Technically, there are three games left in the Orioles' season. Take one look at the crowd for the past few home games, though, and you'll know the season is essentially over. There's not much analysis left to be done, and no more predictions to be made. Instead, I'm going to look back at one of my more optimistic posts from the beginning of the year and try to figure out what went wrong.
On April 24th the O's were 7-9 and in last place in the division. To try to brighten the mood around here, I came up with ten reasons why the team should get better. Obviously that didn't really happen, since they've played one game under .500 since then. Just like how Alex revisited his pre-season predictions back at the All-Star break, let's go through these one by one and figure out what happened. Here were my ten reasons for optimism five months ago:
1) The defense isn't as bad as it looks.
Summary: The Orioles nearly had the most errors in the league, but the advanced stats showed they were still one of the elite defensive teams in the majors.
Review: Well, I was right about the errors coming back to earth, but wrong about the defense overall. The O's went from the third most errors at the time of that post to the third fewest errors now (77, the Marlins lead with 74). But as they've cut down on the errors, they've actually gotten worse according to the advanced numbers. The team defense is 10th in MLB according to UZR, and 17th according to DRS. That's not awful, but not nearly the caliber of defense we got used to seeing in 2013 and 2014. A big part of this was the extended time missed by Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy. Schoop also regressed quite a bit from last year, which may be related to his injury.
2) The offense is taking more walks.
Summary: The Orioles' 7.8% walk rate in early 2015 was around the middle of the pack, compared to an awful 6.5% in 2014.
Review: Small sample size. That number regressed to 6.9%, 25th in the majors. Meanwhile they have the 3rd highest K% in the league. Same old Orioles. If the ball isn't flying out of the park, it's tough to score when you strike out a ton and don't walk.
3) Chris Tillman is no stranger to early-season struggles.
Summary: Tillman was pitching horribly at the beginning of the season. He did that in 2014 too, and bounced back.
Review: Well, he technically got better, but not nearly as much as we hoped. His ERA through April was 7.68, and now it's 5.05. He had a 1.31 ERA in July, and a 5+ ERA every other month of the season. Tillman's probably wishing they had hammered out that extension during the offseason. He may have cost himself a lot of money with his performance this year.
4) Whatever happens with Bud Norris' rotation spot, it can't possibly be this bad.
Summary: Bud Norris had a 17.42 ERA. That rotation spot had nowhere to go but up, whether it was from Norris improving or someone else replacing him.
Review: Another one that was technically true, but not to the degree the Orioles needed. The O's continued to trot out an ineffective Norris for a while, and eventually he went on the DL and was later released. Kevin Gausman absorbed most of those starts and pitched OK, but not great, and the spot starts from Mike Wright were mostly terrible. Tyler Wilson was able to do a pretty good job when he was needed, but his five starts didn't have an impact on the season.
5) Manny Machado is starting to hit.
Summary: Machado was hitting .132 through eight games, but was showing signs of heating up over the next eight.
Review: Man, did he ever. Machado is hitting .287/.360/.498 with 33 home runs, solidifying his status as one of the very best all-around players in the game today.
6) Steve Pearce's drop-off may be exaggerated.
Summary: Pearce was hitting an abysmal .149 but had been extremely unlucky. It was too early to call his post-breakout season a bust.
Review: Pearce struggled into mid-May but since then he's hit well. I went into further detail on this on May 15th, and since that date Pearce's OPS has been nearly .800 the rest of the way. His season was derailed by an oblique injury just as he was starting to heat up, and a healthy Pearce could've done a lot to stabilize the disaster area that was the Orioles' corner outfield this summer.
7) The catchers will probably start throwing people out at some point.
Summary: Opposing teams had stolen ten bases with only two runners caught stealing. Caleb Joseph was great at throwing out runners in 2014, so this was probably just a sample size issue.
Review: The O's have allowed the 4th-fewest stolen bases in all of baseball (61). Joseph ended up catching 17 of 53 runners, which is worse than 2014 (23/57) but not awful. Matt Wieters caught 8 of 26, about the same rate as Joseph.
8) Jason Garcia will either improve, or he won't.
Summary: The O's were basically playing down a bullpen arm thanks to carrying Garcia. He was either going to get better, or if he continued to pitch poorly he'd get sent back to Boston. Either way the bullpen would've been better off.
Review: I forgot about the third option: Garcia went on the 60-day DL with an injury that O's didn't exactly rush him back from. He returned right around the day that would mean he'd serve exactly enough time on the active roster to stay in the organization. That probably isn't a coincidence. Since his return from the DL on August 7th, Garcia has been much better - he has a 2.81 ERA with 14 K's and 6 BB's in 16 innings, bringing his season ERA to a respectable 4.25 after a terrible start to the year.
9) The O's may really have something in Brad Brach.
Summary: Brach came on strong at the end of 2014. Despite an underwhelming ERA (4.09) early in 2015, his FIP (1.60) was a different story. Brach was starting to look like he could become a reliable late-inning reliever.
Review: Brach has had an excellent year, pitching a career-high 78 innings with a career-best 2.77 ERA. He's bumped his K/9 from 7.8 to 10.2 this year, and he's thrown a lot of big innings throughout the season. This one looks like it's coming true.
10) Remember Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy?
Summary: The O's were playing without two of their best players.
Review: Sigh. Hardy has been absolutely horrendous at the plate all season, which hopefully is related to his torn labrum and not just age. Meanwhile, Wieters has been decent but not much better than backup Caleb Joseph. His .262/.305/.417 line is respectable, especially for a catcher, but he certainly hasn't returned to his early 2014 all-star form. Neither of these guys were the jolt to the lineup that the Orioles were looking for.
The bottom line
The Orioles needed a lot of these things to be true in order to make a playoff run, and unfortunately not enough of them were. Combine that with the decline of Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez in the second half and it's easy to see why this team is not going to finish with a winning record. No matter how talented a team is, a lot of things have to go right in order to make the playoffs (just ask the Nationals). Hopefully in 2016 a lot more of them will.