The 2019 Baltimore Orioles are not very good at baseball. This should be no shock to anyone who has watched the Orioles play baseball during the last two seasons. Finally starting into a long-overdue rebuilding phase, this is a state of affairs that will likely last for several years. If you’re going to be terrible at something, however, I’m an advocate of being the best at being terrible at that thing. The 1962 Mets, with the most losses in modern major-league history, were lousy enough to become beloved in a way the 2003 Tigers or 1935 Braves weren’t. And there’s one lousy thing the 2019 Orioles are great at: allowing home runs.
Now, every team allows home runs these days, so standing out from the pack is even harder than it usually is. The Orioles have allowed 75 home runs in just 35 games, a frightening pace; it’s always a Home Run Derby when the orange-and-black are in town. Notice I said pace, Giants fans; your staff isn’t exactly amazing at keeping the ball in the park.
The team record for most home runs in a season is 258, allowed by the 2016 Cincinnati Reds. Similar to the Orioles, that Reds squad was another team with a pitching staff of castoffs. The Orioles are on pace to beat this all-time record. And not like a top athlete shaving a tenth of a second off the world’s fastest 100m time might. On pace to best the record by 89 homers, a 34% home run bonus over the previous record, the Orioles are more like a runner trying to run a four-minute mile and oops! accidentally running a three-minute mile instead. (Surprisingly, the home run record had been quite stable, previously being set in 1996 (Tigers, 241), 1987 (Orioles, 226), and 1964 (Athletics, 220).)
This isn’t like when we all joke about how a player who hits two home runs on Opening Day is on pace to swat 324 by September’s end. The season’s almost a quarter of the way over and unlike most records, the Orioles are on such a vigorous pace that the more interesting feat at this point isn’t setting the record; it’s falling short.
Even if the Orioles suddenly became league-average at allowing home runs, once you take into account the boost from Camden Yards (8% in four-year weighted park multipliers), they have enough homers baked in the cake to end up with 253 home runs allowed, just five off the record. In other words, the only way the Orioles can avoid this fate is to have a league-average pitching staff for the rest of the year, at least in terms of preventing round-trippers.
I probably can’t get away with refusing to make a more specific projection, being that I’m a guy with access to a projection system and all. I don’t want to be Mitch Hedberg’s stubborn McDonald’s owner after all.
Going player-by-player based on in-season projections, ZiPS forecasts the Orioles to finish the season with 277 home runs allowed. This is a bit higher than expected compared to the preseason projections, thanks to ZiPS guessing wrong on which way the home run rate league-wide would go this season.
In all, ZiPS gives the Orioles a 76% chance at setting the all-time team record for home runs allowed in a single season, with a 15% chance at eclipsing the 300 home run mark.
Without using advanced data in-season, ZiPS might actually be underrating how many homers the O’s are expected to allow. Why? Because without the advance data, ZiPS assumes that there’s at least some fortune involved in extreme statistics; it’s hard to hit 60 home runs or bat .400 without a little bit of good luck. The season-to-season ZiPS models estimates home runs allowed for pitchers using a combination of advanced FanGraphs data — it’s available for a much longer period than StatCast — and a pitcher’s history relative to those expected numbers, so that ZiPS slowly buys into under- and over-achievers. ZiPS thinks the Orioles have been slightly unlucky, allowing 75 home runs when they only “should have” allowed 68. A little bit of simple arithmetic still puts that at 315 homers over a full year, an improvement on their actual 347-homer pace.
In this case, there’s no respite from a roster standpoint. Using the minor-league projections, there’s no mix of minor leaguers who figure to have any real effect on the team’s overall pitching statistics. There isn’t a MacKenzie Gore or Forrest Whitley-type of prospect blowing through the minors; the team’s prospects are a bit closer to Forest Whitaker.
If you head to Camden Yards this summer, you may not be likely to see the Orioles win, but at least you have a good chance at a souvenir baseball.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.