Lucky and good: Orioles will win AL East

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:11
AM ET


This is the lineup the Baltimore Orioles dreamed about back in spring training: Manny Machado spraying hits all over the field, Chris Davis hitting big bombs, J.J. Hardy providing power from shortstop.

And of course, Nelson Cruz doing Nelson Cruz types of things. You know: .294 average, 28 home runs, 73 RBIs. That's a pretty typical Cruz season; maybe a little high with the batting average since he has hit between .260 and .266 each of the past three seasons, but sometimes you just have one of those seasons when the bloopers fall and the ground balls have eyes.

Yep, a pretty typical Cruz kind of season. Except the Orioles have played 89 games and Cruz is on pace for 51 home runs and 133 RBIs. He played a big part in the Orioles' 8-2 win over the Nationals in 11 innings on Monday. His two-run home run in the fourth inning off Stephen Strasburg provided the team's offense until a six-run explosion in the 11th -- a rally Cruz started with a broken-bat infield single.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz ripped his 28th homer for the Orioles, but where would they be if he'd signed elsewhere?
Cruz homered off a 1-0 95 mph fastball from Strasburg, waist-high and too much near the middle of the plate, the kind of pitch Cruz hasn't been missing this season. It's also the kind of pitch that has gotten Strasburg into trouble all season. Despite his premium velocity, his fastball has been one of the least effective in the majors, as opponents are hitting .328/.371/.510 against it. Fall behind Cruz, and he loves to sit on those heaters -- 19 of his 28 home runs have come off fastballs.

You know, back in the old days -- like, I don't know, five years ago -- Cruz would probably be the AL MVP favorite right now. For decades, the guy who led the league in RBIs was usually on the short list for MVP candidates. If you also led the league in home runs (Cruz leads in both) and your team made the playoffs or were close to making it, you were pretty much a lock to win the award. See: Ryan Howard, Juan Gonzalez, George Bell and so on. Things like defense and position didn't really matter.

(We could bring up Mike Trout here, but Miguel Cabrera was a better candidate than guys such as Gonzalez and Bell, but I digress).

We all know Trout is the best all-around player in the American League and that Cruz's WAR doesn't compare -- entering Monday, Trout led Cruz in bWAR 5.0 to 2.7 and in fWAR 5.5 to 2.5 -- but it is fair to ask where the Orioles would be without Cruz.

Machado had five hits on Monday, including a double and home run, but that raised his season line to only .261/.308/.404. Davis got over .200 with his go-ahead home run that followed Cruz's infield single. Hardy's tacked-on home run in the 11th was just his third of the year, after averaging 26 the past three seasons. Chris Tillman pitched well on Monday, but he and Ubaldo Jimenez have generally been awful.

Despite that, the Orioles are 49-40 -- 14-4 in their past 18 games -- and they're in first place. Cruz has helped overshadow Machado's immaturity, Davis' struggles and the issues in the rotation.

I'm not actually advocating Cruz as AL MVP. It's clearly Trout. But Cruz has been the big bat the Orioles have needed.

* * * *

One thing sabermetricians haven't been able to quantify: How much of a team's success in a season is dumb luck?

I mean, there are ways to quantify it, but I'm getting at things like the Cruz signing or Steve Pearce. The Orioles basically lucked into Cruz. They got him because he didn't get the free-agent money he wanted, teams decided to spend their money on players other than Cruz, so the Orioles were kind of the last team standing with a little extra cash. They signed Cruz on Feb. 24, after spring training had already started.

Then there's Pearce, who is hitting .324/.379/.578 in a part-time role. In terms of bWAR, he actually has been the Orioles' second-most valuable player -- behind Adam Jones and ahead of Cruz. That's a hard sell, but there's no doubt he has been huge.

And there's luck involved there as well. Pearce is a journeyman who has bounced around Triple-A and the majors for several years. The O's had him in 2012, and waived him during the season. They brought him back later that season and he came off the bench last year. He opened the season with Baltimore but was released on April 27, having played just three games. Then Davis got injured, Pearce was re-signed and he's been on fire ever since.

Dumb luck? I'd say so. Or some element of it.

Nobody could have expected Cruz to put up numbers like he has or Pearce to hit like this. Yes, it remains to be seen whether both players can keep this up, but Monday's game showcases why the Orioles don't have to rely just on those two moving forward: There's talent in this lineup ready to break out. I think Machado and Davis will have better second halves, and that's why the AL East is the Orioles' division to lose.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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