Here we are, nearly two full months into the 2012 season and the lowly Baltimore Orioles, a once proud franchise turned perennial doormats of the AL East with their fourteen consecutive losing seasons, are in first place, locked in a tie with the pitching rich Tampa Bay Rays. This is a team resh off a year in which they lost 93 games that failed to significantly improve itself in the offseason, thus entering the year without a shred of hope that it could compete with its division rivals.
Yet somehow, someway they've posted a better record than the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and every other team in baseball not named the Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Dodgers. Are you mentally prepared to live in a world where the Baltimore Orioles are the third best team in baseball? Me neither. Up to this point they've managed to get by with plenty of home runs, a lockdown bullpen, and excellent play in close games/extra inning affairs to maintain a narrow lead atop the AL Beast for the past three weeks. It's been amusing to see the scrappy underdogs outplay their wealthier, more talented adversaries, but there's no way they can keep this up. Not with the worst defense in baseball (but who would have known that using Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds to fill out three quarters of the infield could possibly be a bad idea?), a starting rotation full of number four and five starters, and a lineup that gets on base at a below average pace and leads the league in strikeouts.
They are this year's Pirates. Remember when Pittsburgh was clinging to first place after the All-Star break last summer? When they were the talk of baseball and everybody and their mother wanted to know how they kept winning? They were getting by on smoke and mirrors, and when their good fortune ran dry they went tailspinning to the finish line with 90 losses and their 19th consecutive losing season since Barry Bonds skipped town following their 1992 NLDS collapse.
Yeah, the Orioles are kind of like that; overachievers boosted by luck who will ultimately regress to the mean. Let's see where they stand after their upcoming nine game road trip/reality check through the AL Beast with stops in Toronto, Tampa and Beantown. I guarantee they won't be in first place by the end of it. The other shoe will eventually drop for them, just as it did last summer for the Bucs. Jason Hammel is not going to pace the Junior Circuit in wins and make a run at the Cy Young. Jim Johnson is going to blow a save at some point (he's no Jose Valverde) and won't keep leading the majors in that category. And Adam Jones, God as my witness, will not keep hitting like Matt Kemp.
Or can he? Through Saturday's game, Jones is batting a robust .309/.351/.597 with 14 home runs and 31 RBI. He's riding a career-best 17 game hitting streak, has appeared in all of the Orioles games, and if not for Josh Hamilton's sudden transformation into Babe Ruth he'd be one of the early season favorites in the MVP race. If the O's can somehow sustain this hot streak and become the 2012 version of Boston's fabled Impossible Dream team, he'd be their Carl Yastrzemski. Oh, and he just inked a six year, $85.5 million contract extension (the largest deal in the team's history) that will keep him in an Orioles uniform through 2018.
But can he keep it up? Probably not, but there are signs he made improvements. He's helped himself by being more selective at the plate, laying off more pitches outside the zone while taking more cuts at strikes. While this approach isn't translating into more walks, it means he's hacking at better pitches to hit. It also helps that for the third straight year he's cut down on his swinging strikes and improved his contact rate. Most of his batted ball data is in line with his career norms, with a few key exceptions. First and foremost, one out of every four fly balls he's hitting is leaving the yard, which is fluky given that career HR/FB percentage is just under fourteen. His infield hit rate, over fifteen percent, seems too high as well. He's fast, but he's no Ichiro Suzuki.
Since he's 26, it's tempting to say this is the year he finally puts it all together and enjoys a monster season, like Kemp did a year ago. But Jones is notoriously streaky, and his hot start is reminiscent of his mini-breakout three years ago. In 2009, with a full season under his belt, he'd established himself as a building block along with Matt Wieters, who many believed to be the next Joe Mauer, but with power. The talented tandem headlined a solid core of position players that already featured Aubrey Huff, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Melvin Mora, and Luke Scott. Right out of the gate, Jones caught fire. Through his first 43 games, Jones looked like a superstar in the making at the tender age of 23, in the same class as Kemp and Justin Upton. He batted .360/.411/.634, and through May 29th had already scored 40 runs, knocked in 36 and totaled 25 extra base hits. However, there were signs that his hot start was unsustainable, notably his .406 BABiP and unimpressive 37/12 K/BB rate. He cooled off, the pitchers figured him out, and from that point forward, he posted a paltry .228/.291/.352 line, and mercifully missed all but one game in September with a sprained ankle. He still made his first All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, but his horrible finish left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans. Was this kid for real? Or just a flash in the pan?
As it turned out, Jones developed into a solid two-way centerfielder, but is nothing close to a superstar. Kemp was the same way until becoming the best all-around player in baseball last year. It's interesting to compare the two because they're very similar ballplayers. They both pile up the strikeouts (Kemp whiffs more), don't walk much (Kemp draws more free passes), and disappoint in the field and on the basepaths given their off the charts speed/athleticism. Both had shown flashes of their immense potential but seemed to be plateauing. Just look at their career numbers through their first five seasons:
Adam Jones 2006-2011
624 G 2,237 AB 310 R 616 H 100 2B 18 3B 75 HR 294 RBI .275/.319/.437 10 bWAR
Matt Kemp 2006-2010
626 G 2,260 AB 349 R 645 H 107 2B 24 3B 89 HR 331 RBI .285/.336/.472 8.1 bWAR
Their career paths diverged at the age of 25, when most players are entering the prime years of their careers. Kemp took a major step back in 2010, when he batted a career worst .249, struck out 170 times, was unsuccesful in 15 of his 34 stolen base attempts and was worth -1.4 bWAR, mostly because of his horrific -3.6 dWAR. Meanwhile, Jones set personal bests in games played, home runs, RBI, steals, slugging percentage, OPS+, total bases, bWAR, and led the majors in sacrifice flies.
We all saw what happened with Kemp last year. when he turned in a vintage Vladimir Guerrero season worthy of an MVP trophy (I don't think I'll ever get over this, Ryan Braun). I project Jones to finish near the 30 home runs, 90 RBI mark with a .290 average. Not quite MVP numbers, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.