BirdStat is my periodic look at the Orioles through the lens of stat head. If you like this piece, come back later in the week for Part 2, in which I’ll examine the sabermetric tendencies of the ever-controversial Orioles’ pitching staff.

While I am no Bill James, Nate Silver, or Voros McCracken, I like to think about baseball analytically (math) as much as I like to think about it viscerally (hot dogs). I am not alone. The internet is overflowing with information around the idea that baseball is one large math problem that can be solved, or at least understood. The center of this universe is a magical place called The Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR. Its practitioners are often called “sabermetricians,” and their methods have been roundly rejected by foolish teams who like spending money but don’t like winning.

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Image Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

One of the favorite tools of Sabermetricians in measuring a hitter’s value is OPS. This is a simple formula where you take a player’s on-base percentage (in layman’s terms, the player’s average for reaching base of his own accord) and add it to his slugging percentage (total bases / at bats). While it is not the end-all, be-all method for evaluating a hitter, it’s a fantastic starting point.

In 2008, the Orioles’ team OPS was .762. Conventional wisdom around the topic largely points to needing a team OPS of .800 to be on the positive side of a winning percentage. The last time the Orioles eclipsed the .800 mark was 1996 (.820), not coincidentally one of two winning seasons in the last 14. In order to achieve .800, you simply need good OPS guys in your lineup.

As a frame of reference, Milton Bradley led the American League in OPS in 2008 with a .999. In 1991, Cal Ripken Jr.’s MVP season, his OPS was .940. So, in simple terms, an OPS of .800 or better is “good,” .900 or better is “excellent,” and 1.000+ is “unreal” (Albert Pujols’ career OPS is 1.0489).

First, let’s look at the major players that the O’s brought back, along with their 2008 OPS numbers:

Huff .912
Markakis .897
Roberts .828
Mora .825
Scott .808
Jones .711

Despite Jones, who is still learning how to control the strike zone, those numbers are more than respectable for the core of a lineup. Now, let’s take a peek at the 2008 OPS numbers for the guys who will not be wearing “Baltimore” on their away shirts this year:

Millar .717
Hernandez .714
Payton .637

Pretty terrible. All three of these guys’ numbers dipped substantially from their career numbers (Millar’s career OPS? .818). Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that those three players accounted for roughly 16.3 million dollars of the team’s payroll last year. The big question is: is the team being smarter with players and money? Well, they are certainly being more careful in free agent contracts for hitters, but are they being more mindful in the Sabermetric sense? Let’s look at the new faces and their ’08 OPS totals:

Wigginton .876
Zaun .699
Freel .699
Pie .637
Izturis .628

Outside of Wigginton, there isn’t much to write home about. As you look at the names, though, you realize a couple of things. First, Pie is a project, and Zaun is definitely a stopgap until Matt Wieters Day. Izturis will hopefully play 145+ games at SS, in place of the six guys who attempted to man the position last year. While his ability to create runs is dreadful, some would argue he is an upgrade in the consistency and defensive categories. Freel is a player who puts up better numbers when he plays every day. In his last season with 400+ at bats, he posted a much more respectable OPS of .762.

We still haven’t answered the question of determining how the Orioles are actually evaluating and selecting players. It would appear that the guys they value most are good OPS guys, while they are not afraid to cut ties with bad OPS guys. However, the free agents brought in aren’t exactly lighting up the basepaths. To dig a little deeper, I took at look at some of the numbers for the top guys picked and signed in the 2008 draft. Keep in mind these are obviously not big league numbers, but plate patience is arguably something that cannot be taught to drastically improve (see Tejada, Miguel).

Xavier Avery (Gulf Coast League Orioles) .670
L.J. Hoes (Gulf Coast League Orioles) .806
Kyle Hudson (Aberdeen Ironbirds) .599
Greg Miclat (GCL and Aberdeen) .753
Caleb Joseph (Aberdeen) .744

It appears that GM Andy MacPhail and his team of scouts are looking for guys who are not just speed demons and free-swingers. While none of these five guys may ever make it to the bigs, selecting guys who can create runs by any means necessary is a step in the right direction, as far as this amateur sabermetrician is concerned.