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The Orioles offense from 2014 to 2015: What went wrong?

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A lot of things have to go wrong for a team to go from winning the division as convincingly as the Orioles did last year to where they are right now. There is blame to be found in all aspects of the O's play, but today let's focus on offense and defense.

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

What happened to the 2014 Orioles?

My friend, who is a die-hard Orioles fan and listens to nearly every game but who doesn’t read these kinds of blogs, asked me this question last week. I stumbled over a few answers that have been passed around and talked about but didn’t have any solid conclusions for him. So I decided to do some digging.

2014’s team won 96 games and romped to a division title, but this year’s team will be lucky to finish at .500. As many predicted would happen, the losses of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz contributed heavily to the team’s offensive (and even defensive!) decline. Something I didn’t realize at the time but that makes sense now is that when Cruz left he took with him production at not only left field but also designated hitter. I wasn’t prepared to see how much the team’s DH spot has suffered in 2015, but as I’ll show in a moment it clearly has.

But changes within the team are only a part of the story. You must measure the Orioles relative to their competition in order to get a full picture of the landscape. It turns out that the league has improved in a few areas that the 2015 Orioles got worse in, essentially twisting the knife of the team's overall decline. And in one area where both the league and the Orioles improved, the league’s improvement far outweighs the Orioles’.

Below I'll present the major areas that are contributing to the team's decline in the standings from 2014-2015. Note that all league measurements in this article include the Orioles and that all metrics are prior to Monday's game. Also note that there are other areas to measure; these are just the ones that made the biggest impact.

Overall, the team’s Weighted On-Base Average, or wOBA, dropped from .323 to .314, while league wOBA rose from .310 to .313. This is your simple answer to why the team is doing worse: the Orioles, who were comfortably above-average offensively last year, now are struggling to be average. And that’s while playing in a hitter’s park.

orioles 2014-2015 woba

The players at the following positions are responsible for the biggest wOBA drops:

  • Left field: .083 wOBA drop. Here we are comparing Nelson Cruz, David Lough, and Steve Pearce’s 2014 performances to the 2015 versions of Lough and Pearce -- along with Travis Snider, Alejandro De Aza, and Nolan Reimold.
  • Shorstop: .058 wOBA drop. The 2015 version of J.J. Hardy is much worse than the 2014 version, but don’t forget that this year Everth Cabrera contributed a paltry .483 OPS as a shortstop as well.
  • Designated hitter: .045 wOBA drop. In 2014, Nelson Cruz filled this spot as well, with a major assist from Delmon Young. In 2015, Jimmy Paredes is responsible for the vacuum here, but Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Steve Clevenger are also to blame. Davis? Yeah -- he's hit .228/.302/.316 in 63 PA as a DH this year.
  • Right field: .041 wOBA drop. In 2014, Nick Markakis had a good season offensively. His healthy .342 OBP was the biggest reason why. This year it’s been a struggle to get production from Young, Davis, Gerardo Parra, and Travis Snider at the position.

The above list, illustrated:

orioles positional wOBA drops

Note that Nelson Cruz plays a dual role here. In 2014 he had not only the most PA as a left fielder, but also the most PA as a DH. So his loss in 2015 hurt twice as badly.

Drilling further in, the Orioles are striking out a lot more as a team this year while the rest of the league is actually striking out less often.

orioles k% changes

The primary culprit here is the right field spot, which traded a contact-heavy Nick Markakis for the swing-and-miss styles of Young and Davis. The arrival of Gerardo Parra has helped, as he has struck out only 14.8% of the time, but that's still more than Markakis did last year.

The DH spot also experience a big K% increase, going from primarily Nelson Cruz to primarily Paredes, who whiffs nearly 28% of the time. Cruz also impacted the comparison in the left field corner, where his 2015 replacements struck out 24% of the time compared to his 20%.

Continuing the theme, the team experienced an OBP drop at the same time the rest of the league decided to get on base more:

orioles league obp comparison

Although the team didn’t have even a league-average OBP last year, 2014's gap with the league was peanuts compared to the gap this year. OBP was lost primarily at the shortstop position, a result of J.J. Hardy’s injury and possible skill decline, going from a decent .309 to an ugly .253. The corner outfield and DH spots registered large drops as well.

Even when there’s good news, it isn’t enough. The good news: the Orioles increased their isolated power (ISO) from .166 last year to .169 this year. The bad news: the team’s small increase hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the league’s increase:

orioles league iso

As a result, the team looks underpowered when compared to the rest of the league.

When you see the team’s offensive changes compared to the league’s, you start to understand why the team’s wRC+ of 104 last year, which was 5th-best in the game, has slipped to just 97 this year, or 9th-best.

On the other side of the ball, the team has done just as poorly relative to 2014. I’m not talking about pitching, which I’ll cover in a later article. I’m talking about defense.

In 2014 the team’s Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) rating, which is UZR combined with a positional adjustment, was measured at 41.9 runs above average. This year, with three weeks or so left in the season, it’s at 1.9 runs above average. That’s a 40-run drop, equivalent to about four wins. Ouch.

orioles def rating, 2014-2015

At a team level, we can be fairly certain about the quality of the defensive metrics here. But when it comes to blaming individual players, especially infielders, we have to be more careful. UZR for individual players ignores plays on which a relevant shift is employed, which for the Orioles this year is 25% of ground balls put in play against the team. (Compare that rate, for a moment, to Houston which has shifted on 41% of ground balls and Tampa Bay which has shifted against 40% of ground balls.)

This affect mostly infielders. So when I say that the biggest defensive drop has come at second base, where according to UZR/150 the team is 11 runs per 150 games worse than it was last year, and that the major culprits here are Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty -- take that with a grain of salt. But the available information points at the defense of those two players being part of the problem this year, since they've spent the most time at the keystone.

We can point a finger, however, at the outfield spots since shifts rarely take place there and so more plays are taken into account. Defense in left field is worse by 10.9 runs/150 games and defense in right field is worse by 9.9 runs/150 games. Wait a second, left field? Don’t forget that Lough and Pearce had great defensive seasons there last year and Cruz had a good year with the glove as well. Whoever thought fans would be missing Nelson Cruz for his defense?

When you add it all together, the picture isn’t pretty. The team’s hitters last year combined for 28.9 fWAR. So far this year they have managed only 14.7 fWAR. That’s about a 15 win drop, enough to sink the playoff hopes of any team. The primary drivers for this loss are the team's inability to replace the 2014 production of Cruz and Markakis, lack of production from the shortstop position, and worse defense at second base.

Stay tuned for a dissection of the pitching staff and how it’s performed relative to last year.

All stats from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. UZR shifting information from MGL.