A campaign which started with so much promise, faded away ever-so painfully, as the 2017 Orioles finished the regular season this evening with a 75-87 record – their first losing season since 2011 and a record better than just two of the 15 American League teams. They lost 19 of their last 23 games and quite frankly, gave up, being out-scored 137 to 64 and striking out 234 times.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago the Orioles started the season with four consecutive wins, before surging to an MLB-best 22-10 record in early May. A blown 6-2 lead in the 8th however, on 10 May against the Nationals, really seemed to knock the wind out of their sails and halt momentum. Since, the team limped through the remainder of the summer, only showing a brief glimpse of fight in late-August/early-September, at one stage winning 10 of 13 and being on the verge of a wildcard berth. The final month of the season, however, was atrocious – riddled with poor pitching, an anemic offense, and uncharacteristic lapses in the field. It was embarrassing.
Overall, the numbers don’t read horrendously bad – 743 runs scored (8th in American League), a .260 average (4th), and 232 home runs (5th). However on the flip-side, the team walked just 392 times (second last), struck out 1412 times (12th), stole just 32 bases (last), and hit just .227 in late/close situations (11th). Like seasons prior, the reliance on the long ball and inability to manufacture runs hurt the team countless times – often in clutch situations – and on many occasions, the team was presented with opportunities to win games, yet failed to convert when it mattered. Herein lays the problem and one of the two fundamental differences which sets this team apart from good teams (we’ll address the other difference soon…).
Individually, the team was well served by by a trio of young stars, most notably MVP Jonathan Schoop and rookie Trey Mancini. Schoop’s breakout season was especially impressive, hitting .293 with 32 home runs, 35 doubles, and knocking in 105 – the most ever by an Orioles second baseman. Had it not been for Aaron Judge’s superb season with the Yankees, Mancini would have been a strong candidate to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .293 also, with 24 home runs, 26 doubles, and 78 RBI. Star third baseman Manny Machado also put up solid numbers, albeit slightly down on previous seasons due to a rough start. By season’s end, a strong second half saw the 25-year-old owned a .259 average, with 33 home runs, 33 doubles, and 95 RBI next to his name.
Offseason addition Welington Castillo was also strong, hitting .282 with 20 home runs and 53 RBI. Sharing the catching duties with Caleb Joseph (.256 average, 8 home runs, 28 RBI), the duo comfortably covered the loss of Matt Wieters. Seth Smith, another offseason addition, rode a series of highs and lows, ultimately posting numbers not too dissimilar to his career mark – .258 average, with 13 home runs and 32 RBI. His .340 on base percentage was a team high.
Veteran and unofficial captain Adam Jones defied his doubters, having a strong season at the plate. His .285/.322/.460 slash exceeded his career marks and he added another 26 home runs and 73 RBI to an already impressive resume in Baltimore. Tim Beckham, acquired by the Orioles at the trade deadline, cooled off down the stretch however still contributed well, hitting .306 with 10 home runs, 13 doubles, and 26 RBI.
Of those who struggled, the list is extensive and full of veterans who were expected to produce so much more. Chris Davis struck out 193 times – many of which watching strike three cross the plate – and hit just .215. His home run tally of 26 was 32% down on last season’s mark. Shortstop J.J. Hardy battled through injury much of the season – his last in Baltimore – and hit just .217 in 73 games. His four home runs were the least of his 13-year major league career. Another veteran, Mark Trumbo, caused a stir with pies which enraged fans and also failed to deliver with the bat, hitting just .234 with 23 home runs – 51% less than his 2016 mark. The Orioles may look to trade him during the offseason with two years still to run on his contract. Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim, Ruben Tejada, Ryan Flaherty, and Craig Gentry were all lackluster bench players who saw infrequent game time and struggled to make an impact.
As rosters expanded, management got a look at a few young stars of the future, with Chance Sisco, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander each providing some spark at times in limited appearances. All three are likely to feature more significantly next season, as the Orioles look to refresh the roster for another title push.
Earlier I noted the first of two key differences between the 2017 Orioles and good teams, that being their inability to capitalize on opportunities in clutch situations. The second of those, is the pitching – the abysmal pitching which plagued the Orioles all season.
As a staff combined, they posted a 4.97 ERA (second last), of which the rotation won just 45 games and posted an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA. In total, the team gave up 841 runs in 162 games, a 17.6% increase on last season’s mark and the most allowed since the dark days of 2011. Opponents hit .280 off Orioles starting pitching, the highest average of all teams other than the Mets and Tigers. All other statistical indicators, both traditional and sabermetric, tell a similar tale.
