Last Updated: 2019-03-04
It has happened a few years too late, but the Baltimore Orioles are finally in the 21st century of Major League Baseball. Old-school manager Buck Showalter has been replaced and so has a large portion of the front office. In the meat grinder that is the American League East, the Orioles can’t even see their competition with a good pair of Bushnells.
That will change, but it will be a very long and arduous process. At least the team is on the right path now with the hiring of 35-year-old Mike Elias, the former assistant GM of the Houston Astros. The biggest offseason coup came in the form of Sig Mejdal, who left the Astros for a new challenge with Baltimore. Mejdal, who was an engineer for NASA before carving out a career in baseball, is one of the most respected executives in the sabermetric community.
The fact that “sabermetrics” is even a word in the Orioles’ vocabulary now is a huge step in the right direction. It won’t put pressure on the Red Sox, Yankees, or even Rays anytime soon, but the Orioles are going in a positive direction and should be moving the ball forward one yard at a time.
Cross-sport analogies aside, this will still be a bad team in 2019. Perhaps I should have given you a spoiler alert, but you had to know that, considering the Orioles share a division with three teams that won 90 games, including the World Series champion. Also, the Orioles lost 115 games in 2018. That was 11 more losses than any other team. The Orioles were 21-48 against teams with a losing record and 26-67 against teams .500 or better. Baltimore lost 82 games started by a right-handed pitcher, which is problematic when you face one about 70 percent of the time on average.
The saddest part is that it wasn’t even a great year for individual development. Collectively, Orioles batters were worth 2.7 wins above replacement player. The next-lowest total was 7.2 WAR, per the FanGraphs calculation. Baltimore wasn’t good offensively or defensively. While being that bad, Baltimore was the 10th-oldest team in baseball by average age among position players. These weren’t even young kids adjusting to the big leagues. These were veteran players that were just bad.
The Orioles pitching staff managed just 5.4 fWAR as a unit, but this was one of the youngest staffs in baseball. It was also the worst in baseball allowing 5.51 runs per game and 234 home runs.
There is literally nowhere to go but up for this franchise after that season. How far up is an altogether different question.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 47-115
Run Differential: -270
Pythagorean W/L: 55-107
BaseRuns Record: 56-106
BaseRuns Run Differential: -255 (3.99/5.56)
3rd Order Win% Record: 54.1-107.9
Record in One-Run Games: 12-29
Additions: Richie Martin, Alcides Escobar, Drew Jackson, Nate Karns, Carlos Perez, Rio Ruiz, Zach Vincej, Christopher Bostick, Greg Infante, Josh Lucas, Bo Schultz, Taylor Grover, Jesus Sucre, Hanser Alberto, Eric Young Jr., Josh Osich
Losses: Caleb Joseph, Tim Beckham, Adam Jones, Colby Rasmus
For a team ticketed to lose 100 games again this season, there weren’t a lot of reasons to be buyers. One thing I would like to see more of, especially in this depressed free agent market, is teams grab some veterans to one-year deals at low costs and then spin them for prospects at the Trade Deadline. The Orioles would have been a great fit for this.
Adam Jones is a big player on name recognition, but his loss isn’t all that significant. He’s been a below average hitter two of the last three years and his fielding has been atrocious the last two years. His walk rate also keeps dropping. The caveat here is that the Orioles don’t have many hitters capable of being anywhere near league average, so the replacement is a downgrade in that respect.
Of the additions, Richie Martin and Drew Jackson are most interesting. Martin, a Rule 5 Draft pick from the A’s, slashed .300/.368/.439 in 509 PA last season for Double-A Midland. He also swiped 25 bases.
Drew Jackson was also a Rule 5 pick, but from the Dodgers. Rule 5 picks need to stay on the roster for the duration of the season or they must be offered back to the previous team. The leap from Double-A is a big one, but Jackson did hit 15 HR and steal 22 bags in his 410 plate appearances.
If healthy, Nate Karns might very well be the second-best reliever on the roster behind Mychal Givens. He also may be the second-best starter on the team.
BA: .239 (24th)
OBP: .298 (29th)
SLG: .391 (25th)
wOBA: .299 (26th)
wRC+: 87 (26th)
BABIP: .286 (25th)
K%: 23.4% (23rd)
BB%: 7.0% (30th)
I’ve stared at the blinking cursor in MS Word for five minutes mumbling “I think I can, I think I can” about seriously making a case for this team to avoid losing 100 games. The Orioles really don’t have a whole lot to work with, but that’s also why the season win total for this group is 60.5 wins.
This is a transitional year in every sense of the word. The Orioles have demolished their front office and are looking to rebuild from the ground up. They’ve got a new manager in Brandon Hyde, who was the bench coach of the Chicago Cubs. The running theme of bench coaches from progressive organizations getting MLB managerial jobs is alive and well. Hyde was also in the Miami Marlins dugout for a little while and has worked on the player development side. All of those are positive traits.
On the positive side, as mentioned in the intro, the Orioles are making a transition to be a numbers-savvy organization and that really does help in the long-term. In the short term, it doesn’t really do much because the talent just isn’t here. There are some MLB guys with track records, but those track records are either littered with inconsistencies or aren’t going to produce much optimism.
