The last 40 years haven’t been kind to the Baltimore Orioles. After ruling the AL East in the early 1970s, the Orioles have won the division exactly three times, and only once since 1980 (in 1997). And yet here they are, in 2014, with a 9 1/2-game lead in September — the largest divisional advantage in baseball. They could theoretically still lose that lead, but statistically, they’re better than 95 percent favorites to the win the AL East. So how did they finally do it?
The most obvious answer is Nelson Cruz, who’s on pace to hit 42 round-trippers and a co-favorite for the 2014 home run crown. Cruz has been solid for six seasons, but he’s never hit this well, this consistently.
Outside of Cruz, however, the Orioles' stars have been less reliable. Matt Wieters has been out since June after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Adam Jones has hit .262/.318/.377 since the start of August. Manny Machado missed the start of the season recovering from a knee injury and is out for the rest of this year with yet another knee injury.
Instead, much of Baltimore's success has simply come from luck and opponent misfortune.
For starters, the Orioles have gone 28-19 in one-run games and 12-5 in extra innings, both good enough for first in the AL and second overall in baseball (behind San Diego). Statistically, results in these close games come down more to chance than clutch performances. The Orioles have been pretty good since 2012, but they’re proven once again that it’s often better to be lucky. (Note that Baltimore's 2012 season was even luckier, statistically, than 2014. That year, the Orioles won a wild card spot, but still lost the AL East to the Yankees.)
Next, consider Baltimore's AL East rivals. One year after a championship season, the Red Sox have simply stopped scoring, thanks to combination of injuries and a sub-standard performance from Dustin Pedroia. Boston sits dead last in the AL for runs scored.
Meanwhile, New York's aging roster hasn't helped the mighty Yankees, whose coffin was probably nailed shut after the combined losses of CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka to injury. The upstart Blue Jays looked threatening through most of the summer, but they’ve rapidly regressed to the mean. Toronto's closer Casey Janssen in particular has declined since late July, with post-All-Star-break troubles quadrupling his ERA.
Add it all up and you have a pretty good season masquerading as a dominant one. The Orioles are on pace for a 95-67 record, a great year by any means. However, consider that the average AL East winner since 2003 has logged 98.2 wins, while the average AL East Wild Card team has notched 94.3 wins. In a normal year, the Orioles would be fighting for a playoff spot, instead of coasting to a division title. Sometimes, safe and steady wins the AL East.