It’s early. Really early. But a week into the season, the Baltimore Orioles are the only undefeated team in baseball. Yes, those Baltimore Orioles. The same club that had to win five in a row at the end of last season just to finish with a .500 record. The same club that PECOTA projected to win just 72 games this year. The same club that went winless in its first 12 spring training contests, while allowing an average of 73,000 runs per game in the process (give or take). But that was then and this is now.
Now, when it counts, the O’s have ripped off five consecutive W’s out of the gate for the first time since 1970, when they went on to win 108 games and the World Series. In honor of the STANK (Start That Absolutely Nobody Knewwouldhappen), here are five big reasons the Birds have won their first five:
1. Surprising starters -- Heading into the season, Baltimore’s rotation had more issues than the complete Time magazine library. The front office did next to nothing over the winter to improve a group that finished with a 4.53 ERA last season, second worst in the American League. This spring, Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo posted ERAs of 7.24, 10.38 and 12.27, respectively. Miguel Gonzalez was so ineffective that the team flat-out released him. Kevin Gausman, the lone bright spot in Florida, developed shoulder soreness and is on the disabled list. On paper, the rotation looked abysmal. But baseball isn’t played on paper. Instead, it’s played on the field, where so far, O’s starters have dominated. Through Week 1, their 2.28 ERA is the second best in baseball. They’ve walked fewer batters as a unit (six) than Felix Hernandez (seven) or Dallas Keuchel (10), and are fanning batters at a rate of 10.65 per nine innings, second best in the AL.
2. Dish discipline -- The O's might not be walking a whole lot (7.4 percent walk rate, 11th in AL), but they’re not whiffing a bunch, either, which is a major shocker given how Baltimore’s homer-heavy lineup is constructed. Trade acquisition Mark Trumbo, who has struck out 130-plus times in three of the past four seasons, has just two K’s so far. Chris Davis has fanned only five times in five games, which for him is progress. Then there’s rookie Joey Rickard, the Rule 5 pick who has started every game -- including the past three at leadoff -- and has just one whiff in 20 plate appearances. Put it all together, and the Orioles have a K rate of 18.8 percent, third best in the American League.
3. Fine fielding -- At the risk of sounding like a Geico commercial, the Orioles catch the ball: It’s what they do. A defense that has committed the fewest errors in the majors over the past four years is at it once again. Through the first week of the season, Baltimore has just two E’s. The O's might not be the flashiest or rangiest bunch (their plus-1 defensive runs saved ranks fifth in the AL), but they don’t kick it around. On top of that, catchers Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph have combined to throw out three of four would-be base stealers, for a 75 percent rate that’s tied for second in the majors. They’ve been clutch in the process, too, as two of those throwouts have come in the seventh inning of one-run games.
4. Manny being Manny -- I’ll be the first to admit that, eight days into the season, the mere mention of the letters M-V-P is 100 percent pure crazy town. That said, if you were casting ballots today, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s more deserving than Manny Machado. After finishing fourth in last year’s MVP voting, Machado is off to a torrid start. He has at least one hit in all five games and has homered in three straight. His 1.359 OPS is second best in the AL. Besides being his usual vacuum cleaner self at third base, the two-time Gold Glover has also filled in at shortstop for J.J. Hardy, plus he already has batted in three different spots in the order (first, second and third).
5. Strength of schedule -- Or, as it should be called in Baltimore’s case, weakness of schedule. It's not that the Twins and Rays are bad teams -- they’re not. But given the Orioles’ perceived Achilles’ heel (starting rotation), you have to admit that their first two opponents offered a nice, soft landing to start the season. Tampa Bay is a pitching-powered team that is offensively challenged. Last season, the Rays ranked 14th in the AL in scoring (3.98 runs per game), then followed that up by tallying just 118 runs in spring training, fourth fewest in the majors. As for Minnesota, the Twins have the look of a middle-of-the-pack offense but have struggled so far. After scoring just six runs in their three-game set against the O’s, the Twins were limited to six runs in three games against the Royals. In other words, when Baltimore kicks off its three-game set against the heavy-hitting Red Sox on Monday, it could be in for a rude awakening. Then again, stranger things have happened. Ya know, like the Orioles winning their first five games and being the only undefeated team in the majors.