Two months into the baseball season, the Orioles have played in 51 games, or about 31.5% of their total schedule. If the Orioles were to play at their current winning percentage for the rest of the season, they would win 86 games.
A lot of games have been played up to now. Sample sizes are no longer quite so small, with hot starts having gone on for long enough to be genuinely exciting and cold starts dragging on for long enough to be legitimately concerning.
A struggling player could turn it all around with one hot week and a player who’s performing well could blow all of the success with a prolonged slump. Baseball being baseball, any of that can happen at any time and we all have to be ready to adjust our thinking based on what’s really happening, not what we want to be true or are worried could turn out to be true.
With that in mind, here are some things that appear to be true about the Orioles right now, based on the month of May.
1. Even for great players, success is neither constant nor guaranteed
A .300 hitter gets a hit three out of every ten at-bats, but this does not mean that for every stretch of ten at-bats, he will have three hits, nor even for every stretch of a hundred at-bats will he have thirty hits. As Adam Jones memorably stated in his Theory of Baseball, Life, and Everything: “Sometimes you suck.”
For Manny Machado, May was a month-long one of those times. The final tally was gruesome. Over 27 May games, Machado batted just .191/.238/.391 for the season, and coupled with an underwhelming May, it’s concerning. If there was one Orioles player you weren’t worried about heading into this season, it was probably Machado, yet here we are on June 1 and Machado has a sub-.300 OBP for the season.
Machado struck out in about a quarter of his May plate appearances and he had five strikeouts for every walk. Is it all bad luck? Machado’s current .218 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests that it is: In his career, balls in play have gone for a .303 average. That says bad luck, but if you’ve seen enough of his current 0-18 streak you probably don’t feel like bad luck is the only explanation.
When the year is said and done, Machado will probably be fine, though it’s going to be a whole lot tougher to keep believing that if the light doesn’t come on in June.
2. The Orioles offense is not delivering as advertised
High-powered offense has been a hallmark of the successful Orioles of late. These Orioles do not have it yet. They’re just tenth in the AL in runs scored. A big part of that is because the heart of their lineup is struggling to deliver as expected.
Part of that has to do with Machado’s struggles. Orioles #3 batters - Machado in all but one game - have the third-worst OPS in the AL. Their #5 batters - split between Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis - have the fourth-worst OPS in the AL, with only a .252/.305/.401 batting line for the season.
What’s interesting about this is that Orioles #4 hitters, also split between Trumbo and Davis, have done fine, with an .841 OPS that’s good for second-best in the American League.
Still, when you add in that O’s leadoff and #2 batters aren’t doing too great either, it’s no wonder they’re 10th in the AL in runs scored. Orioles leadoff men are 11th in the AL in OPS, numbers dragged down by how frequently Joey Rickard and Craig Gentry have batted there. #2 batters (mostly Adam Jones) have just a .698 OPS, only 10th in the AL.
When the first two lineup spots are underperforming as are two of the three “heart of the order” spots, well, that’s one way you lose seven consecutive one-run games.
3. The starting rotation is a problem, just not in the way we expected
In a similar way to Machado, when you were sitting around in January thinking about the coming Orioles season, if there were two Orioles rotation pitchers you felt good about, they were probably Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman. Then Tillman showed up to spring training with news of his PRP injection and Gausman decided to do his best Orioles-era Jake Arrieta impression.
The rotation has been saved from complete disaster by two less expected starting pitchers: Dylan Bundy and Wade Miley. Bundy, at least to me, was a total wild card because of his health. Miley’s ERA is acceptable at 3.02 but his BB/9 of 5.2 still leaves me feeling nervous.
Ubaldo Jimenez is still Ubaldo Jimenez. Whether his rotation spot improves without him in it will be something we’ll learn in June. Alec Asher gets another shot to do better on Friday.
For now, it adds up to the Orioles rotation having the second-worst ERA in the AL at 4.74 and their starters average the fewest innings per game of any AL team. If you’re like me, you might have thought of the Orioles rotation last year, “There’s no way they can be that bad again.” So far, we were wrong.
4. The Orioles past bullpen success should not be taken for granted
I wrote that same thing after April. We learned it in a different, more thorough and painful way in May. Between Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens, the Orioles have had a quartet of excellent relievers, generally posting under a 2.50 ERA each year, over multiple seasons.
Of course, O’Day struggled in 2016, too, but the other three combined to pitch 220.2 innings with a 1.96 combined ERA. That’s great!
Now in 2017, with Britton mostly out of the picture for probably another month at least, the remaining three have combined for a pedestrian (for relievers) 3.30 ERA. Things don’t improve when you add in the sophomore performance of 2016 surprise Donnie Hart. A team that’s relied on bullpen success will have a hard time continuing to succeed with that kind of performance.
A good bullpen is not automatic, even if you start the season with a bullpen full of relievers who have been very good in recent seasons.
5. Help is probably not on the way from the farm
The Orioles MIGHT have found two useful people out of the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle: Asher and Richard Bleier. If they need a one-inning reliever, they MIGHT have someone useful in Norfolk in Jimmy Yacabonis, the Tides closer who has a 1.01 ERA in 21 games. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that basically no starting pitcher in Norfolk or Bowie is performing well enough to make you think they might help out the big league club either this year or next to serve as injury insurance or even a replacement for the free agent-to-be Tillman. Even Miley could be gone, if he pitches like Miley and the Orioles decide his $12 million 2018 option isn’t worth it.
Add in a wasteland in the outfield in the high minors - spring training sensation Cedric Mullins still hasn’t played since April 20 due to a hamstring injury - and catcher Chance Sisco throwing out just seven of 46 base-stealers and you can see why everyone who isn’t paid by the Orioles doesn’t like the Orioles farm system.
Go farther down in the minors and you will find struggles, too. There was some hype about the Orioles having pitching prospects Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin, both college draftees from last year, skip over Delmarva right to High-A Frederick. Could they be on the fast track to the big leagues? That’s what you could dream in March. The fast track is a bit harder to imagine when both have an ERA of 5.95 or higher.
May did not sink the Orioles season any more than April guaranteed them a 100-win season. But if the things that went wrong in May keep going wrong in June, well, that will probably sink the Orioles season. Here’s hoping things go better in the month to come.