In the compendium of AL East spring storylines — Toronto's massive yet polite spending spree, Boston's attempt to rid itself of the Bobby Valentine hangover, New York's apparent disinterment of an Indian burial ground and subsequent curse — a debate has developed over which Baltimore Orioles team we'll get this season. Before 2012, we all had a fix on who the Orioles were — poorly run and indifferently managed, a veritable lost-and-found box of washed-up veterans, prospects who didn't so much bust as burst into flames, and the occasional star who inspired pity at being stuck there. Since 1997, when the last good Orioles team ran into the buzzsaw that was the late-90s Cleveland Indians, Baltimore has been a Superfund site: 14 straight seasons of .500-or-worse baseball, bottoming out with a five-year run of 69 wins or worse from 2007 to 2011.
Then, last season, the Orioles turned things upside down. The team for which baseball fans had the lowest expectations won 14 of its first 23 games, played .500 ball for half the season, then rocketed into the playoffs with a 37-18 mark in the year's final two months. It was as improbable a turnaround as any: Baltimore went from 69 wins to 93 in the span of one season.
Now Baltimore goes into the 2013 season with, for the first time in almost two decades, actual expectations and hopes. Can the Orioles keep the magic alive? Unfortunately for them, history hasn't been kind to the one-year wonders.
Since the end of World War II, 61 teams have made a 20-games-or-more improvement in their win total from one season to the next. That includes two teams from last season — the Orioles and the Oakland Athletics, who went from 74 wins to 94 to snatch the AL West division title. In the past 10 years, that's been done just seven times, including by one of baseball's biggest success stories: The Tampa Bay Rays, who improved a staggering 31 games from 2007 to 2008, going from the bottom of the AL East to playing in the franchise's first World Series.
But few of those teams have been able to maintain their success. Only 14 squads were able to either sustain or improve their win total in the third season. Almost three-fourths of the teams — 43 in all — saw their record fall. And the drops weren't a matter of a few games, either: Those 43 teams averaged 12 fewer wins in the third year. Seven dropped 20 or more games, essentially ending up right back where they started.
What makes that big gain so hard to repeat? What the third season is usually lacking is a combination of luck and players who have matured into their prime. The Pirates, for example, went from 74 wins in 1989 to 95 in 1990 to 98 in 1991, largely because they had Barry Bonds in his (pre-steroid) peak. The Mets won just 68 games in 1983 and then soared to 90 wins in 1984 and 98 in 1985. For that, they could thank the emergence of Dwight "Doc" Gooden, who debuted with a stellar season in 1984 and was the best pitcher in baseball in 1985.
For the most part, without the presence of a superstar or future Hall-of-Famer, or at least some sustainable progress throughout the lineup and rotation, it's almost impossible to make these turnarounds permanent. In 1986, a year after winning just 60 games, the Cleveland Indians jumped to 84 victories thanks to career years on offense from the likes of Pat Tabler, Tony Bernazard, and Mel Hall. The next season, Cleveland fell back down to 61 wins, as players like Bernazard and Hall couldn't repeat their highs; the the team's already mediocre pitching staff cratered. In 2001 the then-Anaheim Angels won only 75 games; the next season, they captured the team's only World Series title with a 99-win season. How? Seven of the nine lineup regulars were above league average on offense and Jarrod Washburn had the best year of his life on the mound. The next season featured virtually the same cast, but Washburn and his fellow starters couldn't maintain their 2002 shine, and the Angels fell back to 77 wins.
The 2012 Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning affairs; few things are as hard to predict year-to-year as one-run records. That success in close contests, along with Baltimore's Pythagorean record (projected at 82-80 based on runs scored and allowed), signal that luck had a lot to do with the Orioles getting to 94 wins. Baltimore probably won't see a repeat of last year, and the team will likely slip back into the low- to mid-80s in wins. Regardless, though, the Orioles have a bright future, with hitters like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters in the lineup, and top prospects like Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman in the pipe. We don't know exactly which Orioles team we'll get in 2013, but this year's results will give us a much better idea of what to expect in seasons to come.