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The Orioles’ bench was a problem, and Jace Peterson wasn’t the solution

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On the list of reasons the O’s tanked in 2018, Jace Peterson ranks about 897th. But he didn’t particularly help the club, either.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It isn’t easy being a journeyman utility guy. You’re constantly on the move, perpetually on the fringes of a major league roster, never quite good enough to get regular playing time but just good enough for one organization after another to take a chance on you. You usually don’t stick around anywhere long enough to make an impression, instead flitting away as quietly as you came.

That’s Jace Peterson in a nutshell. Did you know he played 93 games with the Orioles in 2018? I never would’ve guessed it was that many. Peterson joined the Birds, his fourth organization, on April 25 and remained on the active roster the rest of the season. The O’s were already well into their death spiral when he came to the club, so there wasn’t much reason to pay special attention to him.

Peterson started the year with the Yankees, appearing in three games, two of which were against the Orioles. He apparently made such an impression that the Birds claimed him on waivers, hoping he’d be a better utility infielder than Danny Valencia, who was unable to play any infield position other than third base, at which he was terrible.

I’ll start with the good news about Peterson. There’s one thing he did noticeably well: draw walks.

Don’t scoff at that! For years we’ve been lamenting the Orioles’ “swing first, ask questions later” approach at the plate and their inability to take a free pass. Walking is a valuable skill, and Peterson’s teammates could learn a thing or two from his example.

Peterson ranked fourth on the Orioles in bases on balls (30) despite ranking 11th in plate appearances (235). Peterson drew more walks than Adam Jones, who had nearly 400 more plate appearances. He had more than twice as many free passes as Jonathan Schoop, who had 132 more PAs. Peterson also outwalked Tim Beckham, Mark Trumbo, Danny Valencia, Caleb Joseph, and Jonathan Villar, all of whom came to the plate more often. Peterson walked in 12.6 percent of his PAs this year, easily topping the MLB average of 8.5 percent.

Thanks to his walking ability, Peterson was able to carry an OBP of .308 despite a .195 batting average. That speaks well to his batting eye and discipline at the plate. Peterson had a career .374 OBP in the minors, and also posted a .350 mark for the Braves in 2016. You could make the argument that those walks are what has kept Peterson employed in the majors for five years; it’s how he’s been able to keep his OBP above .300 every season since 2015, even though he’s hit better than .240 in only one of those years.

Still, you have to wonder if Peterson is living on borrowed time with those walks. Sooner or later, pitchers will be more inclined to throw strikes to him, considering how little damage he does when he actually puts the ball in play.

Which brings us to the ugliest part of Peterson’s game: swinging the bat. His .195 average in 2018, accumulated in 235 plate appearances, was tied for the sixth-worst mark in Orioles history of any player with that many PAs. Of course, nobody took much notice of ol’ Jace’s dubious feat, because a high-profile, $161 million teammate of his fared even worse.

Perhaps Peterson just got unlucky at the plate. After all, his .260 batting average on balls in play was well below the league-average .296 mark. Then again, Peterson just didn’t hit the ball with much authority. He had a line drive percentage of 18.5 this season, worse than the MLB average (21.5), and a hard-hit percentage of 27.9, significantly below average (35.3).

With an offensive performance like that, you’d think Peterson must be a defensive wizard. He was not. The best you could say is that he was versatile; Peterson started at least 10 games at four different positions (second base, third base, left field, right field) and one at shortstop. He even made a pitching appearance! (He gave up six hits and four runs in one inning, but still, credit the guy for trying.)

At three of his four main positions, though, Peterson ranked below average in defensive runs saved, amassing a -3 mark apiece at second base, left field, and right field. Only at third base was Peterson passable (2 DRS). Combining his shrugworthy defense with his offensive struggles, Peterson provided negative value to the Orioles this year (-0.1 or -0.3 WAR, depending on whether you prefer the Baseball Reference or FanGraphs version of the stat).

Peterson, who earned $555,000 this season, is eligible for arbitration this winter. It’s hard to see the Birds tendering him a contract after his uninspiring year, especially with the O’s set to bring in a new regime that has no particular attachment to Peterson or the other 2018 Orioles.

In all likelihood, Peterson will be set adrift and find himself in another organization next year. Such is the life of the major league journeyman.