Jonathan Villar was solid in his 54 games for Baltimore with a .258/.336/.392 slash and he was 21-of-24 stealing bases. That basically made him the MVP for the season. Renato Nunez was a league average hitter in 261 plate appearances for the Orioles and graded fairly well with the defensive metrics. Unfortunately, there may be some small sample size noise in there because Nunez did not grade well at all in the minors at third base.
Cedric Mullins didn’t look too overmatched and had a good minor league track record before posting a lackluster .235/.312/.359 slash line in his 191 plate appearances. The Orioles will also hope that Drew Jackson and Richie Martin to stick as Rule 5 Draft selections.
The ceiling for the offense will be determined by the few power guys that are on the roster. Chris Davis cannot possibly be as bad as he was last season. Per FanGraphs’s player valuations, Davis was worth NEGATIVE $24.9 million with a .239 wOBA and a 46 wRC+. There’s only one way to go! The same can be said for Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini, who both possess a little bit of pop. Mancini saw a 67-point drop in BABIP that wrecked his batting average and OBP. Trumbo spent most of the season hurt.
This group won’t get anybody all hot and bothered, but remember, we’re talking about a season win total. There’s a reason why this line still has the Orioles losing 100 games.
ERA: 5.19 (30th)
FIP: 4.98 (30th)
xFIP: 4.73 (29th)
K%: 19.0% (28th)
BB%: 9.3% (25th)
LOB%: 70.0% (27th)
Last year’s numbers kind of say it all. This is an Orioles pitching staff that isn’t much better. Brad Brach and Zach Britton weren’t great last season, but they were two of the better pitchers on the roster. Darren O’Day was also traded away. The bullpen has a solid closer in Mychal Givens, but even Givens is a little bit concerning. He posted a 5.0 percent HR/FB%, which seems unsustainably low, and his BB% jumped to 9.5 percent. Three years of heavy work may have taken a toll on the control and the command may come next.
Dylan Bundy still can’t figure this whole command thing out. Despite a career-best K% by a large margin, Bundy posted a 5.45 ERA with a 5.17 FIP. He allowed 41 home runs, including 21 of them in the second half with a .408 wOBA against in just 68.1 innings. A new voice and a focus on data could really help Bundy, but it usually takes a season for those adjustments to take hold.
Alex Cobb is actually the diamond in this thick rough. Cobb struggled through the first half of the season with a .310/.358/.541 slash against and a .378 wOBA against. In the second half, though, Cobb allowed just a .229/.288/.377 slash. If we want to take it a step further, we can use exit velocity metrics to see how Cobb’s numbers improved.
Cobb’s average exit velocity against in the first half was 89.3 mph. In the second half, it was 86.5 mph. If we look specifically at the splitter, which is how Cobb’s changeup is classified per PITCHf/x, his average exit velocity against was 83.4 mph in the second half. Conversely, it was 86.1 mph against in the first half.
Cobb’s curveball was glorified batting practice in the first half with an average exit velocity against of 93.5 mph. In the second half, Cobb did throw it less, but the average exit velo dropped to 88.5 mph.
I’m buying Alex Cobb going into 2019. This is a rough and tumble division for a guy without overpowering stuff, but contact management has always been the name of the game for him and he found something after the All-Star Break. Suffice it to say that a numbers-driven front office will see what I’m seeing and will work with him. It’s not like Cobb wasn’t exposed to the numbers in Tampa. Again, this isn’t to say that Cobb will be a Cy Young candidate or anything like that, but in order for the Orioles to get over their season win total, they need to improve by 14 games and all of these little improvements need to add up.
The reason I spend so much time on Cobb is because the rest of the rotation hopefuls project to have ERA and FIP marks above 5.00. It’s hard to see a whole lot to be positive about. The same can be said of the bullpen.
Positives & Negatives
This division is a massive negative. The Red Sox and Yankees were in triple-digits in the W column and the Rays won 90 games. The Blue Jays aren’t very good, but the Blue Jays also won 14 of their 73 games against the Orioles. Toronto will hit bad pitching and that is what Baltimore has. The Orioles were 23-53 against the AL East last season.
Manager Brandon Hyde and executives Sig Mejdal and Mike Elias have quite a task in front of them. This is a season fully predicated on evaluating the in-house talent. That means keeping the Rule 5 draft picks around. That means experimenting in high-leverage. That means moving tradable players for minor league assets. That means that the way this roster looks on Opening Day could be very different as the season goes along. As a team with a weak minor league system, that isn’t a good thing.
Pick: Under 60.5
It is extremely hard to predict that a team will lose over 100 games. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, as three teams lost 100 or more games last season, but no teams did in 2017. One team did in 2016. No teams did in 2015 or 2014. Two teams did in 2013. That’s an average of one team per season over the last six years.
As a result, this is far from a strong pick, but if any AL team is going to lose 100+ this season, it is the Orioles. They’re locked in a division with three teams very capable of winning 90+ games and a Toronto team that should land somewhere in the mid-70s. Even against fellow losing teams, the Orioles were 21-48 last season.
I’d have a small lean towards the under here, but there are going to be much stronger plays throughout these season previews. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really dabble much in the teams expected to be really good or really bad. I’d rather bet on the higher variance teams in the middle of the pack.
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