One of the many little signs that baseball is on its way back is when the various projection systems start spitting out their predictions for the coming season. Several years ago, this was a fun annual ritual in Birdland. What was fun about it is that the O’s exceeded their projections in the venerable PECOTA system by 15+ wins in three out of five seasons, so the release of the new projections was an occasion to ask, “How will they end up being wrong this year?”
When the magic fled, it fled in a hurry, and in the final year of Dan Duquette’s tenure, as Duquette clung to the idea that the team could compete, PECOTA projected 69 wins. Those Orioles won 47 games. The first year of Mike Elias’s time at the helm brought a 57 win projection; the Orioles won 54. Last year, as we all know, everything went crazy, but with a hoped-for full season coming up in 2021, PECOTA is back to make its guesses, and it sees the Orioles as a 66-win team.
It says a lot about the last few years that what would otherwise be a dismal projection feels kind of exciting. Maybe it will even be enough to stop a certain segment of the baseball pundit world from having the Orioles as their go-to joke team. I shouldn’t get my hopes up for that; even starting the 2020 season 12-8 did not adjust some people’s calibrations for these jokes last season.
The O’s are not the team projected for the worst record. They will not enter the season seeming like shoo-ins for the #1 pick in the 2022 draft. They sit six wins ahead of the Rockies, who are in dire straits post-Arenado, and five wins ahead of the Pirates, the worst 2020 team that’s only been made worse by trades. The Tigers (also 66 wins), Rangers (67), and Marlins (68), will also be competing for the cellar, according to this projection.
The Orioles emerging from the 100+ loss club would be fun to see after the last two 162 game seasons saw them lose 115 and 108. Although the Orioles had a much better winning percentage in last year’s shortened season, I think that if the season had gone on for longer, we were going to see more stretches like their 5-14 finish than their 12-8 start. That was a 100+ loss team in spirit. They had been projected by PECOTA for 99 losses this time last year, and by mid-September, that’s how they played.
Heading into 2021, the best hitter from that 25-35 squad is gone. That was Jose Iglesias, weird as it is that he was the best hitter. The team has also moved on from Renato Nuñez, who led the way with 12 home runs, and good-average-but-not-much-else infielder Hanser Alberto. Their replacements are known light hitters: Freddy Galvis and Yolmer Sánchez
The hitters who were above-average in 2020 who remain on the Orioles don’t have the kind of track record to make a projection system believe they will duplicate that performance. That’s Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Pat Valaika, and DJ Stewart. Even if you’re an optimist and feel good about a couple of those guys, plus the return of Trey Mancini, there’s still more “probably won’t hit” than “hit” in the regular lineup.
The system predicts the Orioles to score 692 runs, third-fewest in MLB. Add that to a pitching projection that sees the team giving up 829 runs, sixth-worst in MLB, and that’s how you get a 66-96 record.
Five years ago, thinking about the Orioles having that record would have been depressing. Enough has happened since then that it feels hopeful. Assuming that it’s some future value players who are able to help the Orioles ascend out of 100+ loss territory, especially if these are midseason call-ups whose MLB service time clocks have not even started yet, there is the potential for a fun outcome to the season.
Not surprisingly, the Yankees are the runaway favorites for the AL East in this projection, with a projected 97 wins and an 81.1% chance of winning the division. Second place Tampa Bay clocks in with 86 wins, with the Blue Jays at 85. The Red Sox, after being passed by the Orioles for fourth place in 2020, are back above the O’s with an 80 win projection.
Over in the league whose fans pretend that pitchers batting is a good thing, the Dodgers are lapping the competition. They’re projected to win 103 games. That is a lot of wins, and still fewer wins than the Dodgers got in both 2017 and 2019. It must be nice to be a fan of the defending champions and see your team projected for 100+ wins for the third time in four full seasons.
I have no expectation of ever experiencing this feeling about the Orioles. At this moment, even 81 wins feels like some mirage teasing us on the distant horizon. But maybe now that the PECOTA projections have stopped seeing the Orioles as the worst team in the league, the real Orioles can do something in 2021 to make fans feel like those better times are on the way soon.