11:41 am May. 3, 2012
Well, here we go again. The Baltimore Orioles are off to a rollicking start, beating the New York Yankees Wednesday night, 5-0 to move to 16-9 on the season.
The Orioles, who haven't posted so much as a winning record since 1997 (when, as Tom Scocca reminds us, they dominated the division, and the Yankees, from beginning to end), have had a number of false starts since then.
Back in 2008, the Orioles started the season 16-11 and finished 68-93. In 2006, Baltimore started 11-7 and finished 70-92. And back in 2005, Baltimore began 20-9, they finished 74-88. That campaign included a season-ending 25-48 stretch.
So is this Baltimore start different? It is quite possible.
This team, despite having a payroll that is less than half the size of the Yankees', has a ton of talent, both in the starting lineup and, more significantly, in the starting rotation.
Among the hitters, catcher Matt Wieters, an enormous prospect who had disappointed in his career to date, already has seven home runs. The same story is true, to a lesser extent, with first baseman Chris Davis and outfielder Nolan Reimold*. Center fielder Adam Jones, already a strong contributor for Baltimore, has taken a step forward this season. Nick Markakis has merely been hitting at his typical, average levels, and DH Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy have been performing at below-expected rates. Only Robert Andino, the journeyman second baseman, seems likely to fall off after his unusually strong initial performance.
The pitching staff has been a revelation so far. Prospect Jake Arrieta, who threw eight shutout innings against the Yankees Wednesday night, has cut his walk rate in half so far this season. The Orioles traded their titular ace, Jeremy Guthrie, to Colorado for Jason Hammel, who has a sub-2.00 E.R.A. as a starter, and Matt Lindstrom, who has been dominant in relief. And Wei-Yin Chen, a free agent from Taiwan signed this past winter, has been brilliant as a starter as well.
The performance of the pitching staff, with the best E.R.A. in the American League, making the Orioles into winnersm even with an offense that is around the middle of the pack in runs scored. Overall, their 16-9 record is right in line with their expected record would be based on runs scored and runs allowed. It doesn't look like a fluke.
Working against the Orioles is the fact that they play in the toughest division in baseball. Despite the hot start, they trail Tampa Bay for the division lead, and Toronto and the Yankees are right on their heels.
So maybe the Orioles will find themselves back around fourth place by the time the season is over. They're still a better team than the ones that collapsed after strong starts in the recent past, and they'll be good enough to ensure that there are no easy victories this year in the American League East.
*spelling corrected from the original version