My friend Rob Mains already touched on the Orioles and Royals’ ability to confound sabermetric prediction models. The team was back at beating their projections for a sixth straight year, albeit by a measly two games (PECOTA projected 73 wins, the Orioles somehow managed to get to 75). I predicted the Orioles to go 84-78 last year. I was optimistic and, for some reason, still had faith and hope in the world. I decided to focus on possibility and the intangibles of baseball. I ended my article last year with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. Potential and intoxicating possibility. Boy oh boy, all of that potential, all of that intoxicating possibility is for the birds. Right? This is the Orioles we are talking about! The team that puts two first base/DH types in the outfield. The team with three starters, one of which was just signed. I am bumming myself out, so let’s get to this.
How do they score runs? Do they get contributions from many or a few players?
The 2016 Orioles scored 743 runs, sandwiched between the Mariners (750) and the Athletics (739), good for 16th. The Orioles did this primarily by the use of the long ball, of which they hit 232, good for 5th place, behind the Yankees (241), Astros (238), Rangers (237) and, this surprised me, the Athletics (234).
They certainly don’t score runs by getting on base at a high clip. As a team, the Orioles had a 6.4% walk rate, which was good for dead last in the majors. Their OBP was .312, better than only the Royals (.311), Giants (.309) and the Padres (.299). That is not good company to keep.
Unless the team signs an offensive player, the Orioles have a current opening day lineup that looks something like this:
C: Chance Sisco/Caleb Joseph
1B: Chris Davis
2B: Jonathan Schoop
SS: Manny Machado (finally giving this a full-time try)
3B: Tim Beckham
LF: Trey Mancini
CF: Adam Jones
RF: Austin Hays/Mark Trumbo
DH: Mark Trumbo/Chris Davis/Trey Mancini
The hope is that all of these guys contribute offensively. Outside of Machado, none of them are defensive wizards, so if they aren’t hitting, they are not serving much of a purpose outside of a warm body on the field. That sounds harsh, but hey, they are paid to perform.
Chance Sisco will most likely be the opening day catcher. Sisco will have plenty of time this year to establish his presence behind the plate. At the plate, he has had a solid minor league career thus far, displaying an advanced approach and an ability to make consistent hard contact. He sees the ball deep into the zone which allows him to hit to all sides of the field. He is not the prototypical power guy that the Orioles like, but he has shown more power as he has risen through the ranks of the minors. Sisco had a cup of coffee last year, where he did not disappoint (in 22 plate appearances he had a .333/.455/.778 slash line).
Chris Davis. He just had his worst season at the plate since 2009, when he was worth -0.9 WAR as a 23-year-old in Texas. He should be better this year than he was last year, which is not saying much. If the Orioles believe they have one more shot at relevance before a few years of mediocrity, they have to believe that Davis will be back to being a top offensive slugger.
Schoop was the best offensive player for the team last year, worth 5.1 WAR, and good for a 121 wRC+. He has managed to get better each year and really took a step forward in every way offensively. He walked more, 5.2% compared to his career 3.7% mark, and has seen his strikeout rate decrease each year of his career, to a low of 21% in 2017. Schoop’s 2017 season was pretty much what he was looking like in 2015 before his season was cut short due to injury. Also, this might be the last season where O’s fans get to see this. Sigh.
Machado will be the clubs opening day shortstop! As a baseball fan, I have wanted to see this for 5 years; as an Orioles fan, I have dreamed of this since June 2010. The guy is only 25 years old, and I have dreamed of him for 8 years, amazing. I need to focus. Ok, for real this time. 2017 was not a great year for Machado. He looked off at the plate. He still had good bat speed, but his BABIP, .265, was a full 36 points below his career average. That could account for some of his struggles at the plate. Expect Machado to bounce back and b an MVP candidate.
