A lot of things had to go wrong for the Orioles to finish with a 47-115 record in the 2018 season. There is no magic wand that anyone with the team could have waved to solve one problem that would suddenly turn the team from what they were into a real postseason contender. Last week, the O’s made it official that neither Dan Duquette nor Buck Showalter, presumably the two biggest architects of the failed team, would be returning next season.
As the Orioles ownership tries to move on to find a new person to fill the general manager position, or whatever they want to call it, there is some predictable finger-pointing showing up in the media now that the two men no longer have to play nice. In one swoop, years of vague stories about unspecific things that caused dysfunction within the Orioles front office were validated and blown out into the open.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal explored that rift in a Thursday article in which he observed that Manny Machado’s performance on defense with the Dodgers appeared to improve significantly based on the small samples of defensive metrics for this season.
Is this one more sign that a chowderheaded Orioles baseball operations team was unable to both collect significant data analytics and synthesize it to present to players in a meaningful way? The new general manager is going to have to figure out what in the world was going wrong before he or she can try to figure out how to put it right.
The article is for subscribers only, but if you’re not in that group, people have helpfully quoted portions of the article on Twitter, like this:
This is a dark picture of the team and it’s been painted by the guy who was supposed to have been in charge. If agents were really calling up Duquette to plead on behalf of their clients for a better analytical approach from the team, then everyone who was responsible for things reaching that point should have been fired long ago.
If the front office actually had a good approach to analytics and the field staff was ignoring it, the firings should have wiped out the entire coaching staff immediately. This is the first that we have heard of a specific charge like this that I know of, but as mentioned before, this is the first time the people involved don’t have to be nice to one another publicly.
That pitchers who have been here with the Orioles have then gone on to succeed elsewhere is not in doubt. The question left to be resolved is whether there was something that the Orioles were doing, or not doing, that led to the pitchers Duquette named not performing as well here as they had done elsewhere.
Wade Miley presents the most extreme and absurd example. You can’t fail much harder than Miley did in Baltimore and still have a big league job. In 43 starts across his two seasons here, Miley posted a 5.75 ERA, averaging fewer than five innings per game started. That included a 2017 season where he led all MLB starting pitchers in WHIP. At the most basic thing a pitcher is supposed to do - keep runners off base - Miley was the number one worst pitcher in the game.
That same Miley started 16 games for the Brewers this season and although his strikeout rate sank to a career low, he ended the season with a 2.57 ERA. There’s a natural tendency for fans of AL teams (or at least, for me) to be snobby about National League pitchers since they don’t have to face as many real batters, but you don’t shave three runs of ERA just from getting to face pitchers and bad pinch hitters. The Orioles were either screwing something up here or failing to fix something obvious to a more aware team.
One challenge that has been besetting all Orioles pitchers for at least a couple of years now is their defense. If you spent any unfortunate amount of time watching these losers, you know this already. That can be quantified in part in this stat from this season: The Orioles pitching staff had the worst BABIP allowed in all of MLB. That is, no team was worse at converting balls in play into outs than the Orioles.
When your outfield corner defense is Trey Mancini and Mark Trumbo and your center field defense for most of the season is Adam Jones, measured as the slowest MLB center fielder by Statcast, that’s going to happen. If your players just don’t have the capability to do what you ask them to do, it doesn’t matter how many analytics you throw at them.
Of course, part of building a good team is understanding, through scouting and analytics, what your players are able to do and what they’re not able to do. Perhaps Duquette’s pitchers all should have been better and former manager Buck Showalter and his staff were ignoring good information that would have improved them. But Duquette doesn’t get to skate entirely on assembling the roster that failed thoroughly even when it still had its best players.
It was defense that led Rosenthal’s article - specifically, Machado’s defense. One of Rosenthal’s colleagues at The Athletic, Eno Sarris, illustrated what changed between Baltimore and Los Angeles for Machado:
And look, the Dodgers have moved Machado three degrees up the middle against lefties compared to where he played in Baltimore. It’s not a huge difference, but you can see it here clearly different in Baltimore (orange) and LA (blue) vs Lefties. pic.twitter.com/nbercwGfxT— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) October 11, 2018
Is that enough, in and of itself, to explain how Machado was rated at -18 runs in Defensive Runs Saved as a shortstop for the O’s in 2018 but +6 runs in his time with the Dodgers? He moved three or four steps to the left against lefties and suddenly he looked like a better fielder again?
We can be sure that a lot of data went into the Dodgers positioning of Machado. That’s how front offices operate now, or at least how the smart ones do. The question for the Orioles is whether they have been drawing good and correct conclusions that have been ignored, or whether they have been drawing bad or incomplete conclusions that have led to bad results.
This is not the only instance of hearing about a former Oriole changing something small and enjoying greater success elsewhere. Kevin Gausman shifted his position on the rubber after being traded to Atlanta and he pitched better there, at least until the postseason. It seems so small to have made such a huge difference, which doesn’t mean it can’t have made the difference.
It’s going to be up to the next person in charge of baseball operations to figure out just what the problems were and how to fix those problems. There are surely a number of people in the baseball world who would be up to that task. O’s fans can only hope that the team hires one of them and lets that person get to work without any more meddling.