It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Orioles. After a second trip to the postseason in three years, one in which they got about one-sixth of a season from Matt Wieters and half a season from Manny Machado, making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-1997 was the clear goal. It hasn’t happened that way. The team recently dropped six straight, and has dropped eight of their last 10, to give themselves a firm uphill climb toward a wild-card berth.
Perhaps what is most frustrating for the Orioles is that they have significantly outscored all four teams standing with them or in their way of the second wild-card slot:
|Team||W||L||Run Diff||BR Run Diff||WC Playoff Odds|
When you expand from actual run differential to BaseRuns run differential, you can see that the Rays have a legit case to be positioned ahead of Baltimore, but overall that has to be a pretty frustrating table for the Orioles and their fans.
In order to get to this point, several frustrating things have happened throughout the season, as well. We can start with Wieters. While Wieters was once thought to be a franchise cornerstone — he was drafted fifth overall in 2007, and was in the majors by 2009 — it’s an open question as to whether he is even worth re-signing in free agency this winter. Though his recovery time from Tommy John surgery was roughly normal for a catcher, he hasn’t hit well at all since returning in early June.
He has only tallied extra-base hits in back-to-back appearances three times, and back-to-back Orioles’ games just once — July 31st and August 1st. His strikeout rate has gone through the roof — he is swinging out of the zone more often and in the zone less often, and missing way more no matter the pitch’s location. His swinging strike percentage has risen from 7.7% before his surgery to 12.2% this season. And while sometimes hitters trade strikeouts for power, Wieters’ power has fallen through the floor — his .149 ISO is the third-lowest of his career, and a 32-43 point drop from his previous four seasons. If it weren’t for a .344 BABIP propping up his batting average, he’d look like a complete zero offensively. Oh, and he sucks at pitch framing.
In one sense, he has proved a much better draft pick than the team would have gotten otherwise. While the team could pine over Madison Bumgarner (taken 10th) or Jason Heyward (14th), the four players taken directly after Wieters — Ross Detwiler, Matt LaPorta, Casey Weathers and Jarrod Parker — have only combined for 6.7 WAR. Weathers still hasn’t reached the majors. In comparison, Wieters’ career 15.5 WAR doesn’t seem that bad. But he was supposed to be so much better that it doesn’t quite feel that way.
The same feeling extends to much of the team’s outfield, but particularly Steve Pearce and Travis Snider. Pearce posting a 103 wRC+ against lefties and Snider a 84 wRC+ against righties isn’t that bad. But after a 2014 in Pearce posted a 209 wRC+ against lefties and Snider had a 110 wRC+ against righties, 2015 has been a let down. Pearce took a long time to get going this season, and once he was finally rounding into form he hurt his oblique and missed a month.
They haven’t been the only underwhelming outfielders, of course. Alejandro De Aza hit himself out of the lineup, as he posted a 69 wRC+ in the first two months before being dumped. His resurgence with the Red Sox was salt in the wound. Delmon Young not being able to follow up his career year wasn’t much of a surprise, but with the rest of the outfield not named Adam Jones collapsing, his drop back to earth stung a little more.
Finally, there is David Lough. A nice little player, David Lough was. He was a defensive stud who hit well enough to be worth a couple of wins per year. He was good on Kansas City, but KC — where they are turning the farming of good defensive outfielders into a cottage industry — didn’t need him, and he was worth the same two WAR in more limited time last year in Baltimore. This year, though, his hitting has fell off the table, and amazingly, so did his defense. The O’s finally outrighted him, but the damage had been done. Of the 401 players to tally at least 100 plate appearances this season, only 31 have been less valuable than Lough.
That we’re this deep into the post and haven’t discussed J.J. Hardy is telling. He hasn’t been the team’s biggest problem, but he has also been a far cry from the solid three- to four-win player he has been for much of the past decade. His performance against fastballs, sinkers, sliders and changeups have fallen through the floor. He is hitting ground balls at a rate that dwarfs his previous career-high GB/FB rate, and he is hitting the ball hard far less frequently than he ever has. In addition, his K/BB continues to move in the wrong direction. In other words, his 52 wRC+ looks very much well-earned. Yes, his BABIP is low, but it is basically at the same level as it was in 2013, when he posted a 100 wRC+.
It hasn’t just been the hitters, of course. Ubaldo Jimenez has been the team’s best pitcher by FIP-WAR, and he’s come crashing back to earth after coming down with a bad case of homer-itis in the second half (nine homers in 42.1 innings in the second half after just eight allowed in 99.1 IP in the first half). Some regression from him was inevitable, but aside from Wei-Yin Chen, no one has stepped up to help. Well, Chris Tillman did in July, but his success was fleeting.
Of course, when it comes to the starting rotation, it hasn’t just been the players who have underperformed, but also the team’s management. Kevin Gausman may not be the next Mike Mussina or Jim Palmer, but looking back it is pretty odd that Miguel Gonzalez, Mike Wright and Bud Norris were all given multiple opportunities in the rotation before Gausman finally got his shot on June 20th. The latter trio has put up a 5.33 ERA, 5.18 FIP and 1.59 HR/9 across 221 innings pitched this season. That’s not only failed to get the job done, but makes Gausman look positively Cuellar-ian by comparison. Gonzalez, in particular, has been a favorite of the coaching staff, but his success has always been smoke and mirrors, and this season the magic act has abruptly ended.
The final month of the season could be just as frustrating as the first five have. The O’s have three more road games left than home games, and most of their remaining games are against teams still in the fight:
- Tampa: 7
- Toronto: 7
- Yankees: 6
- Boston: 6
- Kansas City: 3
- Texas: 3
- Washington: 3
One the one hand, this gives Baltimore a sort of opportunity — 10 games against the four teams they’re chasing for the second wild card. Unfortunately, the Orioles are chasing those clubs because, in most cases, they’ve been better than the Orioles. Indeed, Baltimore opponents possess a .522 rest-of-season winning percentage (weighted by the how often Baltimore faces them).
Not all things have been a disaster for the Orioles this year. Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Zach Britton are still awesome. Chris Davis has rebounded from his worrisome 2014 campaign, and Gausman and Jonathan Schoop now look like part of the solution. But overall, things simply haven’t clicked the way they did in 2012 and 2014, and if the O’s miss out on the 2015 postseason, it is going to be a soul-searching offseason for Dan Duquette and Co., because their plan forward is more “choose your own adventure” than it is “here is our clear road map to success.”