Adam Jones bounced back from a disappointing 2016 season and put up 2.5 WAR and was, again, a steady presence in the lineup. Jones is the definition of a free swinger, which works for him as he keeps his strikeouts around 17%. 2018 is the final year of his contract, and the Orioles will put him out in center field every night that he is healthy. And while he won’t display nightly gold glove defense, he is undoubtedly the leader of this club. Jones is a highly-respected player and beloved in Baltimore. When Red Sox fans taunted Jones with racial slurs last year in Boston, Jones spoke up about racism in America. This came a year after Jones explained the reluctance of baseball players to be outspoken on controversial issues, saying “baseball is a white man’s sport. We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game.” Mookie Betts took to Twitter to stand up for Jones. Also, this.
Austin Hays should be the Orioles’ primary right fielder in 2018. Hays was the Orioles’ third-round pick in 2016 and hit from day one. He has a short, explosive swing with enough bat speed and natural ability to generate good contact and power to all fields. Hays has plus raw power that will downplay a little in game. The bat speed allows him to handle major league velocity, although his aggressive approach at the plate will make him vulnerable to good breaking and off-speed pitches. The Orioles believe he is ready now, and I believe he will be an impact bat by the middle of the season. MLB.com has Hays as the top Orioles prospect, giving him a 60 hit tool, 60 power, 60 arm, and 50 run. What is known is that Hays has huge potential. He is a solid guy and a good athlete. Hays has the arm to excel in right field and could be the best center fielder for the Orioles right now. If Jones does not sign with the club in the offseason, expect Hays to be their 2019 center fielder.
Mark Trumbo will be the team’s designated hitter. He was one of the worst players in baseball last year, worth a solid -0.6 WAR for the year. He is not an exciting player.
Are the hitters notably aggressive or patient?
Quick answer: aggressive. They go out there swinging, and want to hit the ball out of the park. Davis had the highest walk rate at 11.6% but countered that with a 37% k rate. Machado and Trumbo were the only other players to walk more than 6% of the time. As a team, the Orioles whiffed 23% of their plate appearances and walked a measly 6.4%.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced?
If Austin Hays and Chance Sisco struggle in March, expect Trumbo to play right some, with perhaps Joey Rickard or a player that I haven’t thought about ever to play. Caleb Joseph will handle catcher if Sisco is not ready. The team also recently traded for backup catcher Andrew Susac, so they could both handle the backstop for a month or two until Sisco gets the call. The Orioles are in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, so they will not likely contend. The Orioles do not believe this, and I find it doubtful that they allow any pre-arb guy to struggle with the big league club. I completely expect Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo to struggle throughout the year, and I expect to be frustrated with them frequently. We will find out in March if Tim Beckham can handle the hot corner, and nobody should expect him to crush it for the Orioles like he did immediately after he was traded for.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular type or handedness?
According to Baseball Reference, 2017 was an outlier for the OPACY, as it was their first year since 2006 that they were below 100 in terms of park factor. Over 100 favors batters and the Orioles were at 98 last year in batting park factor, just barely below neutral. According to Baseball Prospectus, OPACY continues to be a home run park for both left- and right-handed hitters, while suppressing other base hits. The team could really use some high OBP guys for all of their home run hitters…
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies that team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The Orioles were 10th in the league in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, at -0.89. This measures the percentage of balls in play that a team’s defense converts into outs. They were also well below average in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. This is a team that the metrics do not love. Machado and Joey Rickard were the only Orioles that UZR and DRS both rated well. In terms of pitching, the Orioles were, well, bad. They were better than only the Tigers in team ERA and better than only the White Sox in FIP. Deserved Run Average had the team at 11th in the AL, better than only the Athletics, Twins, Tigers, and White Sox. The Orioles were 6th in the majors in walks and 23rd in strikeouts. The Reds were the only team to allow more homers than the Orioles, who tied with the White Sox, allowing 242 homers. Teams got on base at a .342 clip against the Orioles and slugged .458. If those are the team’s offensive numbers, then that’s great! They got the OBP part backward.
