For a while, we saw the same song and dance play out. Preseason statistical projection systems would underrate the Kansas City Royals, who used a dominant bullpen and opportunistic offense to win 270 games from 2013 to 2015. They made it to the World Series twice, and were a few outs away from back-to-back championships. You can Google “Royals PECOTA” and the first couple search pages are devoted to exploring this phenomenon (which currently stretches back eight years).
The Baltimore Orioles might be even more underrated. While they don’t have a World Series trophy to rub in anyone’s face, the Orioles have won more games than any other American League team since the start of 2012. Their reward? A preseason PECOTA projection of 73 wins, one of the lowest win totals in Major League Baseball. As Camden Chat’s Mark Brown notes, PECOTA has “missed by 10+ wins in four of the last five years.”
It’s early, but it looks like the Orioles are going to make it five out of six. Baltimore has stormed out of the gate again, winning 22 of their first 32 games. Even though they have lost their last four games — including a sweep against the now-lowly Royals over the weekend — they still sit just a half-game behind the New York Yankees in the AL East. Their 22-14 record is the third-best in the American League.
Like usual, there are some statistical oddities to be found. The O’s have a slightly above average offense, scoring 4.5 runs per game. They aren’t hitting as many home runs as in years past, though, falling off of their torrid 2016 pace that led all of baseball. They are below average on the bases, and their 4.07 team ERA is a hair above the league average. This has culminated in a run differential of +10, just the 12th-best in baseball.
Fortunately, the Tigers may be catching Baltimore at the right time. They are coming off a road sweep already, and are missing a couple of key contributors, including closer Zach Britton. Center fielder Adam Jones missed Sunday’s game in Kansas City as well, and his status for Tuesday is uncertain. The O’s have been rather pedestrian on the road this season, with just 9 wins in 20 games away from Camden Yards.
Can the Tigers take advantage this week?
Game 1: LHP Wade Miley (1-1, 2.45 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (2-3, 3.89 ERA)
Wade Miley is striking out over 10 batters per nine innings this season and I’m not sure why. In fact, I had to double check that I was not on Wade Davis’ FanGraphs page by mistake. Sure enough, Miley has a top-tier strikeout rate these days. It started shortly after he was traded to Baltimore last season, when he struck out over a batter per inning in 54 frames down the stretch. We’ll get into why Miley is suddenly one of the game’s premier strikeout artists in Tuesday’s game preview.
With all those strikeouts have come a lot of walks. Miley’s walk rate has ballooned to 14.7 percent, nearly double his career rate of 7.6 percent. However, he has lowered his home run rate, and opponents are hitting just .212 against him this season. His 87.9 percent strand rate won’t last, but the sudden uptick in strikeouts gives his overall profile a Rich Hill-esque feel that may be relatively sustainable going forward.
Game 2: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (1-1, 6.15 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (4-1, 2.54 ERA)
Ahh, Ubaldo. I would argue that there is no pitcher more frustrating for both sides to watch than Jimenez, who is up to his old tricks in 2017. He is walking 13.4 percent of batters and has a WHIP above 1.5, the third time in four seasons with the O’s this has occurred. While this doesn’t sound particularly frustrating to an opposing team’s fanbase, he also has an innate ability to work out of jams once or twice per game thanks to his quirky delivery and high ground ball rate. He hasn’t been able to avoid damage as often over the past couple years, however, making this a matchup ripe for Detroit’s taking.
Game 3: RHP Dylan Bundy (5-1, 2.26 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-2, 6.28 ERA)
It took a few years, but Dylan Bundy has finally become the pitcher Orioles fans hoped they would see shortly after his major league debut in 2012. At the time, he was a hotshot 19-year-old prospect who had blown his way through the lower minors. Unfortunately, injuries slowed him for most of the next three years — he had Tommy John surgery in 2013 — and it wasn’t until 2016 that he truly found his footing.
Though his ERA looks shiny this year, there are some concerns. Bundy’s velocity has declined by roughly two miles per hour since last season, and he is only striking out 18.1 percent of hitters. He has nearly cut his home run rate in half and is generating a lot of pop-ups, but a .253 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will eventually begin to sort itself out.
Who’s hot: Chris Davis
We will probably never see the 2013 version of Chris Davis again, but the 31-year-old slugger is off to a great start this year. He has upped his batting average to a passable .252 in 144 plate appearances, and is walking 15.3 percent of the time. The power hasn’t quite come around yet — his current .193 ISO is his lowest since arriving in Baltimore — but he has a reasonable 124 wRC+ through 35 games. He has been heating up over the past two weeks, hitting .306/.458/.556 with three home runs in 48 plate appearances.
Who’s not: Adam Jones
Jones has never been the apple of anyone’s eye in the sabermetric world. He strikes out a lot and doesn’t walk much, and many believe his defense is overrated by Gold Glove voters. However, he has continued to be a productive asset in the Orioles’ lineup... until this year. The 31-year-old Jones is hitting just .262/.314/.393 this season, good enough for a 94 wRC+. He has been particularly bad over the past two weeks, with a 26 wRC+ in his last 11 games. His sore hip may have had something to do with that skid, and his status for this week’s series is still uncertain.
How the Tigers win the series
While the Orioles’ bullpen doesn’t seem quite so daunting without Zach Britton manning the ninth inning, the Tigers would still do well to avoid the teeth of that unit. Acting closer Brad Brach is coming off a blown save and two consecutive outings in which he allowed runs, but he had a monster 2016 season and hasn’t lost anything off his fastball. Setup man Mychal Givens is also quite good, and features a 193 ERA+ through 20 2⁄3 innings this year.
So if you’re the Tigers, it’s best to just avoid that entirely. Ubaldo Jimenez should be a favorable matchup for the Tigers offense, while Miley and Bundy are due to regress at some point. While that’s not guaranteed to happen this week, Orioles pitchers have allowed a 4.98 ERA and .346 wOBA away from Camden Yards. The Tigers are scoring 4.8 runs per game at home, and J.D. Martinez still has yet to take swings at Comerica Park. After last week’s passable but ultimately disappointing road trip, the Tigers could really use a series win (if not a sweep) against Baltimore.