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The Orioles have lost their winning way. How can they find it again?

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The 2014 AL East Champion Orioles had a formula for winning. Over the course of the past three years that way of winning has been lost.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The worm has turned on the 2017 season. The Orioles are playing poorly in every facet of the game and it’s showing. They sit at 31-32 after last night’s game. The 22-10 start to the season has been thoroughly erased. They are fourth in the division and the Blue Jays are breathing down their necks for last place.

The team has struggled everywhere. They rank 21st in team wRC+ (92), 29th in starter ERA (5.27), 19th in bullpen ERA (4.26), and 19th in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) (-3.3). They have been poor across the board. They can’t hit, can’t pitch, and can’t field. However, only last year most of the same team won 89 games, and three years ago many of the same players posted 96 wins and won the division title.

The 2014 Orioles are the favorite team of my lifetime. I am not old enough to remember the early to mid-90s teams all that well. The 2014 team coasted to an AL East title rolling over opponents. They had a formula for winning that involved a top tier offense, a top tier bullpen, a mid level rotation, an elite level defense, and an avoidance of the negative player.

Somewhere along the way, the Orioles forgot that was the formula for winning.

The Offense

The Orioles offense in 2017 is ranked 21st in the league in terms of production at the moment. In 2014, they finished sixth in baseball with a 104 wRC+ overall. The 2017 team has been dragged down by a struggling Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and J.J Hardy.

If they’re lucky, one or more of those will improve as the season goes along. As I have written before, the Orioles stars are not preforming up to their standards and that may regress to some norm. I do not believe the Orioles will finish with a bottom third offense in 2017.

The Pitching

The Orioles bullpen ERA is ranked 19th in 2017 (4.26). In 2014, the bullpen ERA ranked 6th (3.10). The 2017 bullpen has been hurt most by the lack of Zach Britton due to injury, which is hard to predict and is tougher to plan for. However, the Orioles in 2017 have been rifling through the likes of Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Stefan Crichton, Logan Verrett, and everyone else that rides that Norfolk shuttle.

They have not established a quality bullpen that can take mediocre starts from the rotation and shut down the other team while the offense brings them back. Once again, injuries and poor performance, which may turn around.

The starting rotation in 2017 ranks 29th in all of baseball with a 5.27 overall ERA. The 2014 Orioles starting pitchers posted the 12th best ERA in all of baseball with a 3.61 ERA. The 2014 Orioles have five starting pitchers with ERAs that were better than league average. None were great, but each of them good enough to let the offense do it’s work and win the game.

The 2017 team has seen regression from Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman to the maximum extent. Going into the season the rotation was seen as a weak spot, as it has been for years and as it was in 2014, but the poor performance of Gausman and Tillman has sunk the rotation for good.

The Defense

The offense, bullpen, and starting pitching have all been poor in 2017. Some of that was foreseeable and some was not. It is tough to argue that the Orioles should have seen Machado struggling for 2.5 months at the plate, or Britton going down with a month’s long injury, or Gausman turning into starting pitcher era Brian Matusz.

However, it was quite easy to see that the defense for the 2017 Orioles was going to be bad and the Orioles did nothing to fix that problem. Also, the Orioles have given numerous playing opportunities to players that produce either nothing or even a negative value.

The 2017 Defense ranks 19th overall in baseball with a UZR or -3.3 which is entirely due to the fact that the outfield defense ranks 24th in baseball with a -6.1 UZR. This issue was easy to spot coming out of the 2016 season and going into 2017, and was memorably highlighted by Jones talking about the need for more athletic outfielders.

The Orioles addressed that problem by trading for Seth Smith, resigning Mark Trumbo, and playing Trey Mancini in right field. The Orioles outfielders are so poor that Smith, a below average fielder, is now a defensive replacement.

The 2014 Orioles posted the second-best UZR in baseball at 54.8 behind only the record-setting Royals defense. Their defense was led by the outfield which posted the second-best UZR in baseball at 34.3. A great defense can mask poor pitching, especially poor starting pitching.

The Orioles decided to ignore an entire aspect of run prevention this off season. It has cost them dearly. They also continue to ignore it. Chris Davis is likely out for a long stretch with an oblique strain and the Orioles response is apparently to call up David Washington, a 26-year-old first baseman who has been hot in Norfolk.

Avoiding unproductive players

This may seem like an odd point to make, but avoiding giving bad players lots of playing time is almost as important as finding good players to give playing time. The 2014 Orioles did this very well. Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs made this very point in 2014 when writing about the Orioles.

The AL East champion Orioles of 2014 gave a grand total of 137 plate appearances to players who produced a negative fWAR and only 46.1 innings to pitchers who produced a negative fWAR.

The 2017 Orioles so far, again this only two plus months into the season, have given 539 plate appearances to players who have produced a negative fWAR and 142.1 innings to pitchers who have produced a negative fWAR. Again, on the pitching side, the loss of Britton and the total collapse of Tillman and Gausman hurt a lot.

But, on the hitting side Buck Showalter continues to play Trumbo and J.J. Hardy every day even though neither of them has produced any value in 2017. Both of them have not been good, yet continue to get playing time because of their contract and veteran status.

The Orioles are walking into giving unproductive players more playing time. There is no easy answer for Hardy as no other shortstop or third baseman looks ready to help the Orioles, but they could try something or anything—at all.

Trumbo gets everyday playing time on a roster that is replete with first baseman and designated hitters. It makes little to no sense.

The bottom line is this, the 2017 Orioles look very bad right now. A lot of that is from poor performance from players they expected a lot more out of and that can change. Some of that is from injuries which are hard to plan for. However, a poor defense was easy to see and the continuing of playing below replacement level players everyday is an easy thing to avoid. Yet, the Orioles are doing neither. The Orioles ignored what made them good and that made them much much worse.