The 2018 Orioles went 47-115, the worst finish in team history. The 2019 Orioles finished 54-108—hardly a giant leap for mankind, but a tiny kind of triumph for a team with no stars, no hype, and no expectations around it.
In other ways, these two teams looked very different. The 2018 team featured big (biggish) names—Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, Brad Brach, Jonathan Schoop, Darren O’Day, Chris Tillman, Tim Beckham, and Pedro Alvarez—who underperformed and got cut or traded through the season for parts.
The 2019 roster had a collection of names that would send nobody running out to buy a jersey (apologies to the Jose Rondon, Dan Straily, or Chandler Shepherd fans out there).
Few players actually stayed with the team the full two seasons: Trey Mancini, Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Dylan Bundy, Mark Trumbo, Alex Cobb, and Chris Davis round out the whole list.
2018 turned out to be the last hurrah for the combo of GM Dan Duquette, Manager Buck Showalter, Farm Director Brian Graham, and Scouting Director Gary Rajsich. None of these four are currently employed in baseball, though Buck Showalter still gets airtime as a studio talking head, and entertained a few offers this season for managerial jobs.
Not everything that went wrong with this team can be pinned on these guys. (I still treasure my Buck Showalter gnome, and I bear Buck no ill will outside of the Ubaldo-for-Britton Wild Card flop.) But there’s no denying the fact that The Replacements—Mike Elias (GM/Executive VP), Brandon Hyde (Manager), Chris Holt (Director of Pitching), and Koby Perez (Scouting Director)—are the main reason Orioles fans have any reason for optimism right now.
“We’re going to be the next Astros,” goes the hopeful refrain, and, what with the overlaps in personnel, the new-look international scouting department, the straight-out-of-NASA analytics team, and the sabermetrics regime being applied to player mechanics, this is no fish tale.
New things that can already be credited to this regime include a bunch of international signings (long shots, but also low cost), dramatic improvement in the lower tiers of the farm system, and a new analytic approach, especially as to pitching. Two Orioles minor league teams, the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds and Double-A Bowie Baysox, made it to the playoffs this year, the Baysox leading the Eastern League in ERA. A few big-league guys, including John Means, Hunter Harvey, and Shawn Armstrong, credit some of their recent success to the new analytic regime.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. By far, the biggest thing the two teams had in common was disastrous pitching.
The 2018 starting rotation featured Dylan Bundy (8-16, 5.45 ERA), Andrew Cashner (4-15, 5.29), Alex Cobb (5-15, 4.90), Kevin Gausman (5-8, 4.43), David Hess (3-10, 4.88), and Yefry Ramirez (1-8, 5.92). (The biggest surprise for me: remembering that Cashner actually pitched worse than Cobb in 2018.) In 2019, the rotation, such as it was, featured Bundy (7-14, 4.79 ERA), John Means (12-11, 3.60), Cashner (9-3, 3.83), Asher Wojciechowski (4-8, 4.92), Hess (1-10, 7.09), and Aaron Brooks (4-5, 6.18).
There were no real bright spots in 2018 (to be expected when your best rotation arm has a 4.43 ERA), but the 2019 rotation still wins for being even more of the “scotch tape and a prayer” variety. Brooks is no longer in the MLB, Cashner was traded, it’s unclear what the team has in Wojo, and if Hess remains an Oriole at the end of 2020, I’ll be shocked.
Both of these Orioles teams finished last in the league in team ERA, but in 2019, their ERA was nearly half a run worse, at 5.59. That’s a significant difference. The bullpen was a big reason: starter ERA was pretty much equal both years, but the bullpen’s went from 4.78 in 2018 to 5.63 in 2019. It’s evidence that the team was forced to put guys out there who weren’t just uncompetitive, but way beyond the pale.
Here’s how the offense profiled in 2019. The Orioles hit for a .246 average (12th in the AL), a .310 OBP (12th), and a .415 OPS (12th). They couldn’t score runs: 729 (12th best) and 213 dongs (12th best). But they were eighth-best in total hits—evidently, the singles came in bunches (thank you, Hanser Alberto).
Believe it or not, though, the Orioles were a worse-hitting team in 2018. A vestige of the homer-happy 2011-2016 era, they were middle-of-the-pack in homers (188 on the season—see the inflation there, by the way?), but finished last in average (.239), OBP (.298), runs (622) and second-to-last in OPS (.689). This was a feast-or-famine team.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred believes home runs gets fans into the stands, but the 2019 Orioles were marginally better small-ball practitioners, a skill that should help weather bad times ahead. As they start to plug holes in the lineup (read: find a CF and a SS who can hit) with better players, the ability to manufacture runs should improve.
The Orioles were pretty much identically bad at fielding in both seasons. They finished last or next-to-last, according to FanGraphs, in defensive runs saved, UZR, and defensive runs above average.
Not much more to say about this one. Trade away a Tim Beckham, sub in a DJ Stewart. Seems like institutional culture matters a little less on the field than simply having good-fielding players.
For the casual fan (or the non-fan), the Orioles have been just plain terrible the last two seasons. For the rest of us, there’s a little more interest below the surface. Fielding remains a huge weakness, the product of a recent lack of minor league depth. Driving runners in has not been a specialty, but a new small-ball philosophy has been put in place which could help smooth things out in the next few seasons. The bullpen regressed dramatically in 2019, and holes in the starting rotation still haven’t been adequately filled. Team ERA will be the key stat to watch next season. That will help clue fans in as to whether the Orioles are trending in the right direction in this rebuild, or still drifting.