After Tuesday’s 10-3 win over the Mets, the Orioles are 60 games into the 2021 season. This is not a particularly meaningful number of games except that it’s how many games were played in the shortened 2020 season. That gives an opportunity to compare what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong going from last season to this one. More has gone wrong than has gone right, but at least it’s not all bad, both for the present and future of the Orioles.
The obvious place to look to see where things have gone wrong is in the team’s record. The 2020 Orioles made their way to a 25-35 finish in that strange season, and actually avoided placing at the bottom of the AL East. The 2021 Orioles are not doing so well, currently sporting a record of 22-38. They are 16 games out of first place and nine games behind even the fourth place team.
The recent 5-23 record in May, with its 14-game losing streak, has helped these two records feel far apart from one another. It’s a small difference over 60 games, but the difference in wins over a 162 game pace between these two records is nine. A 68-win season would feel a lot different than a 59-win season. These Orioles are currently on the 59-103 pace.
The 2021 Orioles pitching staff has felt like a mess with every starting pitcher not named John Means pitching poorly overall. In the bullpen, there are five relievers posting significantly worse results than in 2020.
In terms of the actual runs allowed, the two teams are similar. The 2020 Orioles allowed 294 runs, while the 2021 O’s have allowed 296 in as many games. This is across an almost identical number of innings: 518.2 IP last year, 518 IP this year. However, the league-wide offense is worse this year. AL batters had a .733 OPS in 2020, with a .714 OPS so far in 2021. So a team giving up about the same number of runs as last year is doing worse relative to the league.
The 2021 team is part of this decline. Even after Sunday’s explosion of runs against Cleveland and Monday’s blowout against the Mets, the O’s have scored 24 runs fewer than they did last season. No surprise that their output has dropped when their hitting overall has declined. The 2020 Orioles batted .258/.321/.429 as a team. That was a top 3 batting average in the AL and the .750 OPS was better than average.
The 2021 Orioles are hitting .243/.308/.406 combined. The batting average is now middle of the pack, and the OPS of .714 is now just about average. Maybe this will keep increasing if the team stays hot into the summer months, but it’s more likely that the team scoring eight runs per game in June so far is a hot streak rather than an improvement in its true talent level.
Some of the worst culprits have been banished from the team. Rio Ruiz dropped from a .713 OPS in 54 games last year to .550 in 2021; he’s now hitting .139 for Colorado’s Triple-A team. Chance Sisco used a high walk rate to post an above-average .741 OPS in 2020. His 2021 OPS of .431 got him sent to the minors. Shawn Armstrong’s journey from a 1.80 ERA last year to an 8.55 ERA this year reached its terminus at the great DFA in the sky.
Many strugglers remain. Among the relief trio of Adam Plutko, Dillon Tate, and Travis Lakins, the best ERA is 4.60. These pitchers have thrown about 13% of innings pitched by the Orioles in 2021 and have accounted for ten losses between them, or about 26% of the team’s losses. It’s bad! So is César Valdez, whose “dead fish” changeup was a fun story when he had a 1.26 ERA last year, and is less fun when the dead fish is just rotten in 2021 with a 5.16 ERA to date.
If any of these guys were being counted on to be a crucial part of the next good Orioles team, or even if they were being imagined as trade bait, that would feel a lot worse. This bullpen situation is bad mostly in a way that has no impact on the Orioles future. Sure, if you were thinking Tanner Scott might be good enough to sucker someone in to giving up prospects, you might be disappointed by his 1.543 WHIP and 7.3 BB/9. But that’s about it.
It’s not quite the same story in the starting rotation. Yes, Matt Harvey’s 6.62 ERA is irrelevant to the rebuild. So is Jorge López’s 5.30 ERA, unless you really want to get worked up about his 3.68 ERA in his last four starts. What’s a bummer is the fact that Dean Kremer was bad and got banished to the minors. We’ll see how Keegan Akin does in his place. Zac Lowther’s Norfolk and Baltimore games to date have not made him look deserving of a rotation spot. If none of the second-tier or third-tier prospect holdovers from Dan Duquette can stick in the rotation, that’s more holes that need to be filled by Mike Elias guys.
The news is not all bad! As glum as that 14-game losing streak was, there are still some bright spots in the present that could also positively impact the future. Cedric Mullins, now more than two regular season months into his “give up switch-hitting” experiment, remains a phenomenal success story. He’s probably not so good to keep hitting .325/.394/.541, but when you’ve got a .935 OPS and are playing highlight reel defense in center field, there’s a lot of room to fade a bit and still be a good player for an eventual good team.
The jury is still out on whether Trey Mancini will have a role to play on the next good Orioles team, mostly because he could become a free agent before it arrives. Still, his return season after missing last year due to cancer treatments is great on a human level and for Orioles fans. I shudder to imagine what the team would look like without Mancini posting an .830 OPS and leading the team with 45 RBI.
As you have probably heard, John Means threw a no-hitter this year and has been all-around excellent, with a 0.831 WHIP and 2.28 ERA to date. This does still require some holding your breath, both since Means is now on the injured list with a shoulder issue - even if the team says it will be brief - and because his FIP of 4.18 suggests he is due for some regression. Means scuffled with a 4.53 ERA last year. It’s great to see him looking more like 2019 than 2020.
Injury question marks are also still lingering for Austin Hays, who’d added 52 points to his OPS before landing on the injured list, and for Anthony Santander. The former Rule 5 pick has a .942 OPS since returning from the injured list on May 21. These guys need to prove they can have good, healthy, full seasons. At least they’ve been good overall, though Santander’s dipped from 11 home runs in 37 games last year to four in 33 games this year.
A year ago, 60 games meant that the Orioles had played 100% of their season. In a regular 162 game schedule, they’ve only played 37% of their games. There is a lot of time left for the strugglers to improve and for the standouts to fall back down from the clouds. Hopefully by season’s end there are more good stories than glum ones.
Will the Orioles finish the 2021 season at or better than their current 59-win pace?
This poll is closed
No (O’s win 58 or fewer)
Yes (O’s win 59 or more)