it to July., but he Padres in 2010 made it to the last weekend of the season, and the 2007 Diamondbacks made it all the way to the NLCS despite being outscored that season.
For now though, as an Orioles fan, things feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote after he ran off a cliff. Everything is fine…unless you look down.