The Society for American Baseball Research recently cranked out a history of the 1970 Baltimore Orioles, appropriately titled, Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers, reflecting the three things that their skipper, Earl Weaver, always preached as the three most reliable pillars of victory in baseball.
And you know what? The rules, let alone the basic principles of how you win ballgames, really haven’t changed that much since those days. Even with the addition of the designated hitter in 1973, today’s American League is scoring just 4.3 runs per team per game against the 4.2 runs per game that the league did in 1970, back when pitchers still had to hit in the junior circuit. Which suggests that, even with a pile of advanced metrics to better assess player value and with better tools (statistical and technological) to evaluate player performance, teams are in much the same boat as far as what it takes to win. Want to contend? You’ll want pitching and defense and scoring runs on home runs, early and often.
Which is where the Rays come in, as well as the recently rehatched Orioles, because that same three-point formula for success is one that the these two teams -- especially the Rays with their significantly more analytical bent than Weaver’s old 3x5 note cards from the pre-PC days in the dugout -- have taken to heart as they seek to be giant-killers in the AL East. Or maybe that should be giant-payroll-killers, because the Boston Red Sox haven’t finished better than third since 2009, and the way this year is going for them, getting back to the postseason may not be in the cards. So keep that in mind: The Rays are a power already, but are the Orioles about to become one?
So let’s start with defense, tough as that is to get a handle on. The Orioles currently rank third in the league in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE), reflecting an improvement on defense that should speak well for their future if they can keep it up. PADE is the metric that adjusts the simple rate of outs created on balls in play for where the teams play, and was created by James Click for Baseball Prospectus back before he was the director of baseball research and development for ... why, none other than the Tampa Bay Rays.
Guess who ranked first in PADE last year? The Tampa Bay Rays. They rank a much more modest 21st overall at present, but they’re also trying to recover from a series of injuries that have made Joe Maddon’s day-to-day tailored lineups into even more of a daily guessing game; when the Rays come back toward the top before the end of the year, don’t act surprised. And can the Orioles keep that up? It may not be easy, but getting Mark Reynolds off the field a lot more often this year than last is a good start.
So, how about fence-busting power on offense? There has already been a good amount of deserved attention placed on the Rays’ power on offense. Through Saturday’s action, they’re fourth in the league in total homers hit, and their "Guillen number" -- the percentage of their total runs they’re scoring on home runs -- is also fourth in the league at 40.8 percent. But guess who’s doing better in both regards? The Yankees, of course -- every bit as unsubtle as the day Babe Ruth donned pinstripes, they’re scoring 48 percent of their runs on homers.
But the other team ahead of them in both homers and percentage of runs scored on homers are the Orioles, thanks in no small part to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis living up to several years’ worth of anticipation. They’re doing it without the help of single-minded slugger Reynolds, and without much production from Nick Markakis, but just running through the names gives you reason to believe the O’s will be able to keep producing thunder with the lumber. All five of them are between 26 and 28 years old, right around when hitters are generally predicted to produce their peak seasons.
Which leaves pitching, where you might be surprised to learn that the Orioles have notched more quality starts in the early going with 15 to the Rays’ 13. The Rays’ rotation comes out on top for runs allowed per nine (3.71 to 4.04), but considering that the Rays get their deserved touts for their top talents like Matt Moore and big-name starters like David Price and James Shields, you can be a little impressed with how the Orioles’ relatively anonymous front five have been doing.
But here again, that’s where you might expect more from the Rays going forward than the Orioles, because one-month Cinderella stories have more than their share of pumpkins instead of happy endings. While Jake Arrieta looks like the real deal, it’s going to be difficult for bend-don’t-break defense-dependent starters like Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen to keep beating people without a lot of help from their friends.
It’s especially hard to know what to expect from Jason Hammel going forward; if he keeps striking out 24 percent of opposing batters, he’ll be the elite starter he’s pitched like in six starts so far, but it’s such a remarkable development in the context of his career considering that he was striking out less than two-thirds that many guys over the previous six seasons.
If the Orioles have fixed Hammel, as Rick Sutcliffe has suggested on Baseball Tonight, it’ll be a great example of a former Rays prospect that his former team might regret letting get away. And if the Rays and Orioles are going to be serious about becoming the new twin powers in the AL East, it’ll ratchet up that rivalry another notch.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.