Why the Orioles Will/Won’t Win in 2017
Teams win or lose for strange reasons all the time. Sometimes teams constructed to win fall apart; sometimes teams that don’t look all that impressive on paper win more games than anyone could have imagined.
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have tended to be the latter, as projections have dogged them for the last half-decade while all they’ve done is win. No American League team has more wins over the last five years than the Orioles, who are projected year in and year out to be right around .500.
This year is no different.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-based projected standings have the Orioles going 74-88. Not only is that good for last place in the East by a whopping seven games, but only one team is projected to be worse. That’s the perennially underrated Kansas City Royals, who like the Orioles are the darlings of the “DOWN WITH THE PROJECTIONS” crowd.
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Could the Orioles really lose nearly 90 games? Sure, it’s certainly possible. Fangraphs is a bit more level-headed on the Orioles. Quite literally, in fact, as they have the O’s going 81-81 in a virtual tie with the Yankees — though still for last place in the East.
Lather, rinse, repeat. By now, Orioles fans are used to being dissed by the preseason projections. But there are two schools of thought there. Either the Orioles are unconventionally built in a way that projection systems are currently unable to take into account, or the team is able to rise above that due to the leadership of Showalter — a feather in his cap, really — or something to that effect. Either way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be construed as a negative. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks about a team or player; results do the talking. And in the last five years or so, the Orioles have done a pretty good job of shutting up the haters.
But what could make this team fizzle from an 89-win, playoff-qualifying team a year ago into the smoldering heap of nothingness that the projections foretell? Let’s take a look.
Another tough season from Chris Davis would go a long way towards making the projections viable. Over the last three seasons, his wOBAs have been .308, .390 and .340. One of those clearly appears to be the outlier, and that’s not really a good thing. Fortunately, the Steamer and ZiPS projections — housed on Fangraphs for those interested — both see Davis as a solid offensive player this season. ZiPS has him with a .355 wOBA and Steamer says .345. Neither of those come close to the mark he put up in 2015 which led to the massive contract he signed, but it’s still fairly solid. The issue becomes is “fairly solid” enough to justify his deal, which perhaps prohibited the team from making other moves during a fairly quiet offseason?
If so, that’d be troubling.
Another possible issue is the rotation. Kevin Gausman looks primed to break out and Dylan Bundy is coming off a really solid season, but if one or the other fails to take that next step — or if Bundy can’t stay healthy with a starter’s workload — the rotation has potential to get ugly in a hurry. The Royals showed in 2015 that a team can win with an iffy rotation and a ridiculous bullpen — virtually the same pattern the Orioles are following — but at the same time it’s unknown if the Royals are the rule or the exception there. In the NFL, everyone points to the Baltimore Ravens winning the Super Bowl with an elite defense and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. But again….has history repeated itself since? The closest might have been Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers from a few seasons ago — and they lost.
Of course you all remember that — they were playing the Ravens.
But if the rotation fails to get nice seasons out of Gausman and/or Bundy, it’s not likely Wade Miley, Chris Tillman or Ubaldo Jimenez will pick up enough of the slack to make a big difference. Again, it might not matter a ton with an elite bullpen, but in an AL East that’s bound to be ultra-competitive, teams can’t afford to give away too many games.
Another way things could feasibly go sideways on the Orioles is if the defense — especially in the outfield — betrays the pitching staff. The O’s were right in the middle of the pack with a 44.8 percent groundball rate last year, so while guys like Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy are adept at fielding their position, there are still enough fly balls in the mix for things to go awry.
….and that clearly could happen with an outfield that Fangraphs projects to have all negative defenders. The jury is still somehow out on Adam Jones, who probably isn’t nearly as bad as the statistics have indicated but may also be a bit overrated defensively. He’s going to have to cover the gaps like a madman with the potential to be flanked by Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo. Seth Smith holds his own in right field, but Hyun-Soo Kim isn’t a particularly adept fielder either, while Joey Rickard is decent but not much of a standout. With a rotation that didn’t miss too many bats last season — 7.5 K/9 ranked 19th in MLB — defense is going to matter. Keep an eye on that groundball rate.
With that said, there’s ample reason for optimism.
The team is constructed basically the same as it has been during this successful run. It’s a team full of trudging mashers that doesn’t walk a ton but has massive power, while the pitching staff is obviously stacked in favor of the bullpen. Showalter — the bullpen master — is still at the helm. The bullpen is still intact. The projections still hate them.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The bullpen has potential to be absolutely nasty. It’s hard to imagine any team matching the quartet of Mychal Givens, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach and the impossibly nasty Zach Britton on the back end. The Fangraphs projections have all four averaging in excess of 10 strikeouts per nine innings while accounting for nearly half the work the team gets out of relievers this season. The projections also love Oliver Drake — 3.74 ERA, 10.7 K/9 — and have for a few seasons now, despite him not seeing that much work in recent seasons. Adding another arm that is even close to elite — like his numbers indicate — could bring this bullpen to a whole new level. With the Royals bullpen gutted and sold off for parts, the O’s have to be No. 1 with a bullet in the AL relief department.
The Orioles also still boast a very strong infield defense. All four starters are projected positive defenders in the Fangraphs projections, which will certainly help Miley (48.4 percent career GB rate) more than most. Machado is an absolute vacuum cleaner over at third, while Hardy has long been quietly lauded as one of the best shortstop defenders in the game. If the infield defense can help Miley take a step forward, that’ll help doubly. Miley was quietly a lot better in the second half — 8.8 K/9, 3.44 FIP, 49.1 percent GB rate — so don’t sleep on him being a league-average pitcher, which will help the Orioles quite a bit.
Lastly, never forget that the O’s have Machado, who is again projected to be a six-win player this season. Still somehow an impossibly-young 24, Machado has posted two straight six-win seasons and is primed for another as he amps up to not only challenge Nolan Arenado and friends for the crown of best third baseman in the game, but also get some resolution on his future in Baltimore as he heads into his penultimate season of club control. The Orioles have embraced the “Stars’n’Scrubs” strategy better than most, with Machado as the central figure for nearly all those teams.