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Trying to find the good in the 2019 Orioles season

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The Orioles weren’t any good this year. The Orioles still gave us some fun players and fun moments.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles
John Means, Orioles All-Star, was one of the fun things about this season.
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

After 162 often-gruesome games of baseball, the 2019 Orioles season is finally over. This would be the worst season of Orioles baseball that has ever existed if it wasn’t for the 2018 O’s coming along and setting the bar so low. In some ways, such as setting the new MLB record for home runs allowed and setting a new Orioles record for runs allowed, it was even worse.

There was never any illusion that there would be success at the MLB level in 2019, so the fact that it did not materialize is not a disappointment. When Elias came on board, he talked about the process not having any shortcuts and about looking at the big picture.

The big picture still looks like it should turn out well, if not on as soon of a timeline as Orioles fans, who’ve been enduring bad baseball since 2017, might like. It’s not hard to feel confident about the direction of the franchise when you listen to Elias talk, even in the most general terms, about what needs to be done and how he’s going to go about it.

It’s also not hard to lose sight of the big picture somewhat when mired in the day-to-day drudgery of all of the losing that the 2019 Orioles have experienced. The MLB team’s record this year was never going to matter all that much for the future of the rebuild, which is a good thing since the record was very bad.

With all that firmly in mind, there were good things about the team, too. There were players who you could hang your hat on and be glad you were getting to watch that guy in the middle of all of the badness. Whether and how much these players ultimately factor into the next good Orioles team remains to be seen, but they were here and fun and that’s worth something.

John Means

We all know that pitcher win-loss records aren’t the best way to tell whether a pitcher was successful. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that Means was able to post a 12-11 record for the 54-108 Orioles. That he forced his way into the rotation picture in the spring after working hard to improve himself, on his own initiative, over the offseason just makes him all the more interesting.

Means did not have any hype as a former high draft pick. He was selected in the 11th round. He did not have the hype that comes along with being a centerpiece of a trade, Despite these things, he was the best Orioles starter this year, posting a 3.60 ERA over 31 games. He was the lone Orioles All-Star. With only 121 strikeouts in 155 innings, the question of sustained success remains open, but he also walked only 38 batters.

That ratio can work for a crafty lefty, if he’s really crafty enough. What’s exciting about Means is that, if he does have five or six decent MLB seasons in him (an optimistic assumption) he will be around if the O’s start being good in, say, 2022.

Hanser Alberto

If I had tried to come up with a list of 20 names of possible pleasant surprises before the 2019 Orioles season, I still don’t think I would have gotten around to naming Alberto. This may be true of Mike Elias as well, who lost Alberto on waivers on February 22, though he got Alberto back within two weeks on March 1.

When September began, Alberto was within a few points of the eventual AL batting average champion, Tim Anderson. He faded down the stretch somewhat, with a .587 OPS in September eventually costing him his remarkable above-.400 batting average against lefties, but he still finished with an impressive batting line against southpaws: .398/.414/.534.

Is it sustainable success? That’s the mystery. His BABIP against lefties of .435 screams “No!” So does his finishing the 2019 season in the 1st percentile for exit velocity. For this year, it was good enough performance for him to be worth 3.1 bWAR, and much like Means, he was a fun part of the 2019 team even if he never does this again.

Trey Mancini

The 2019 Most Valuable Oriole proved that everyone who doubted him after a sophomore slump last season was mistaken. Mancini roared back to hit .291/.364/.535 for the season, with 35 home runs, over 100 runs scored, a lower strikeout rate than ever and a higher walk rate than ever. Predictive Statcast stats like xBA, xSLG, and xWOBA all had him in the 80th percentile of MLB players or higher, suggesting this performance was no fluke.

He’s the current face of the team in this rebuilding era and based on comments made by teammates like Richie Martin and Austin Hays, is increasingly a clubhouse leader as well. Perhaps his 2019 performance will increase his value to other teams, but it’s increased his value to the Orioles as well. Even bad eras of the O’s can produce memorable favorites.

Anthony Santander

The single most amazing thing that randomly happened over the course of the 2019 season was the day when the thousands of visiting scouts from the United Kingdom decided that Anthony Santander was the most excellent person to ever take a baseball field. They cheered wildly every time he made a catch, every time he tossed a ball in their direction, every time he vaguely acknowledged them. Even now, months later, thinking of it makes me smile.

Santander’s 2019 is a bit like Means’s was, in the sense that he was not a player in the minds of most fans as spring training began. Nor was he lighting the juiced Triple-A balls on fire before his call-up for good in June. Yet as others got hurt and stumbled, he got his big league chance and made the most of it, batting .288/.323/.518 through September 7. That’s a real player. We can talk about September 8 on when we go over the bad things.

By season’s end, Santander had hit 20 home runs in 405 plate appearances. That’s a 30 homer pace over a full season. A 30+ homer season isn’t as special as it used to be, but there aren’t very many teams, even good ones, who’d turn that down from a corner outfielder.

Austin Hays

The last month of the season could have been a totally hopeless slog. One reason it was not was the call-up of Austin Hays. Last seen at the MLB level two Septembers ago, Hays battled injuries last year and parts of this year as well, and despite some pedestrian Triple-A numbers, the Elias regime wanted to reward him with some big league time.

This proved to be a good decision. Hays got into 21 games and generally played like he had his hair on fire, batting .309/.373/.547. There were dingers, there were hustle doubles, there were amazing catches like you might expect from a player in the 85th percentile of sprint speed. He was striking out less, walking more, hitting for more power overall, and with a BABIP of .333, may not be due for big regression in that regard.

It was only 21 games, and that against possibly softer September call-up competition, but it’s better to have an exciting small sample size than a disappointing one. Consider that at the end of last year, we were all looking forward to Cedric Mullins this year, and Mullins only batted .235/.312/.359 in 45 games last September. Between Santander and Hays, maybe two-thirds of the outfield of the future is now the outfield of the present.

Hunter Harvey

I know, I know, he only pitched in seven games for 6.1 innings. and he walked four guys in those 6.1 innings, but he also struck out 11 and averaged 98.4mph on his fastball, according to Fangraphs. There are building blocks for a future high-leverage reliever there. That’s more than I thought Harvey might ever turn into before the season, when it seemed like he might never shake questions about his ability to stay healthy enough to pitch.

Stevie “Dr. Poo Poo” Wilkerson

It’s fair to say that if you only look at Wilkerson’s .225/.286/.383 batting line, you might not see much reason to put him on this list. He will, however, always be the position player who improbably got the save in the 16th inning later than 4am on the east coast, while throwing “fastballs” slower than 60 miles per hour. And he’s always going to be the guy who gave us this:

A lot of things sucked about this Orioles season. Indeed, the game this catch was from ended up being one of them, in part because of other plays involving Wilkerson in right field.

No one’s favorite baseball team loses 108 games by accident. They were a bad team hampered by a previous GM having a bad plan that failed, necessitating the full organizational tear-down and rebuild. Hopes for next year shouldn’t be high either, but we can all still enjoy the fun players and moments that come along on the way back to quality baseball.