Within the rotation, the struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez (6-11, 6.81 ERA) continued and there won’t be many fans in Baltimore not happy to see him go. Quite frankly, his four years in Baltimore were a disaster and Dan Duquette needs to be held accountable for such a poor signing. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe he’d have lasted the full four years in any other ballclub – so why did the Orioles continue to persist? Chris Tillman battled injury woes and a lack of conditioning all season, ultimately posting a career worst mark of 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA. It’s a widely held view, though, that he will return to the rotation in 2018, hopefully aided by an injury-free spring.
Wade Miley showed glimpses of what he could be early in the season, however was plagued by inconsistency thereafter and an inability to throw strikes. Far too often he fell behind in the count and was consequently mashed. His 8-15 record and 5.61 ERA are bad enough to suggest he too won’t be returning to Baltimore in 2018. Young arms Dylan Bundy (13-9, 4.24 ERA) and Kevin Gausman (11-12, 4.68 ERA) also showed glimpses of what they could be, winning 24 games between them, however like Miley, couldn’t produce the goods on a consistent basis. While Gausman’s season was a significant step back from his last, the Orioles will be encouraged by Bundy’s somewhat full season, which saw him make 28 starts and pitch just under 170 innings.
Jeremy Hellickson arrived in Baltimore mid-season at the expense of fan-favorite Hyun Soo Kim, and didn’t do much to improve his standing among fans. In 10 starts, the veteran went 2-6 and worked to a Jimenez-like 6.97 ERA. His issue was the long ball, in which he gave up 13 in just 51 2/3 innings of work. Others who made spot starts throughout the season with inconsistent results included Alec Asher, Gabriel Ynoa, Jayson Aquino, Miguel Castro, and Tyler Wilson.
In the bullpen, things were a little better, yet not without some concerns. Overall, the relievers posted a 3.93 ERA and won 12 games more than they lost (30-18). The quartet of Richard Bleier (2-1, 1.99 ERA), Brad Brach (4-5, 3.18 ERA, 18 saves), Mychal Givens (8-1, 2.75 ERA), and Zach Britton (2-1, 2.70 ERA, 15 saves) were mostly reliable, however each susceptible to the occasional implosion. Young arm Miguel Castro (3-3, 3.53 ERA) impressed early, especially in long relief roles, however struggled as fatigued set in down the stretch. Donnie Hart (2-0, 3.71 ERA), Darren O’Day (2-3, 3.43 ERA), and Jimmy Yacabonis (2-0, 4.35 ERA) were all reliable more often than not, however when things went bad, they struggled to contain the bleeding which caused their overall numbers to inflate significantly. Mike Wright (0-0, 5.76 ERA) should never wear an Orioles uniform again – and sadly, that’s not the first time I’ve written that.
Unexpected Fielding Woes
Between 2012 and 2016, the Orioles committed just 404 errors in the field – an average of just 80.8 per season which was by far the least of all 30 major league teams. In 2017 however, the fielding regressed significantly, with the team committing 94 errors, the 9th most in the American League. Errors aside, the team was too often hurt by mistakes stemming from miscommunication, with popped flys landing in-between infielders and outfielders on numerous occasions. Behind the dish, Castillo, Joseph, and Pena combined caught 34 of 111 base stealers (30.6%) which was good enough for fourth best in the League, albeit less overall than Wieters’ 34.8% last season.
Negatives aside, there were once again many webgems from Manny Machado in the hot corner, while Chris Davis was exceptional at first base, frequently preventing the error mark from rising with countless picks out of the dirt. While his batting woes may remain, his defensive efforts are deserving of a gold glove award.
What Awaits in Winter
The 2017-18 offseason is set to be the most interesting for some time, with a number of veterans departing, clearing the way for some fresh young talent and hopefully, an improved rotation.
Offensively, the team looks pretty stable heading into 2018 with Davis, Schoop, Beckham, and Machado occupying the infield as regulars. Jones and Mancini will fill two of the outfield spots, with the remainder being filled by a combination of possibly Hays, Rickard, Santander, and co. Trumbo – if not traded – would retain the DH role. On the catching front, the Orioles probably have some room to move and may offload Castillo despite his impressive returns this season. Sisco’s bat is clearly ready for the major leagues, although some doubts linger about his ability behind the dish. Joseph bounced back in 2017 after his struggles last season and he is well-liked by Showalter.
On the mound, at the very least the Orioles front office needs to go out and secure two new arms to solidify the rotation. Bundy and Gausman will fill two of the five roles, while Tillman is likely to fill a third. No longer can Duquette dive around dumpsters and bargain bins for veteran arms who get lit up in the homer-friendly AL East – if they’re going to give the pennant one last push before a mass exodus in free agency this time next year, they’ll need to spend some cash or make some trades.