The Orioles going on a 1-7 tear to start the month of August has reminded a certain class of baseball commentator of the team’s existence. It’s something like a carnival dunk tank. Step right up, take your best shot, and if you hit the bullseye you can imagine someone named Angelos getting dropped into unpleasantly cold water. Or so I imagine their motivation to be.
The latest to lob softballs at the dunk tank target is ESPN’s Buster Olney, who took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to decry the O’s performance during this season and the two most recent full seasons before it:
The Orioles on pace to lose 106 games this season--and in their previous two full seasons, they lost 115 and 108 games, in 2018 and 2019. This is unprecedented in AL history. When the players' union cites non-competitive behavior, the Orioles could be Exhibit A. It's just wrong.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) August 10, 2021
No one can disagree with the basic proposition that the Orioles are bad. The most recent way they have expressed this badness is becoming one of just ten teams in MLB history to give up nine or more runs in six straight games. One more such game will tie the record held by the 1901 New York Giants and 2000 Seattle Mariners. Few, if any, O’s fans would disagree with the notion that it’s not much fun to be an O’s fan right now. And yet, I read stuff like this Olney tweet and it really broils my crab cakes.
There are plenty of ways to criticize the current state of the Orioles without straining to come up with ways to call their failure unprecedented. Notice how Olney has to specify “AL history,” because of course this is not unprecedented at all. The O’s are following the Astros blueprint. That team, as you have probably heard, lost 107, 106, and 111 games each from 2011-2013 and ascended to a 2017 World Series title. That last 111-loss season even took place in the AL after the club switched leagues.
It is also hardly fair to hold the 115-loss Orioles of 2018 against Mike Elias and company. They weren’t here for it! It is why they are here in the first place. Dan Duquette did exactly what the Olneys of the world want and pushed a competitive window as far as it could go and then tried to push it farther still and the result at the end was a ruin from which the O’s have not yet escaped. This context is seldom mentioned as the usual suspects step up to the dunk tank.
Another strain from this crew is the way that you have to ignore the 60-game season, where the O’s were 25-35 (or a 68-94 pace over a full season) in order to criticize the supposedly unprecedented streak of bad baseball. A recent Fangraphs article similarly discounted 2020 in order to say that the Orioles are “on pace for their fifth straight basement finish” in the division - which isn’t even accurate because even taking out 2020, it’s “only” a fourth straight last place finish.
The 2020 season did happen and it’s part of the story, whether these guys like it or not. It’s a streak of losing seasons, for sure, but it’s not an unbroken streak of disastrous seasons. Well, unless you think it’s a disaster that the Orioles didn’t get the #1 pick in this year’s draft, with its attendant bonus pool money. That’s another matter entirely.
There is a large amount here of the same sort of phenomenon where the only person who can make fun of someone is their sibling. Anyone who regularly endures the Orioles can say that they suck and there is no further explanation needed. Outside people had better get it right or receive an indignant response that they can probably easily ignore. I mean, come on. The Orioles aren’t even the worst team in the league!
With all of that off of my chest, the basic truth does remain, separate from whatever beef Olney and people like him have with the state of the Orioles, that it’s not much fun to be an Orioles fan in 2021. This is true whether you take the long view of cumulative or just the short view of a bunch of very specific, very bad baseball games played this year.
The last time the Orioles had a winning full month of baseball was four years ago this month. They were 17-12 in August 2017, good enough at the time to fool you into thinking they might make a run for the second wild card spot. Then they closed out the season by going 7-21 and haven’t had a winning full month ever since. At the risk of pulling the dunk tank routine myself, a 2-1 record in March 2019 simply doesn’t reset the counter to zero. It is a long time to have not even seen one good calendar month.
Much more recently, you can point to any number of things going on with the 2021 Orioles roster to find something unpleasant. For myself, having been in the stadium for Friday night’s eighth inning bullpen meltdown, where Paul Fry faced three batters and retired none in an inning where the Rays ultimately took the lead with a five-run inning, that’s what is making me feel grumpy about the O’s right now. Being there again on Tuesday night, waiting out a nearly two hour rain delay only to watch Keegan Akin give up six runs in three innings, did not alleviate the grumpiness in any way.
If you attended on Saturday or Sunday, you saw different eighth inning disasters. The big culprits on Friday and Sunday were Fry and Dillon Tate. On Saturday, it was Cesar Valdez and Isaac Mattson. Maybe you were lucky and you only watched this on TV or listened on the radio, or had something else going on and only saw the final score later. The total for the series was the Rays scoring 16 runs against O’s relievers in that inning alone. It is just stupid.
It sucks to watch this stuff, even as a person who accepts that there must be some near-term misery while better things are being assembled below the MLB level. I feel like a sucker for having spent any money to attend any 2021 Orioles games, and the Orioles continuing to enforce new-this-year bans on most bags and outside food/drink doesn’t help with the feeling. It’s nice to go spend a night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in general. But it’ll be a lot nicer some day when the Orioles are good again.
The way that the 2021 season has played out, it’s not looking like next year is going to be the year things abruptly turn around. Or at least it feels that way when surveying the wave of prospects to appear for Norfolk or Baltimore. The Akin, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther tier of starting pitcher has not found any success anywhere this year. Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith looked pretty good at Bowie, but that hasn’t carried over immediately into their time at the Triple-A level.
Among position player prospects, Rylan Bannon and Yusniel Diaz have alternated between hurt and bad. Even earlier season standouts like Jahmai Jones and Tyler Nevin have really scuffled lately. Pretty much everyone was ready to see Jones in Baltimore a month ago, but he came into Tuesday having posted just a .636 OPS with the Tides in the previous 30 days.
Maybe the addition of Adley Rutschman to the Tides lineup will get people feeling better. His first night certainly went well. There has been a lot of good news beyond Rutschman on the Orioles farm this year even with what feels like a significant number of injuries.
Rutschman’s recent Bowie battery-mate Grayson Rodriguez has had incredibly dominant stretches. Late first round/second round picks of the Mike Elias tenure - Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers, Jordan Westburg - have done enough to build some of the excitement. The ongoing expanded investment in international talent is also exciting, even if it’s half a decade or more from bearing fruit to the big league club.
In the meantime, there’s this year’s Orioles. Nearly two-thirds of the time, they have lost. They frequently have lost while displaying the kind of fundamentally un-sound bumbling that you might have hoped that even a light-on-talent roster could have had coached out of them by now. No Orioles fan needs to be happy about it. Anyone who’s not an Orioles fan who feels the need to point out any of this, however: Trust me, we already know, so let us be. And if you absolutely must say something about the recent performance of the O’s franchise, at least try saying something right.