MLB: How the Orioles Ran Away With the AL East

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
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With Labor Day still weeks away, it’s rare to declare MLB division winners, but the Baltimore Orioles show every sign they have run away with the American League East against the expensive competition. Manager Buck Showalter and his squad now have a 7.5 game lead over second-place Toronto and an 89.5 percent chance of winning the division, by far the highest among AL division leaders. Here’s how the Orioles put themselves in position for their 2014 postseason run.

Stats are current as of August 14, 2014.

Lineup and rotation balance

The Orioles don’t have a hitter batting .300 or a starting pitcher with an ERA below 3.68, but the performance of both has been above-average in the AL. They rank sixth in both team pitching and team batting, while their fielding ranks second in the league.

One category where they dominate is home runs. Playing in the extremely hitter-friendly Camden Yards, the Birds have jacked an MLB-best 152 HR in 2014. No fewer than seven Orioles have 10 HR or more, with Chris Davis (21), Adam Jones (23) and Nelson Cruz (31) the three players with more than 20 long balls. This balance turns close ballgames like the contest against the Yankees on August 13 into romps in the matter of minutes. Once Jonathan Schoop tied the game with a solo shot against Dellin Betances, Adam Jones sealed the deal with a three-run bomb off Shawn Kelley.

Critics of Baltimore’s starting rotation typically point out there is no dominant force on the team. While that may be true, the Orioles throw out several pitchers that qualify as strong No. 2 or No. 3 starters.

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Leading the rotation is Chris Tillman (9-5, 3.68 ERA) with 156.2 innings pitched, but Wei-Yin Chen (12-4, 3.90 ERA) and Bud Norris (10-7, 3.75 ERA) have done equally great work in keeping opposing teams in check. Baltimore’s strong middle relief corps has held those leads and handed them off to the team’s closers. With the power to change games in the lineup, the formula has worked out beautifully.

Value in payroll

In payroll, there’s no competition between the Baltimore Orioles and some of the teams they started the year trying to beat for the AL East title. The Yankees had a $203 million payroll at the start of 2014; the Boston Red Sox began the year just below $163 million. With the Yankees hovering near .500 and the Red Sox already conceded after a July fire sale, the Orioles’ Opening Day payroll of $107 million has delivered exceptional returns.

To many, the signing of Nelson Cruz (one year, $8 million) was the best stroke of the Baltimore front office in 2014. Because of his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs, moralizing clubhouses (think: Boston) would not be a good fit for Cruz. For Orioles management, which doesn’t have the luxury to judge so severely, Cruz’s production (31 HR, 83 RBI) has been the value of the year, especially in an off-year for Chris Davis, who was an MVP candidate in 2013.

Baltimore’s highest paid player is Nick Markakis at $15 million in 2014, followed by Jones ($13 million) and Ubaldo Jimenez ($11 million), perhaps the team’s lone disappointment. Relying on a core of young players at manageable salaries (much like the Yankees did in their run between 1996 and 2000), Baltimore has made every dollar count.

As always, Buck Showalter deserves a great deal of credit for another strong Orioles performance. Despite losing Manny Machado for long stretches, Showalter has maximized the talent and kept a team noticeably devoid of big egos with its sights on a division title. His balanced, payroll-defying team has run away with the AL East before Labor Day.