(Photo Credit: Loyola Magazine)
You can feel it. The excitement the beginning of the season brings. Anything is possible. We’ve seen the Cubs win the World Series, ending the longest drought in sports. We’ve seen the Houston Astros win their first World Series. The Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl. We have even seen a #16 seed upset a #1 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament for the first time when UMBC knocked off Virginia. Anything is possible in the world of sports currently. So why not the O’s, hon?
Let’s take a look at what would need to go right in order for the Orioles to win it all in 2018.
First and foremost, if the Orioles want to have any shot at winning anything this season, they need their starters to improve. That should not be too much of a task given how bad they were last season, posting a 5.70 ERA as a group, the worst in club history. The rotation entering the 2017 season featured Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, and a revolving door of players during Miley’s and Tillman’s disabled list time.
So how do the Orioles plan to improve in this area? Well for starters, Miley and Ubaldo are no longer on the club. But that is not enough if the Orioles want to be taken seriously as contenders for the postseason. They went out and signed Andrew Cashner. At the time, this gave them a rotation of Bundy, Gausman and Cashner with which to enter the 2018 season, but still left two huge question marks. So the Orioles stuck with someone they knew bringing Chris TIllman back on a one year contract to show 2017 was a fluke and impacted by injuries. With four out of five spots now filled, the Orioles opened the fifth rotation spot up to competition. Only no one stepped up emphatically to claim the role. The Orioles offseason waiting game finally paid off, thanks in part to a slow offseason, and they were able to sign Alex Cobb, arguably the third best available starting pitcher this offseason.
Kevin Gausman was a tale of two halves last year, pitching to a 5.85 ERA pre-All Star Break and a 3.41 post-All Star Break. He had an increase in his K/9 and lowered his walk rate in the second half as well. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the first half was 1.93. In the second half, it nearly doubled to 3.43. A full season of performance like his second half would establish Gausman as the ace of the staff desperately looking for someone to grab the role. Consistency from Gausman is going to be key for the Orioles this season if they wish to make noise in the postseason. He has done it for a season before and the Orioles need him to do it again now more than ever.
The Orioles are also looking for Dylan Bundy to improve on his solid 2017 campaign in which he lead all Orioles starters in ERA (4.24). Bundy had flashes of brilliances in 2017, such as his 1 hitter against the Seattle Mariners resulting in the highest game score of 2017 with a 95. He also had a better second half in which he lowered his BAA (.251 → .222) and OBP(.315 → .277), even though his BABIP increased slightly (.271 → .277). Bundy does not have quite have the same stuff he did pre-Tommy John, but he’s continued to show improvement which the Orioles hope to see continue this season combined with a sub 4 ERA from their current ace.
Cashner saw some of his peripherals fall last year, such as fastball velocity and his strikeout rate, yet had an increase in his productivity, pitching to a 3.40 ERA, the second-best of his career (min.165 IP). His high ground ball rate looks to play well at Camden Yards where the ball is known to fly out. Things of concern for Cashner are his health, as he has only pitched over 165 innings twice in his career. Also, his FIP indicated he was not as good as his 3.40 ERA indicated and he was really closer to a 5-ERA guy. Yet somehow even those numbers would still be an improvement for the Orioles.
Tillman has been one of the Orioles’ most reliable players since the Orioles flipped the script on the franchise’s 14 straight losing seasons in 2012. From 2012-2016 Tillman averaged a 3.75 ERA starting in 134 games winning 65 of them, including an All Star game appearance in 2013. The Orioles had 4 other players representing them that year, so it was not as if TIllman was chosen specifically as an Orioles representative. Late in the 2016 season season, Tillman began to get plagued with shoulder inflammation. Minus a short stint on the DL that season, he continued to pitch through it and even started for the Orioles in the 2016 Wild Card game. Then the offseason came and disturbed Tillman’s preparation as he was shut down for the entire offseason due to lingering shoulder issues. This carried over in the 2017 season where he didn’t make his debut until May 7th against the White Sox. Unfortunately, that was also the highlight for Tillman as he went on to post a 7.84 ERA in 93 innings. The Orioles are hoping a return to a normal healthy offseason of preparation will help return Chris Tillman into the pitcher they knew from 2012-2016. Either way, it can’t be worse than last season, right?
The newest addition to the Orioles this offseason might also make the biggest impact. Alex Cobb was expected to be one of the more sought after free agents this offseason and was thought to be out of the Orioles price tag. Fortunately for the Orioles, this was the type of offseason they dream of where they make moves late for a more team friendly price. Cobb is a career 3.50 ERA pitcher. That is impressive on its own let alone the fact he has done it completely pitching in the AL East. Cobb is an incredibly solid and consistent pitcher who makes the Orioles pitching staff bounds and leaps better than it was last season. Cobb collectively has a 3.21 ERA in his career against the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays.
The Orioles’ main focus this offseason was to address their starting pitching after posting a league worst 5.70 ERA. If everything works out as it looks on paper, the Orioles might’ve finally built a rotation to supplement their offense.
Getting On Base
The Orioles score runs by hitting homers. There’s potential for them to have eight guys hit 20 or more home runs this year (Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Trey Mancini, Jonathan Schoop, Tim Beckham and Colby Rasmus). The Orioles hit the fifth most home runs last year with 232 round-trippers. They also had the eighth best team batting average at .260. With those type of numbers the Orioles most have been near the top in runs scored right? WRONG. The Orioles only ranked sixteenth in runs scored in 2017. This is partly due to the fact that their team on-base percentage was .312, good for twenty-seventh in the league. The top team in this category won the World Series. Granted, the Astros led the league in offense in most categories, but they scored nearly 40 more runs than the team that ranked second, thanks in part to constantly getting on base. The Dodgers were sixth.
Eight of the top ten teams that lead the league in on base percentage made the playoffs. The top two teams from each division played each other in the NLCS. If the Orioles wish to make a serious playoff push and run, they need to work on getting on base more often. The highest on base percentage for a hitter who played at least 100 games for the Orioles was Seth Smith with a .340 OBP. He’s no longer on the current roster. Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop had the highest OBP last year out of current Orioles starters with a .338 OBP, good enough to be tied for 73rd in the league.
Chris Davis could play a huge factor in this. His on-base percentage was nearly 100 points higher than is batting average (.309 OBP and .215 BA). This largely comes from the fact that Davis was about as effective at the plate last season as a statue. His K% rate last season was a career high 37.2%. In his career year (2013) which saw him finish third in MVP voting Davis produced a .370 OBP to go with a 10.7% walk rate. He produced similar numbers in 2015 with a .361 OBP and 12.5% walk rate. He has increased his walk rate each year since. The main issue is he spends so much time watching the ball go by and does not swing. His strikeout issues are the main cause of his problems. In 2017, Davis only swung at 60% of pitches in the strike zone, a career low. He still strikes the ball hard and while many want to blame the shift for Davis’ struggles, his BABIP last season was .301. He can get on when he hits. It’s not something you say about a majority of the Orioles lineup but he is the one player who could benefit by being more aggressive at the plate. No, Davis does not need to bunt to accomplish this unless it helps him cut down his strikeout percentage..
Unfortunately, this is a problem that is easier said than done, especially for professionals who’ve been playing for years. Chance Sisco has a chance to lead the team in on-base percentage given his penchant for taking walks and understanding of the strike zone he’s shown at each level. During exit interviews with Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays, Buck Showalter is on the record as informing them to work on their plate discipline. Mountcastle drew 17 walks last season. It appears the Orioles are realizing it’s an organizational issue, one that might not be entirely fixed soon but any sort of improvement could be the difference between playing in October or sitting on the couch.
Give the Bullpen Some Rest
One of the Orioles strengths these past few season has been the bullpen. Due to poor starting pitching, they are also one of the most used bunch. In 2017, the Orioles’ bullpen threw 595 innings. That was the fifth-most in all of baseball. The Orioles starters threw 846 innings, the third least amount in baseball. The Orioles bullpen could be even more versatile if it was not taxed as much. Buck has proven he knows how to use the bullpen about as well as any other manager in baseball (2016 postseason aside). The bullpen had a 3.93 ERA, good for twelfth, but still down from the 3.40 ERA they posted in 2016 that was third best in the league (number one in the American League). Outside a healthy Britton, the other main difference between the two was they threw 59 less innings in 2016 than in 2017. For the Orioles, less is more when it comes to their bullpen.
Re-establish Defensive Consistency
A few years ago the Orioles had the second-best fielding percentage in baseball. In 2016 they had the sixth-best. Last year they were twelfth. That is a trend the Orioles will need to reverse to win it all in 2018.
One thing to look at in this department is Tim Beckham shifting over to third base this season. He has often been considered a defensive liability and moving to the hot corner will provide an interesting challenge for him and the Orioles. He showed he was capable during spring training in his limited opportunities. Beckham worked hard with Bobby Dickerson, the Orioles infield coach, all offseason to sure up his glove work.
Jonathan Schoop nearly doubled his error total last year producing 15 errors in 805 chances, his most since becoming a professional. In 2016, he had 8 errors in 732 chances. He already committed 2 errors in Spring Training. You can bet Buck Showalter and Bobby Dickerson will be working with him hard all season long to ensure his defense does not suffer.
The Orioles entered the 2018 season with the same record as every other team. If they accomplish the previous listings in any manner it puts them in a great position to get into the playoffs, along with some lucky bounces and healthy bodies. The team is only going to get better when Britton returns form the disabled list. Now, no one is writing the Orioles into the World Series and very few are even penciling them in as a Wild Card participant. That said, we’ve seen what was deemed all but impossible happen before, such as the Miracle on Ice in 1980, so why not the O’s?