It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Baltimore Orioles.
For a while, it looked entirely possible that the Orioles would head back to October for the second time in as many years. From April through June, four of the five AL East teams locked horns in an epic battle to see which one could be the most .500, and the Orioles managed to hang around first place until July early despite never really getting past the break-even point in wins and losses. Then, the Blue Jays made a couple of great trades, the Yankees got kind of okay, and the other two teams in the race flamed out and faded into irrelevance. The Orioles were bad in July (11-14) and terrible in August (11-18), and by the time they righted the ship in September, the season had passed them by. In fact, even the “righting of the ship” is deceptive; they were outscored by 30 runs in September and only managed to win because of karma and luck and a 7-2 record in one-run games.
The formula for the Orioles’ recent success has been good defense, a lights-out bullpen, a couple of sluggers in the middle of the lineup, a deep bench and a non-descript but solid starting rotation with no true #1. In the era of great pitching and deep bullpens, that formula has largely been a successful one; the value of a great starter is a bit less when the manager can bring in flamethrower after flamethrower starting in the sixth inning, and the dearth of slugging in the game makes the value of a slugger as high as it’s ever been. The problem with the Orioles this year is that the back of the rotation fell apart; Wei-Yin Chen is turning in his typical above-average season, and Ubaldo Jimenez is just as decent as he was last year (although he never still hasn’t rediscovered the pixie dust he had in Colorado), but two men do not a rotation make, and the remaining three spots have passed from pitcher to pitcher without success. This year, the rotation’s ERA was worse than every AL team not named the Tigers, which is unfortunate because there is only one team with that name. The bullpen is still just as lights-out as always, but they can only save the leads that they’re given; Baltimore’s relievers were 9th in MLB in save percentage but 21st in save opportunities. Not all was lost with the rotation though, as Bud Norris did win the Ty Cobb Memorial Award for Most Racist Statement of the Year when he went on a bizarre diatribe about Latin Americans not respecting the game; of course, the O’s had already DFA’d Norris by the time he made those comments because of his 7.06 ERA, so they largely missed the resulting celebration.
The big (and somewhat concerning problem) for the Orioles this year was the fact that they absolutely turtled against good teams. The Birds recorded a meager 36-51 record against teams with winning records, easily the worst such record in the American League. The proliferation of good power pitchers around the league appears to have disproportionately affected the Orioles; they batted a meager .209 against power pitchers this year, well below their team average of .257. Part of the problem was that the Orioles swing at everything, including pickoff throws and low-flying planes – Baltimore led the AL in both swings outside the zone and swinging strikes. Now, the mantra of “beat the bad teams, try to not to get too underwater against good ones” is one that has had some success before (most recently by the Indians of 2013), but in order for it to work, the team in question needs to do a little better than 15 games under .500 against winning squads.
The Orioles may or may not have reached the end of their run at the top. The farm system is largely tapped out, as the Orioles graduated a slew of players in the last couple of years. The impending free agency of Chris Davis will cause problems, either because re-signing a 30-year-old who strikes out 200 times a year is likely to end badly (such players generally don’t age well) or because letting him walk requires the Orioles to somehow replace 40 home runs in the lineup. Some players are likely to bounce back next year (for example, J.J. Hardy might be better if he fixes his torn labrum instead of playing on it for another season); some positions are easily upgraded (like right field, which is currently inhabited by a black hole); and some players are simply likely to improve (like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, who are 22 and 23, respectively). Dan Duquette has a long history of putting good teams on the field with rosters composed of chewing gum, bailing wire and discarded parts, dating back to the days of Erik Hanson and going up through his one-year deal with Nelson Cruz last year. Baltimore probably needs him to do that again; the O’s roster as it stands right now is probably about one bat, one arm and a couple of bench players short of contention. Also, Duquette should probably try to convince O’s players to take a pitch from time to time. Isn’t Kevin Youkilis available? He might be able to help…
The O’s last won a World Series in 1983.
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