As of right now, the Orioles only have two starting pitchers in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. They will likely resign Chris Tillman for $5 million or so and will also get Andrew Cashner for a few million. In the most unsurprising Orioles news of the year, they have signed Chris Tillman and Andrew Cashner. Most likely, the O’s will go after a pitcher in the same tier as R.A. Dickey, or they will just go and sign R.A. Dickey. So, now the Orioles starting rotation looks like this:
- Dylan Bundy
- Kevin Gausman
- Andrew Cashner
- Chris Tillman
- ___________ (Dear God, please let it not be Ubaldo).
Cashner is somehow only 31, I feel like he has been around forever now. He still throws very hard. Last year his ERA ranked 21st in the majors for starters, sandwiched between Carlos Carrasco and Justin Verlander. He will absolutely not repeat that ERA in Baltimore. Jeff Sullivan wrote about it best, so you can read more about him over at FanGraphs. TLDR: Cashman is not a top 25 pitcher in the American League.
I wrote extensively about Gausman in last year’s season preview of the Orioles. Gausman was a preseason favorite “break out” pitcher. I wrote about his splitter and his secondary pitch usage. Gausman burned me hard. By the end of June, Gausman had the worst ERA, 6.60, and strikeout-to-walk ration, 1.5 K/BB, of any pitcher who threw 75 or more innings (his peripherals didn’t make him look better, 5.04 FIP, 4.71 xFIP). In April, May, and June, Gausman threw 85.3 innings with a 6.07 ERA. The final three months of the season saw an entirely different pitcher. One that threw 100.2 innings with a 3.48 ERA, with a 3.84 K/BB rate. What was most surprising was his reliance on his slider. At this point, if you are familiar with Gausman, you are familiar with his splitter. It is filthy, and when he is locating it, it is without a doubt his best pitch. He almost entirely stopped throwing it for two straight seasons, and then decided to throw it against last season. Gausman changed his release point in July, something that FanGraphs community research user jkved10, wrote about last year release point.
As you can see, he adjusted his horizontal release point, going as low as -1.94 for his fastball, and -2.11 for his splitter and slider. Here are two blurry photos of two different Gausman starts. Both pitches are on fastballs. The first, against the Yankees, had a -2.9 horizontal release point, the second, also a fastball, had a release point of -2.17.
This makes his slider, somehow, better. Good enough to limit hitters to an 0.031 ISO with a strikeout rate of 19%, much better than the 8%. Gausman went from a guy with a plus splitter and a dreamy fastball to a pitcher with a plus splitter, a really good slider, and a dreamy fastball. And he became a solid number 2 guy in the process.
Also, they just resigned Chris Tillman. So… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
How do they run their bullpen?
Well, they run it a lot. Bullpens are more important than ever now. With starters throwing fewer innings (only 15 starters threw more than 200 innings, and Sale led baseball with 214.1 IP), the reliever needs to be good. In 2017, the Orioles had 22 pitchers make a relief appearance. Seeing as how I have already written more than most people will read, we will focus on the guys that matter for 2018: Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, Miguel Castro, Darren O’Day, Richard Bleier, and Zach Britton.
Britton is sidelined until at least June. The team has said that Brach will be their closer until Britton comes back. This is fine, as Brach is a solid reliever, and is entering his walk year. So if you believe in the whole “guys entering their walk year play better” narrative (I don’t) then Brach should be awesome. Hell, if you believe that, then the Orioles should win the World Series because they are losing a good bit of their team. Bleier somehow makes pitching with limited strikeouts work. In 63.1 innings, he had a 1.99 ERA with, gulp, 3.69 strikeouts per 9…in his defense, he doesn’t walk guys and he limits the long ball (68.8% groundball rate). The big guy is Givens. He is a strikeout power pitcher with a side-arm delivery and a nasty slider. Expect Showalter to throw him out for up to two innings at a time, and expect him to overpower batters. The Orioles bullpen should continue to be a strength.
