Fifty years ago, Earl Weaver and the Orioles did what Mike Elias and the Orioles want to do: win the World Series. Eventually, at least; they’d surely settle for just being adequate when baseball resumes in the U.S.
The question, of course, is how? The 1970 Orioles didn’t win 108 games and topple the Cincinnati Reds in five games solely because they had outstanding players like Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair and more. They also didn’t win just because they had a phenomenal manager in Weaver. But those two things, combined with Weaver being the driving force in the organization’s focus on progressive philosophies and the early adoption of many analytical principles, propelled them to the top.
The Orioles were an all-around tremendous ballclub in 1970. On offense, they finished with a wRC+ of 107 (second in the majors), .344 on-base percentage (second), .401 slugging percentage (eighth) and a 11.2 walk percentage (second). Only two teams scored more runs. Pitching wise, no team had a lower ERA (3.15) and only two had a lower FIP (3.59). A handful of teams struck out more batters, but only one walked fewer batters (7.7 BB%). And on defense, well, the Orioles had Robinson and Blair along with Mark Belanger. They were stacked, and Weaver knew how to push the right buttons.
When you think of Earl Weaver, what comes to mind? (Besides the winning, of course.) Maybe it’s the 5-foot-7 tactician turning his cap around and going toe-to-toe with an irritated umpire. Maybe it’s his off-color humor. Or maybe it’s his disdain for the sacrifice bunt in the early innings and his fondness for three-run homers.
But it’s not like Weaver’s teams never bunted. In 1970, the Orioles finished in the middle of the pack with 64 sacrifice bunts (13th overall). He also put a lot of stock in individual pitcher-hitter matchups, which isn’t always valuable. Weaver wasn’t perfect, and he would never tell you otherwise. But the good far outweighed the bad, and most of the time that had to do with his refusal to be traditional.
Weaver often valued what other managers didn’t. He aimed to get the most out of his players. If you’ve read his wonderful book “Weaver on Strategy,” you know he hated giving up outs, loved on-base percentage and knew the importance of the lineup card and deploying platoons. He also wrote about the break-even rate for stolen bases and so much more. Not every idea was a home run, but that isn’t really the point. As Miles Wray explained in a piece for The Hardball Times website, “Weaver’s most valuable asset, and far more so than any single strategic wrinkle, was always his open and receptive mind.”
The Orioles, to some extent, thought this way under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, but mainly at the major-league level. They did creative, if sometimes frustrating, things to gain an edge: exploiting roster rules, embracing defensive shifting, utilizing the “Norfolk shuttle” early and often and constantly looking to improve the fringes of the roster with cheap solutions. Duquette also traded international signing bonus slots the Orioles weren’t using, stacked free-agent signings to minimize the draft pick compensation cost and dealt away competitive balance draft picks to dump salary. Some of these things worked; some didn’t.
The hope with Elias and the front office and coaching staff he’s assembled is that the Orioles will continue to be creative, but will have the freedom to do smarter things that may take longer to produce results but also last longer. The Orioles hired Showalter in 2010. They hired Duquette in 2011. They made the playoffs in 2012 and went on an extended, startling run, but the writing was always on the wall that it would not last. Elias has spoken publicly about not wanting that to happen again.
It’s tempting to look at the Orioles’ rebuild and not see much that’s unique about it. They are losing a lot of games, shedding a lot of payroll and angling for high draft picks. They’re also doing things they needed to do, like spending more in the international market and beefing up their analytics staff.
But that’s where Weaver’s philosophy that he addressed in his book comes into play: “Maybe I wouldn’t use everything, but I wanted to see it. I believe that what you don’t know can hurt you and that you can never know enough.”
Baseball is an ever-changing game, and the Orioles need outside-the-box solutions. They’ve been exploring them. They’re meeting for virtual book clubs while the season’s on hold. They’ve brought in minor-league hitting coaches from overlooked places and empowered them. They’ve dived headfirst into incorporating the latest technology and teaching their players how to use it. And they’re focusing on mental skills and how they can help players both on and off the field.
Analytics can be a polarizing buzzword, but it’s important to remember that it essentially means looking to acquire more information to gain an advantage. Earl Weaver never stopped trying to learn and get better. You don’t have to be a member of the Orioles’ front office to gain insight from that.
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an offensive metric in which 100 is the league average and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. Fielding independent pitching (FIP) estimates what a pitcher’s ERA would be with average results on balls in play.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles