The 2016 Baltimore Orioles were again a playoff team that really didn’t look like one on paper. It was the third straight even year that the O’s made the playoffs and remember how much scrutiny that 2012 team received for its sub-par run differential? This time around it wasn’t quite as exaggerated, but lots of measures said the Orioles had no business winning 89 games.
First up, their plus-29 run differential shows a Pythagorean win-loss record of 84-78. They ranked seventh in the AL in runs scored, ninth in batting average and ninth in on-base percentage. The pitching staff ranked 10th in the AL in ERA and strikeouts.
All of that shows a pretty mediocre team, yet the Orioles won 89 games and were awfully close to getting a shot at the Rangers in the ALDS.
How did they do it?
Well, with the bats, they would have made Earl Weaver pretty proud. They led the majors with 253 home runs. Three players had at least 35, six had at least 22 and seven had at least 17. Power can cover up an awful lot of deficiences and that’s what it did for the Orioles’ offense. Screw well-roundedness if you can just out-homer the other team on a regular basis.
Finally, they have Buck Showalter. Few managers in baseball perform the sort of regular-season wizardry as Buck. Starting with the 2012 turnaround, the Orioles have averaged 89 wins per season under Showalter in the last five years.
Will that continue? Let’s take a look.
Adam Jones has averaged 29 homers per season since 2011. Manny Machado’s been 35-plus each of the last two years. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo could make a run at 50 this year. Jonathan Schoop hit 25 home runs last year at age 24. New catcher Welington Castillo has hit 46 home runs in 1,138 at-bats in the last three seasons combined, which comes to an average of 23 homers per every 162 games. Newcomer Seth Smith routinely lands in the mid-teens in homers despite being a platoon player. Though his power has dwindled the past three seasons, J.J. Hardy has five seasons in his career with at least 22 home runs and a career high of 30.
Needless to say, there’s a colossal amount of power here. Just off the charts. Expect the Orioles to be among the league leaders in home runs and slugging percentage.
Now, the question is, can they get on base enough to produce more of those Earl Weaver “three-run home runs?” It will be an issue for sure. Among the regulars, only Hyun soo Kim, Machado and Davis figure to be well above average. Smith does help, though, as he’s drawn a walk in over 10 percent of his plate appearances four of the last five seasons and had a .342 OBP last year. He’s a very good fit in this lineup that desperately needs more patience to go with its supreme power.
The Orioles had a .317 OBP last season. If they can somehow get that up around .325 -- which would’ve been sixth in the AL last year -- their runs scored will skyrocket with this kind of power.
Orioles starters last season posted a collective 4.72 ERA. The only AL teams with a worse mark were the A’s and Twins. Through that lens, it’s pretty astounding that the Orioles made the playoffs. It should also be pointed out that drastic improvement is needed, otherwise there’s the threat of a team-wide backslide.
Kevin Gausman has the type of talent there for a breakout season. I believe he wore down in his last three starts in 2016. Prior to that, he had posted a 2.05 ERA in nine starts with 62 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. Everything really felt like it was coming together for him. At age 26, it’s time to become that frontline starter the Orioles drafted with the fourth overall pick out of LSU in 2012.
Perhaps Dylan Bundy can join him. Once he joined the rotation last year, he was 8-5 with a 4.52 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings. He allowed too many home runs (15) and walks (30) in that stretch, but there were lots of good signs. He has an outstanding curve and has started to get back to his cutter -- which he initially abandoned after having Tommy John surgery. If that comes around, we’ve got a breakout season.
Chris Tillman has been cleared after going through some health issues earlier this spring, so he gives the Orioles what should be three decent-to-good starters.
But that’s where it stops.
Ubaldo Jimenez shouldn’t ever be in anyone’s rotation again, let alone a contender. Wade Miley hasn’t been serviceable since 2013 and he had a 6.17 ERA in 11 starts for the Orioles last year. Tyler Wilson had a 5.27 ERA in 94 innings last year. Mike Wright had a 5.79 ERA in 74 2/3 innings.
Perhaps 24-year-old Chris Lee will emerge. He’s had a good spring. He’s also never pitched above Double-A, where he was 5-0 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 51 1/3 innings last year.
The fact remains that the Orioles need their top three starters to be the best versions of themselves while at least one -- and hopefully two -- pitchers emerges as not terrible behind those three in order to win the AL East. And you know after last year the Orioles want to avoid the wild card.
The Orioles’ relievers had a 3.40 ERA last season, which was the third-best in the majors and first in the AL. That was with Darren O’Day being held to 31 innings due to injury, too. With Britton, O’Day, Brach and Mychal Givens, they have one of the best back-ends in the majors. That won’t change and Showalter is so good at dealing with his bullpen -- the wild-card debacle notwithstanding -- few teams in baseball can shorten a game like Baltimore.
How does the new catcher fit?
All-Star catcher Matt Wieters has departed via free agency. When Wieters came up, he had a strong defensive reputation and it does seem like he works well with pitching staffs. He also still throws out runners at a very capable level.
Of course, now that framing stats have taken off, we know that Wieters is pretty bad at helping his pitchers get strikes. Via StatCorner, Wieters scored -7.3 on runs above average last season, which was toward the bottom of the league. By point of comparison, zero would be average and Buster Posey sat at the top with +26.8. Now Castillo takes over behind the plate. He’s not good at framing, either, but he’s not nearly as bad as Wieters. Castillo scored -3.2 last year in a similar number of innings to Wieters.
Also, backup Caleb Joseph was at +2.7.
Overall, though the difference isn’t huge, the Orioles pitchers should be helped behind the plate a bit more this season.
It’s worth noting that Castillo threw out would-be basestealers at a higher percentage than Wieters (38 to 35), too. On defensive runs saved, Castillo was a +2 while Wieters was -3. If we look at offense, Castillo was better in all three triple-slash (average, OBP, slugging) stats than Wieters, too.
Castillo might not have the name recognition Wieters does, but he’ll prove an upgrade.
- Hyun soo Kim, LF
- Adam Jones, CF
- Manny Machado, 3B
- Chris Davis, 1B
- Mark Trumbo, DH
- Seth Smith, RF
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B
- Welington Castillo, C
- J.J. Hardy, SS
Platoons are possible at both outfield corners. Kim and Smith both swing lefty while Gentry and Rickard are right handed.
- Kevin Gausman (R)
- Chris Tillman (R)
- Dylan Bundy (R)
- Wade Miley (L)
- Chris Lee (L)
ALT: Ubaldo Jimenez (R), Mike Wright (R), Tyler Wilson (R)
If Lee does win the fifth starter job, the Orioles would split up their lefties, but they don’t need a fifth starter for a few weeks. Lee has been optioned to Triple-A, but Showalter said explicitly he could still be the fifth starter when they finally need one. The vote here goes to Lee over Jimenez.
As noted, this group should be awesome.
Sportsline projection: 84-78, third place AL East, second AL wild card.
Remember, this team -- along with the Royals -- is routinely underestimated by computers, for some reason. I like the over here. Gimme high-80s in wins again. Like clockwork.
Of course, they haven’t gotten past the ALCS yet in this recent run. Maybe it’s time to take the next step?