Does the team deploy a large number of shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players?
The Orioles ranked 12th in shifts last year, with 1109 total shifts. They jumped up 9 spots in the rankings from the previous year, which saw them shift 934 times. The Orioles had a lot of double play opportunities in 2017, which is not a good thing. The only thing that is positive about that is that they had Machado and Schoop in the infield, and they both have well above average arms. As a team, they ranked 5th in the AL in double plays turned, at 13.84%. Nobody really unintentionally plays out of position.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Chance Sisco has 282 framing chances in the majors. He is a bat-first catcher who the Orioles hope gets to be average behind the plate. Last year, he was slightly below average in the majors. This is Caleb Joseph ranked 5th framing runs adjusted, which looks at framing, blocking, and throwing, behind Austin Hedges, Tyler Flowers(!), Martin Maldonado, and Yasmani Grandal. He is a very good backup catcher who can hit a tiny bit. He also had some RBIs last year!
Is the farm system well-stocked? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The Orioles have had a weak farm system ever since Machado, Gausman, and Bundy were called up. Surprisingly, their system looks better now than it has in years. While they do not have the high ceiling guys that the White Sox or Padres have, they have a number of guys that should contribute this year. Austin Hays and Chance Sisco are ready to contribute now. D.J. Stewart should get the call at some point this year and should be a perfectly average hitter. Ryan Mountcastle has an above-average hit tool and has good power (60 potential game on 80 grade scale), but he won’t stick in the middle infield. If the Orioles are totally out of contention come July, expect the farm system to become much stronger, especially if Brach, Machado, and Jones are all having great years.
Are any players particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
The Orioles had 17 total DL stints in 2017, with only the Brewers, Cubs, Pirates, and Tigers with fewer DL days. Pitchers are pitchers though, and the club will likely skip the occasional Bundy start.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign? What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)?
The club, according to Showalter and Duquette, is trying to win in 2018. A few months ago, with the team openly shopping Machado, it looked like the Orioles were ready to rebuild. I am a baseball fan that despises tanking. I find it boring, and do not particularly think what the Cubs and Astros did will be easily replicated. So much has to go right for a team to do what they did. That is a conversation for another time though. This club is going to try to win this year, although, they will not likely be able to compete with the Red Sox or the Yankees. If they really believed that they could compete, they would sign either Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. The Orioles need a solid pitcher to go along with Bundy and Gausman, and Cashner and Tillman are not the solid pitchers that the Orioles need to compete. They are fine number 5’s (or 6’s or 7’s), but not pitchers that will lead this team to the postseason.
As I noted earlier, if the team is out of it come July, and if ownership allows, expect the club to sell off talent in hopes of gaining prospects. My only issue with this is I do not necessarily trust the Orioles to get the talent back that helps in the long run. This is also why I am glad that the Orioles didn’t sell everything in December.
What’s likely to happen?
Congratulations for getting to the end. Tampa Bay is gunning for 5th place in the AL East. I am sure that they somehow gained 2 or 3 wins according to PECOTA with their recent trades and DFA’s, but they will protect the Orioles from being a last-place team. The Orioles can hit, and they have two starters who can pitch, and they have a bullpen. Their outfield defense is not good. Machado is their only well above average infield defender, and I am not totally sure what he will do at shortstop.
Predicted wins: 78-84, fourth place. And I pray that this is not the second year of a 14-year losing streak.
Last year I wrote about how bleak the future looked. I will say the same thing I said last year: “I wish for the potential, for the possibility of great things, as it will never disappoint. Then it becomes the present, and the potential is gone, leaving us a shell of broken promises and sadness. This isn’t 2011. The future isn’t bright. 2017 2018 is the last chance this team has. It better not disappoint.”Next post: 2018 Season Preview Series: The Boston Red Sox in a Box of Sox
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