Despite their recent strong play (a six-game winning streak ended on Sunday), the Orioles have at times this season flirted with losing 100 games, an ignominy they have somehow avoided since 1988 despite their 14 consecutive losing seasons. It was not supposed to be this way. Last season’s abrupt turnaround from a 32-73 record under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel to 34-23 under Buck Showalter seemed to indicate a newfound competence, one that was supposed to be further improved this year by a young starting staff that would a year older, a year better, and augmented by top pitching prospect Zach Britton, Baseball Prospectus’s #17 prospect coming into the season.
A team doesn’t get to lose 95 to 100 games without all phases of the operation disappointing. Orioles batters have excelled in one area, hitting home runs, but have done so at the expense of putting runners on base. Orioles batters have the fourth-highest home run total in the American League, but are last in walks drawn. Despite a league-average .257 batting average, their inability to reach base means that they rank only 10th in on-base percentage. Put it all together and you have a team that ranks ninth in runs per game, and one that struggles to score if it doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark. The Orioles lead all of baseball in one category, the so-called “Guillen Number,” the percentage of team runs that come as a result of its homers. The Orioles actually outrank the Yankees at this, with 43 percent. In their case, it is not a good thing.
None of this is surprising; it was clear heading into the season that the organization’s attempts to revamp its offense were at a nascent stage of development compared to the pitching. The season-opening rotation of Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen—with an injured Brian Matusz waiting in the wings—was supposed to give the Orioles a cadre of electric hurlers who would grow into dominance and haul the team back to competitiveness in spite of the team’s lack of promising young position players. Instead, Orioles starters have put up the highest ERA of any rotation in the game (5.29) and struck out the fewest batters (439). The average AL starting pitcher has an ERA of 4.10 this season. Of their most frequent starters, only Guthrie (4.42) and Britton (4.54) are on the good side of 5.00; Matusz, who has spent all season coping with a mysterious case of diminished velocity, has a stunning 8.92 ERA in eight starts.
The extent to which the rotation has failed to progress is best exemplified by Alfredo Simon. The 30-year-old journeyman reliever, pressed into the rotation in July, has a 4.17 ERA as a starter. When you’ve given over major chunks of your rotation to pitchers in their early- to mid-twenties and Alfredo Simon outpitches them, something has gone badly awry.
Can an entire generation of young starters fail at once? It can happen, particularly when the team doesn’t give the pitchers proper support. Think back to the Mets’ much-hyped trio of “Young Guns” of 1995-1996, Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson, and Bill Pulsipher, all derailed by injuries due to less than careful handling by major- and minor-league coaching staffs that allowed them to pile up high inning totals and pitch counts. The Orioles have failed to support their young pitchers as well, in a different way. Fortunately, unlike those Mets hurlers, it won’t take surgical intervention to solve the problem. It will, however, require a dramatic rethinking of the team’s defensive priorities.
Looked at in terms of basic defensive efficiency, simply the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs, the Orioles possess the worst leather in the majors. Even when adjusted for park, the Orioles settle to the bottom of both circuits. The reasons are obvious; catcher Matt Wieters is the only above-average fielder they possess, while some, particularly third baseman Mark Reynolds, are among the worst at their position in the game. There was a long stretch of this season when Reynolds was batting under .200 and fielding under .900, a combo that no major leaguer has rolled up in an appreciable amount of playing time since the immortal John Gochnauer hit .185 and fielded .869 over 100 years ago. Since Derrek Lee was traded, Reynolds has spent much of his time at first base, but the damage was already done.
The left fielders have also been problematic. Whatever the offensive positives of Luke Scott, Felix Pie, and Nolan Reimold, none of them are strong fielders—Reimold in particular is one of the least instinctive outfielders the game has seen since the glory days of Pete Incaviglia, if not Greg Luzinski. Pie was recently designated for assignment after misplaying a couple of flies in his most recent start, but Reimold still stands, a natural DH with a glove. The chronic mess in left field has been compounded by a defensive off-year from 2009 Gold Glove-winning center fielder Adam Jones.
Think about the impact that fielding problems can have on the confidence of a young pitching staff given that they can’t trust that fieldable balls will be turned into outs. Never mind confidence—just look at how it affects their results: the AL average batting average on balls in play is .292. For Orioles starters, it’s .314. It’s not that the starters are getting pounded—a league-average line drive rate is 18 percent, and of Orioles starters, only the recently-acquired Jo-Jo Reyes and Tommy Hunter are significantly above that. Orioles’ starters, by nature of being a low-strikeout unit (a problem in and of itself), put a lot of pressure on their defense to turn balls in play into outs. The fielders have failed to cooperate, with the result that the pitchers have looked worse than they actually are. Fielding-independent ERA estimators like FIP suggest that Tillman (3.97 FIP vs. 5.52) and Britton (3.92 vs. 4.54) have been particularly hurt by the gloves.
Ironically, the Orioles’ defensive problems reverse the signature accomplishment of last year’s Showalter renaissance. When the manager arrived, the Orioles were 27th in defensive efficiency. For the rest of the season, they were first. Showalter benefitted from a couple of flukes of timing—he arrived just as Brian Roberts was arriving (after a long stretch on the disabled list) and Miguel Tejada was leaving. Unfortunately, Reynolds has proved to be this year’s Tejada, at least defensively, while Roberts has been absent since mid-May due to concussion symptoms.
As last year’s turnaround shows, defensive problems can not only be fixed, but those fixes can yield quick dividends. And there is historical precedent for those dividends being large. In the late 1980s, the Atlanta Braves were trying to end a long and severe period of poor showings by bringing pitching prospects like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery to the majors, but with butchers like Andres Thomas, Ron Gant, and Jim Presley playing behind them, they were having trouble getting traction. Prior to the 1991 season, general manager John Schuerholz brought in veteran infielders Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, and Rafael Belliard, as well as outfielder Otis Nixon, to steady the defense. The Braves shot from last in the National League in defensive efficiency to first, in the process turning around their record from 65-97 to 94-68 and touching off a dynasty that made 14 consecutive postseason appearances.
Fourteen. That’s the same number of years the Orioles have been looking up at even a .500 record. There is no guarantee that a decisive change in defense will put the Orioles on the same path as the Braves, but if they want to have any hope of turning some of their pitching prospects into reliable major leaguers, it’s the only way.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .