Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 22, 2019

The Orioles Can’t Win For Losing

The Baltimore Orioles actually won a game Wednesday night, 8-1 over Kansas City. To be sure, the Royals aren’t much better than the O’s, but a win is a win and the victory was Baltimore’s second in a row, following a string of eight consecutive losses. With it Baltimore improved – though that may not be the most appropriate verb – to 41-86 on the season.

But this is what a lost season has come to for the Orioles. This team loses even when it wins. The headline from the contest, played before fewer than ten thousand diehard fans at Camden Yards, wasn’t the Orioles’ victory but rather the swing that Whit Merrifield put on a pitch from right-hander Aaron Brooks in the 3rd inning. The Royals’ second baseman sent the ball into the lower deck seats in left field for a solo home run that would prove to be K.C.’s only score. But while the homer’s impact on the game was minimal, the blast put Baltimore into the records books, though not on a page the Orioles would welcome. It was the 258th home run surrendered by Baltimore pitchers this season, tying the 2016 Cincinnati Reds for the most allowed in a single season.

Thirty-five games remain on the O’s schedule so there is little doubt that the Reds’ mark will be obliterated by the time the season comes to a merciful end. The Baltimore pitching staff is tossing gopher balls at a rate of more than two per contest, so fans shouldn’t have to wait thirty-five innings, much less that many games, for the Orioles to claim sole possession of this distressing record. Unless Baltimore hurlers suddenly discover some pitches that they haven’t thrown to date, the new mark is likely to be well over 300 home runs allowed.

The intensely loyal few who still make their way to the stadium that revolutionized ballpark design when it opened in 1992 will point out that at least four other teams – the Mariners, Angels, Yankees and Phillies – are also on pace to surpass the Reds’ number by the time the regular season ends. The Great Game is, after all, in a home run era unlike anything in its long history. Given New York’s healthy lead in the AL East and Philadelphia’s position in the heat of the National League Wild Card race, those fans might well suggest this statistic and the record that Baltimore will soon have to itself isn’t all that important.

While a noble defense by those who count themselves among the Orioles’ faithful, these arguments ring hollow when set against the totality of Baltimore’s 2019 season. While the team appears likely to improve on its 115-loss campaign of 2018, it will do so incrementally at best, with more than 100 losses a virtual certainty and as many as 110 entirely possible. It will be the O’s third straight losing record, an especially hard fall in the wake of five years, from 2012 through 2016, when Baltimore accumulated more regular season victories than any of the other four clubs in the AL East.

As one might expect considering the home run record, Baltimore pitchers have combined to post the highest ERA in the majors, while ranking last in WHIP and next to last in Batting Average Against. They have also rung up fewer strikeouts than any pitching roster except Seattle’s. The numbers get no better in the field or at the plate. Defensively the Orioles have a better fielding percentage than just five other teams, a ranking identical to that of Baltimore hitters on the list of team OPS.

In today’s atmosphere of obsessive attention to metrics and heavy reliance on young players, all the sad numbers of this season and the last couple could be considered a necessary cost of stockpiling a top-flight minor league system and its promise of a brighter tomorrow, especially with a new general manager and field boss this season. But Mike Elias in the front office has yet to make any moves that signal near term improvement, and first year manager Brandon Hyde’s most noticeable moment so far was a recent dugout altercation with first baseman Chris Davis.

As for the currently popular approach to rebuilding, even after making coveted Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman the first overall pick in June’s amateur draft, the Orioles’ farm system is ranked no better than middle of the pack by both Bleacher Report and MLB Pipeline. That’s in part because just before the season began the O’s traded AAA prospect Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of the Red Sox legend, to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for minor league pitcher Tyler Herb. In 73 games since being called up to the majors, the younger Yaz is making grandpa proud, with 17 homers and an OPS of .890. In contrast, in a season split between AA Bowie and AAA Norfolk, Herb has posted an ERA north of 6.00, though he is giving up almost two home runs per nine innings, so perhaps he’s a perfect fit for the major league rotation. In Baltimore, that brighter tomorrow may not be coming soon.

There’s even concern that it might never arrive in Baltimore specifically. Longtime owner Peter Angelos is 90 and in declining health. He’s turned over management of the franchise to his sons, leading to persistent rumors that the team may be for sale. That always opens the door to the possibility of relocation, though that process is long and difficult, as the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays can attest. For now, the team remains in the city it’s called home for more than six decades, and a fervent if steadily declining fan base clings to hope, because desire and belief are as much a part of the Great Game as bats and gloves. But with a roster devoid of star power and a team payroll lower than all but two other franchises, the near term promises to be far more often about disappointment than delight.

Still even a dismal season has its moments. The weekend before last Baltimore shocked the Houston Astros with a 9th inning rally, winning 8-7. For sportsbooks, where the O’s were +390 underdogs against Houston’s odds of -460, the improbable victory was the biggest upset in a major league game since 2005. But Baltimore’s happy record didn’t last a fortnight. Wednesday it was Detroit’s turn to stun Houston 2-1, in a game in which Las Vegas had the Tigers at odds of +435 with the favored Astros at -565. But then that’s what a lost season has come to for the Orioles, whose next spot in the record books will likely last much, much longer.

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