Did you know there was an Earl Weaver baseball game? It came out in 1987 with a sequel the following year, and it was obvious there was very little input from the man on the cover. His game, as we all should know, was based around pitching, defense and the three run donkbox. Small ball was the bane of his existence. The game those monsters at Electronic Arts created was an abomination – players could steal, non-homers weren’t considered outs, and you couldn’t control the defense. Is that not silly? Granted, I’d slap my name on pretty much any product if they offered me money, but at least be a little bit pitch-perfect. It was the first sign of the damage EA would wreak upon the gaming community.Yup, mentions of Earl Weaver, the godfather of the Orioles, forger of the Oriole Way, he brought the O’s to a level they’ve barely sniffed since. You know what that means, a visit to the Charm City.
It’s a little freaky though how much current skipper Buck Showalter looks like Weaver. Maybe it’s just because they’re both faintly paunchy old white men with fluffy white hair in a baseball uniform, but I can’t shake it. The Orioles sit in first place in the AL East to start the series, or close enough with the Yankees where it makes little difference. Percentage points only matter in September. Part of their being at the top of the standings can be attributed to the rest of the division being in various stages of rebuild or muddling about or injury-laden misery, but at the end of the day first is first. Their pitching has been decent, seventh in ERA at 3.94 and fifth in walks, and their defense is golden and we’ll get to that, but their offense is going to make or break their season, simple as that. With a 21-22 Pythagorean record and a -2 run differential, they’ve been lucky, the bats need to wake up.
It starts with the man in the middle, Chris “Crush Dongs” Davis. He bashed 53 a year ago in his breakout season though 37 of those came before the All-Star break. He’s probably not going to murder that many baseballs this year. That being said, the other night he hit three home runs and after the game a reporter said Chris had “fixed it”, that being his swing or something. Going into Sunday he only had three homers but he might just be getting ready to go on a stupid run. Even without the bombs he’s getting on base at a .376 clip and the other stuff should creep up once the assault begins. Imagine if he spelled his first name with a K.
The bombs are happening in Baltimore though, off the bat of Nelson Cruz. Now that he’s not actively hurting his team playing defense he can focus on his ability to crush. It’s working, he’s second in the AL with 13 homers and he’s hitting for decent average, altogether slashing at .273/.335/.552. Also, keeping with that “wait for the three-run homer” thing Weaver loved, Cruz has 38 RBI’s. Nearly three for each homer. Spooky, huh? Maybe it’s all kismet. Maybe this is the beginning of the Orioles dominating the East for a few years if not more. They certainly struck gold with Cruz, his defense was so maligned he languished much longer on the free agent market than many expected. He ain’t fast, his glove is ugly, but with him and Davis in the middle of the order, many a missile will be launched at the people in the bleachers this year.
Outside of Cruz and Davis though, the offense has been sputtering some to start the season. If you just judge what’s on paper they shouldn’t be in first – with their run differential, they shouldn’t even have a winning record. Matt Weiters was having a bonkers year to start, .308/.339/.500 with five homers in 26 games, but a tight elbow tossed him on the disabled list for a while. we’re not going to see him this weekend, he still hasn’t started throwing baseballs. At least he doesn’t need Tommy John surgery as some worried. The rest of the offense has been bereft – star center fielder Adam Jones is barely getting on base at a .300 clip and his isolated slugging is .152, 50 points below his 2013 numbers. Nick Markakis is getting on base (..365 OBP) and hitting mostly singles. As a team they’re fourth in average which is nice, but it’s a Michael Young type of offense – empty average, they’re only 10th in OPS. JJ Hardy has yet to hit a homer and packs a 20/4 K/BB ratio, second baseman Jonathan Schoop never really hit in the minors and isn’t hitting in the majors yet while Steve “Hall of Fame” Lombardozzi is little better. Utility man Steve Pearce has a 130 OPS+ with three homers in 52 plate appearances but it’s hard for him to find playing time. Then there’s Manny Machado.
The young third baseman was the most heralded prospect coming out of a pretty damn good Orioles farm system, and in his first full year in the majors he showed every bit of it. At 21 years old he hit .283/.314/.432, though his first half was absolutely brilliant at .304/.337/.470. His glove at third was insane, people started comparing him to Brooks Robinson after a few months. Ordinarily that’d be sacrilege, Brooks is like Moses, but Manny is like Jesus to O’s fans. He’s supposed to play shortstop but they’re paying Hardy so even out of position he was worth 4.3 dWAR, 6.4 total WAR according to Baseball reference. His knee injury was a blow to all of baseball, tearing one’s ACL can ruin a career, and if you look at his 2014 so far, it’s not going well. He’s hitting .236/.282/.278 with a homer, which is acceptable considering what he’s coming back from and his defense has been merely alright. The last week though, he’s hitting .381/.364/.381. SUre, he appears to be defying the laws of physics with a lower OBP than batting average and the slugging is still in the tank, and his .421 BABIP is unsustainable, but you gotta look for the positives when a young budding star is on the comeback trail. It might take all year before he finds his power again, might take longer. He hasn’t turned 22 yet, we have time and the Orioles should enjoy a long career of dramatic domination, but for now, Machado is merely decent.
I mentioned the defense earlier, and it’s been pretty strong thus far. Most defensive numbers are vague and this far into the season it’s hard to draw conclusions, but they’re first in errors with only 20 and first in fielding percentage. At the least, they’re not screwing up when they get a glove on the ball. More importantly, all their pitchers have an ERA lower than their fielding independent pitching except Ubaldo Jimenez, and all but Ubaldo are light on the strikeouts. They rely in contact and still don’t allow many runs. The O’s are tied for second in the league with 177 runs allowed going into Wednesday, and even with that negative run differential they’re winning close games. It’s amazing what a flubbed play here or there can mean for a whole game, we’ve seen the Indians shoot themselves in the foot countless times already this year. The Orioles don’t do that, and that confidence bleeds into other parts of the squad. They were tops in the league a year ago defensively and there’s no reason to see that change. I’d like some of that.
I might be wrong about all this Weaver O’s reborn bull honkey, but the Orioles are very good team. With every team except the TIgers and A’s (somehow) hanging around .500, it’s open to anyone and a team with some crushers and the right dose of athleticism and solid pitching can go very far in the playoffs. Someone just has to get hot, and there’s streakers all over that lineup. It won’t be easy for the Tribe, but a very similar Cleeland team went 4-3 against a similarly similar Baltimore team a year ago. They were out scored 32-27 in the season series, but winning is winning. The way the Orioles are playing though, that would fall right in their hands. It should be a great series between two teams that are just now finding themselves.