Very soon — maybe right at this moment! — everyone’s going to be ready to turn the page. Maybe many of you are already there. The 2018 baseball season is over for every team, and for the overwhelming majority of teams, it’s been over for quite a while. What’s the sense of reflecting, when we’re supposed to move ever forward? I get it, I agree, and I’ll get there soon, myself. But, look: I’ve been spending the past month thinking exclusively about good baseball teams. Competitive baseball teams, playoff baseball teams. I wanted to take the chance to write one thing about the worst baseball team that we saw. I had a note here on a piece of paper to address the 2018 Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles’ final record was the kind of bad that everyone remembers. In the same way it’ll take you eons to forget that the 2003 Tigers finished 43-119, it’ll take you just as long to forget that the 2018 Orioles finished 47-115. The numbers are immortalized in that iconic playoff photo of Andrew Benintendi. The Orioles won 47 games; the Orioles finished 14 more games than that out of first place. Their best month, by record, was July, in which they went 9-16. They didn’t reach ten wins in a single calendar month, and they wound up 11 wins behind the next-worst baseball team in either league. The Orioles had the 15th-worst winning percentage since 1900, and the fourth-worst winning percentage since the end of World War 2.
You know it, I know it, and there’s no sense beating around the bush. The Orioles were a total catastrophe. Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are both out of a job. But here’s the other thing about these Orioles: They weren’t supposed to be bad. They weren’t supposed to be great, but they didn’t blow things up. Things blew up on their own.
The 2017 Orioles won 75 games. They didn’t proceed to have a blockbuster offseason, but they brought in Colby Rasmus, and they brought back Chris Tillman. They signed Andrew Cashner. And, most notably, around the end of spring training, they signed Alex Cobb. In doing so, they violated their own soft organizational policy of not going beyond three years for a pitcher. Cobb was given a four-year guarantee, and terrible baseball teams generally don’t make those moves. The idea was to hope for a shot at the wild card. The Orioles had overachieved before, after all.
I want to share a few excerpts from around the time of the Cobb signing. I don’t do this to poke fun at anyone. I just want to use these as a reference — these indicate how people felt about the team back in March. From MLB.com:
“Alex Cobb, as we know, is a really good competitor, and he has an excellent track record, a proven track record against the American League East, which of course is the first order of business for the O’s. He’s got the presence to your pitching staff where he competes night in and night out and is a proven veteran starter. He gives us a little more leadership, a little more presence, and makes us all around a more competitive team.”
This is from the same article:
“It shows that obviously there’s still a commitment to winning,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said of the team’s spring moves. “I like the scenario. I like the fact that they risked four years. They went up to four years. That means that, ‘OK, cool. This is a step.’ This is not a one-year, two-year deal to just hold you over until someone’s ready. This is a four-year deal saying that you can possibly be one of the anchors of the staff. That right there is a sign. It’s a very good sign for the future for the other players.”
Meanwhile, here’s the headline from an article in the Washington Post:
No tanking here: By signing Alex Cobb, Orioles make one last push to contend in the Machado era
And from the body:
In the age of tanking, with as many as 10 teams taking the rebuilding route, the Orioles — who, by virtue of playing in the top-heavy AL East and coming off a last-place finish, actually have more incentive than most to undertake a tank-job — should be applauded for still trying.
The idea of someone winning just 47 games wouldn’t have sounded so absurd back then, but had you taken a poll, people would’ve pointed to one of the tankers. The Marlins, for example, or maybe the White Sox. But especially the Marlins. The Orioles wouldn’t have gotten so much consideration. In our own FanGraphs preseason team projections, we pegged the Orioles at just about 76 wins. The Orioles didn’t end up with 76 wins.
So let’s get into it. We know how teams did. We know how teams were projected to do. Here are this year’s ten biggest underachievers, in terms of wins:
The Orioles underachieved by more wins than the next two biggest underachievers combined. And some of you might know where I’m going with this. I still have my spreadsheet of preseason team projections that stretches back to 2005. The methods and projections have changed over time, as systems have grown more complicated, but the general ideas are all consistent. So let’s examine 14 years of team performance, against 14 years of *projected* team performance. Here are the ten biggest underachievers since 2005:
Take that, 2017 Giants. That team underachieved, and it underachieved badly, but it didn’t underachieve like the 2018 Orioles, who now look to be the greatest underachiever I have on record. Maybe the Giants could blame Madison Bumgarner’s weird injury for sending the season off the rails. I don’t know what the Orioles would blame, but for themselves. Of course a team that’s out of the race is likely to make itself worse by making midseason trades, and the Orioles sent their best player to the Dodgers in the middle of July. But with Manny Machado, the Orioles had a winning percentage of .289. Without him, they had a winning percentage of .292. The Orioles were dreadful before the Machado trade ever happened. There were other trades they made, as well, but there’s no taking the edge off this calamity.
Here’s something that’s at least equally incredible. Going position by position, I compared how the Orioles actually did to how they were projected to do in our preseason positional power rankings. This is based on WAR, for simplicity, and I’ve highlighted in yellow the areas where the Orioles did worse than they were projected to do.
|Position||Projected WAR||WAR||Difference||Projected Rank||Rank||Difference|
Everywhere. Everywhere! Literally everywhere. The Orioles were worse than the projections at every single position, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. The face of the Orioles’ season might be Chris Davis, who genuinely had one of the worst player-seasons in baseball history. You see right up there that, at first base, the Orioles were worse than expected by four and a half wins. But Davis didn’t ruin all this alone. Top to bottom, it was almost a complete team effort. Not everybody was bad, and even among those who were, not everybody was equally bad, but it took a lot for the Orioles to end up where they did.
On the team level, the Orioles finished 26th in baseball in wRC+. They finished 28th in Defensive Runs Saved, and they finished 30th in Ultimate Zone Rating. They finished 29th in park-adjusted FIP. And, just for good measure — somehow, someway, the Orioles finished 27th in team Clutch.
…which meant that the whole was even less than the sum of its parts. The Orioles won 47 games, but their Pythagorean win total was 54. Their BaseRuns win total was 56. The Orioles were very bad and unlucky, and the result was failure to an historic degree. Historic failure by a team that believed it had an outside shot. The biggest overachiever I have on record? The 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who won 93 games after being projected before the year to win 70. You can always believe that you’re special, before the fact.
I’m not trying to rub anything in. I have nothing against the Orioles, and the organization — what remains of the organization — is fully aware of what just happened. There’s no hiding, there’s no running away, and you could argue that, long-term, it’s a good thing that this happened when it did. Had the Orioles treaded water, they might’ve come to understand they’re in a difference place from where they truly are. It seems like they might’ve been jolted into turning in the right direction. But, there’s work to do. There is so much work to do. When a team ends up 47-115, there’s no taking it lightly. Especially when it was supposed to be fine.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.