The AL WC could be decided by ... the O's?

Remaining six games are against Boston, Toronto

September 27th, 2021

Ten years ago today, the 2011 Orioles were in last place, playing out the string of what would be a 69-93 season, their 14th consecutive year finishing third or lower. They’d finish 28 games out of first, thanks in large part to baseball’s worst pitching. With the meaningful portion of their season long over, those Orioles welcomed the Red Sox, who had a two-game lead in the Wild Card, to Camden Yards for a three-game series to end the season. It seemed a soft landing for Boston on the way to the playoffs.

It didn’t end well for the 2011 Red Sox, who dropped two of three to Robert Andino and the lightly regarded Orioles, missing the playoffs entirely in the midst of what’s sometimes called the greatest final day to a season in Major League history. The outcomes of those games didn’t mean much to Buck Showalter’s crew, but they had a huge impact on the sport, because within weeks, Terry Francona and Theo Epstein had left Boston to find success elsewhere. For the last-place Orioles, those games might not have mattered, but they mattered.

The 2021 Orioles are also in last place, playing out the string of another 100-loss season, their fifth consecutive year finishing fourth or lower. They’ll finish nearly 50 games out of first, thanks in large part to baseball’s worst pitching. With the meaningful portion of their season long over, they’ll welcome the Red Sox, who have a one-game lead over the Blue Jays for the second spot in the Wild Card, to Camden Yards. Then they’ll go to Canada to end their season with three against Toronto. For both Boston and Toronto, it would seem to be a soft landing on the way to … well, you get the idea.

Improbably, again, these final six games of another forgettable Orioles season matter too, in a way that several other series this week between two non-contenders don’t, really. It won’t make a huge difference to the franchise if this club loses 107 games or 110, but how they play this week is going to have a pretty large impact not only on this year’s playoffs, but potentially the futures of the managers and general managers running the clubs trying to get there. After all, what does the baseball world look like if the 2011 Orioles roll over, the Red Sox get in, and Francona and Epstein don't go to Cleveland and Chicago? Different. Very different.

All eyes this week, therefore, will be on Baltimore Orioles baseball, and you’re forgiven if you did not expect that to be a statement you could reasonably make for the final week of the 2021 season.

Now sure: It’s not about them. They are, again, a last-place 50-106. They lost 19 consecutive games earlier this summer, the longest such streak in 15 years. Their pitching staff is going to have one of baseball’s weakest year-adjusted ERA marks in the history of anything resembling modern baseball; the fielding has been among the game’s weakest. It has not, aside from a few bright spots in the lineup, been a good season in Baltimore, or even a decent one, to the immense frustration of local fans waiting for the fruits of Mike Elias’ long-running rebuild to offer more than just a highly regarded farm system.

What happens this week won’t change much about the overall status of a franchise still struggling to reach competitiveness, much less contending status. But when Bruce Zimmermann throws the first pitch against Chris Sale and the Sox on Tuesday night, it’s going to matter. It will matter what Zac Lowther and Alex Wells do behind him, and the same will be true in Toronto next weekend, just like it mattered 10 years ago when Tommy Hunter, Zack Britton and Alfredo Simon started against those 2011 Red Sox.

So: Assuming you haven’t been paying terribly much attention to this club since Adam Jones and Manny Machado were anchoring the middle of the lineup, there’s a few things you ought to know about the other team on the field in these hugely important games.

1. They won the most important game they played so far.

If it matters, the Orioles did manage to win the most important game of the 156 they’ve already played. “Important” is a subjective term -- maybe Opening Day is important, or maybe not letting that 19-game losing streak turn into a 20-game skid is important -- but there’s always a way to quantify something in baseball, and that goes for the relative importance of games, too.

In this case, that’s “Championship Leverage Index,” which takes into the context the date, standings and record of the teams involved, giving each side a number based on their situations. For example, when the O’s played Texas earlier this month, CLI spit out “zero” for both sides, because little could be less important than two last-place teams playing September games. Sunday’s Red Sox/Yankees game had a 2.26, where 1.00 is “average,” meaning it was more than twice as important as an average game.

The most “important” game the Orioles have played so far this year, then, came a week ago Monday in Philadelphia. It wasn’t important for Baltimore so much as it was for the Phillies, who entered the day 1.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL East race. John Means and two relievers tossed a shutout as the O’s won 2-0. It had a real impact on a divisional race, and it meant a lot; the Orioles showed up, and they won, and it meant something.

