The 2017 Orioles starting rotation was nothing less than a desolate wasteland, a depressing one just to contemplate and worse still to behold. That the Orioles have done nothing at all to fix this glaring problem as we are now in 2018 is equally disheartening. There is one key bit of upside, though. The Orioles don’t have to do much to be better than they were last year.
Things were so bleak and awful last season that there is a lot of room for improvement. What’s so remarkable about how terrible the 2017 rotation was is that you could still have a bad starting rotation and still have a much better Orioles team.
This is not just some unproven theory. Lest we forget, the 2016 Orioles rotation was also bad and in need of much improvement, yet that team found its way into the playoffs in spite of that problem. It is not the best plan to have, to try to stumble into the postseason like that, but it is a plan, and in a year of weakness it can work.
The 2017 season was also a year of weakness in the American League, what with the 85-win Twins ending up in the wild card game. The Orioles did not need a pole in order to try to vault over that bar. They forgot to jump and they clotheslined themselves instead.
How bad was it? The overall ERA from the rotation tells the simplest toll: 5.70. Even having watched them pitch, seeing the eye-wateringly bad stuff night in and night out, I’m still staggered by how bad it was when I look at the numbers. They were just so horrible, and there lies that glimmer of hope.
Consider that the Orioles could shave a full run off of that ERA, still have a poor rotation, and they would have given up so many fewer runs that, at least as far as that rapscallion Pythagoras is considered, the Orioles would have been around nine wins better.
Orioles starters gave up 536 runs in 846 innings pitched in 2017. That’s the most runs given up, and the third-fewest innings pitched of all MLB rotations. In a bit of good fortune, the number 846 can be divided by nine - one game per nine innings - for the equivalent of 94 nine-inning games. Take off one run for every one of those nine innings and that’s 94 runs fewer with a still-bad ERA of 4.70.
A better starting rotation would have ripple effects on the relievers as well. If the starter doesn’t have to regularly be bounced after three or four innings, that’s fewer innings handed to jabronis like Vidal Nuno (10.43 ERA), Tyler Wilson (sorry, Tyler) (7.04) and Mike Wright (5.76). It means the regular back-end relievers don’t have to blow innings in blowout losses just to complete nine innings, too.
It’s easy to imagine improvement when things are put that way, although it all falls apart rather spectacularly when considering the grim reality that right now, those jabronis and others of their ilk could well take two of the five spots in the 2018 Orioles rotation.
This is a state of affairs that must not stand, but like every other team this offseason, the Orioles are in no rush to try to do something about it. What makes the Orioles lack of action worse is their apparent refusal to aim for any of the first- or second-tier starting pitchers who are available to be signed. How is the rotation ever going to improve if they won’t actually, you know, bring in someone better?
There is more than one component to run prevention. Pitching is the obvious one. You can look at a guy who gave up five runs and think, “Well, he was bad.” And he probably was bad if he gave up five runs. It’s not the kind of performance that puts you in the mood to accept excuses and alternate explanations. But maybe his defense was bad, too.
Defense is part of that old Earl Weaver trinity of pitching, defense, and three run home runs. The successful years of the Buck Showalter Orioles saw that formula modified to something like late-inning relief pitching, defense, and home runs of all kinds. The defense was the constant... at least until it wasn’t.
By the Defensive Runs Saved metric, the Orioles defense cost them 17 runs overall in 2017. The other common public defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating, put them much the same, at -17.5 runs. That stands in contrast to the 2014 season, where the O’s defense saved them 57 runs by DRS.
In a similar vein to the rotation, the O’s wouldn’t even have to move back to good defense to improve. Merely getting to OK could net a couple dozen runs saved! It all adds up.
Also in a similar vein to the rotation, the hope for improvement with the existing group is not there. When two-thirds of the outfield continues to be Trey Mancini and Adam Jones, with Mark Trumbo potentially spending significant time in right field, well, it doesn’t inspire confidence. The Orioles now have fewer than three months to figure out what to do about all of this.
Presumably, the Orioles will eventually reach the point where they stop pretending that the plan to put Gabriel Ynoa and Miguel Castro in the upcoming season’s rotation is not a plan at all. Once that happens - it has to happen, doesn’t it? - the offseason might finally start to get interesting.
It won’t take much for the rotation to be better than it was. This is the maddening part of what’s happening here with the Orioles. The one choice they can’t make is to do nothing, and nothing seems to be exactly what they want to do.