But as you can see, looking at this game-by-game chart comparing the championship importance of each Orioles game (their own in orange, their opponent’s in black), things are about to get very important. (We estimated the remaining six games using the opponents of the 2016 Cardinals, who through 156 games were in a very similar spot to today’s Red Sox and Blue Jays, and who also were playing below-.500 teams.)

That orange line may show how long it’s been since the O’s played in a game that mattered for them, yet Boston and Toronto may keep that Phillies game in mind, because …

2. They already swept the Red Sox once.

… that’s right, swept. It may seem like ancient history at this point, but in the first three games of the season, the Orioles made their mark on the AL East by surprisingly sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway Park, outscoring Boston 18-5. Means threw seven scoreless on Opening Day; the O’s pounded out 17 hits in the third game.

“It was a really, really great weekend,” Zimmermann said at the time, and it was, though he couldn’t possibly have known that the three-game winning streak would end up being the longest of the entire season (they’d match it four times) -- and that Boston would win 11 of the next 12 meetings.

Still, a sweep is a sweep, and …

3. They’ve beaten the Blue Jays five times.

… the Blue Jays, with baseball’s highest-slugging offense, have still managed to lose five times to baseball’s most homer-prone pitching staff, and it’s worked out relatively evenly. In five previous series, the Orioles have won exactly one game every single time.

They also allowed 44 runs in something like 24 hours the last time the teams met, in mid-September; we are not attempting to overstate the quality of this Baltimore roster. But “one win per series” has won out five times in a row; they’ve managed to not get swept, with three games on deck.

When the Orioles do win games, it’s because …

4. Parts of the lineup have some life.

… there is some thump here, particularly in the outfield.

Look, Means is clearly delivering on the promise we saw in him entering the year, but otherwise, the pitching staff is best described as “present.” (The 41 non-Means Orioles pitchers have combined for a 6.13 ERA.) The non-first base infield spots have been baseball’s weakest. There are problems here. Plenty of them.

But the outfield? They have the sixth-best OPS in baseball. Throw in DH, and it’s seventh-best; add in first base to that group, and it’s still top 10. This is largely due to Cedric Mullins, who is likely to finish fifth or so in the MVP balloting as the first-ever Oriole to go 30/30. It’s also that rookie Ryan Mountcastle has 31 homers, and that Trey Mancini and Austin Hayes have more than 20 apiece, and that Anthony Santander has 18 of his own. This is the one part of the roster that is working.

So when Mullins robs a home run or Mountcastle blasts a dinger this week, remember that this is still a team full of Major Leaguers who …

5. They’re going to do something surprising this week.

… still win some baseball games. A 50-106 record is not, obviously, good. But it’s not 0-156, either; there are quality Major League players here. Fifty times this year, the Orioles have walked off the field winners, or about 32% of the time. Nine times this year, they sent Boston or Toronto to defeat, or about 39% of the time they saw them.

Which means that while the chances of 0-6 here exist, they’re not what you should expect, either. At FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski looked at the playoff chaos currently happening in the AL, and came up with per-game odds for the remainder of the season, based on the actual listed starting pitchers for those games. Here’s what they say for the Orioles for each game left, and the point is not so much to worry about the exact number, so much as it is that none of them say zero.

Orioles projected winning odds (ZiPS)

vs BOS Tuesday: 38%
vs BOS Wednesday: 32%
vs BOS Thursday: 31%
vs TOR Friday 26%
vs TOR Saturday 37%
vs TOR Sunday 34%

Wrapping that up into the FanGraphs projected standings, the 50-106 Orioles are currently projected to finish at 52-110, which is not terribly impressive, but does mean two more wins.

Now: Where will those wins come from? The answer to that might just decide who is playing in the Wild Card Game and where next week, because for the first time in a long time, you’re going to be following the Baltimore score. The O’s themselves won’t be anywhere near the game next Tuesday. They’ll just have a whole lot to say about who is there -- just like they did 10 years ago.

Besides, maybe the games do matter; maybe beating playoff teams carries with it some value. The next year, 2012, the Orioles won 93 games and won their own Wild Card spot. If 2021 mirrors 2011, then perhaps Baltimore can hope for 2022 to look like 2012.