It’s 2018. The past two World Series champions have won the title – and ended their respective championship droughts – by utilising a combination of long-term thinking that incorporating tanking and advanced analytics. This sabermetric approach has permeated everything from scouting to granular positioning on the field.
The pitched battle between the old-school and the baseball nerds depicted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball is over. Sabermetrics didn’t just win the battle, it won the war. There is no denying that the future of baseball lies in advanced metrics and shifts and launch angles, and not in some crotchety old scout sticking his finger in his air and gauging a high schooler’s confidence based on how attractive his girlfriend is.
So God bless the Baltimore Orioles. On this new and exciting baseball frontier, the O’s appear to be eschewing just about every piece of perceived wisdom around as they meander through the off-season, a sort of hypothetical thought experiment centering on what would happen if a team behaved in an old-school way in spite of everything telling them otherwise.
Last year there was the failure to shift big pieces – namely Manny Machado and Zach Britton – when the team’s chances of making any sort of significant dent in the playoffs appeared non-existent. This off-season, there has been the stark lack of progress in finding a solution to the team’s storied rotation issues. Last year, Orioles starters combined for a paltry 5.5 WAR, the 27th worst record in baseball and by far the worst in the hyper competitive AL East. Of that WAR, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman were responsible for 5.2, with the rest being made up of the rag-tag group given chances by the increasingly exasperated Buck Showalter.
While it’s easy to dismiss such a dismal performance as a one-off, particularly as the O’s earned a Wild Card slot the year before, it had been coming. The team’s over-reliance on monster power numbers – in 2016 they posted the highest number of home runs and the third highest slugging – always seemed a dangerous platform on which to build, particularly with a pitching staff that leaned heavily upon an ace bullpen.
Last year was, if you’ll excuse the pun, the Orioles’ birds coming home to roost in many respects. Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Chris Tillman all experienced down years from their relatively mediocre medians, and the result was a late-season slump that took the Orioles from an outside shot at the second Wild Card spot right down to the bottom of the standings in the East. All three pitchers are now unsigned free agents.
It’s a little harsh to stick the boot into the O’s so comprehensively given how quiet the market has been thus far. They, like every other team, are playing a game of cat and mouse with agents and players, not wanting to be the party that blinks first and ends up paying over the odds. However, the Orioles are somewhat unique in that just about every team in their position would at this stage be cutting their losses. They are in the same division as two of the best teams in baseball, with two others that are no pushovers either. Their chances of making any sort of a run at the postseason picture are miniscule (FanGraphs projects them at a not-unkind 72 wins).
The Orioles really shouldn’t be looking at the market as buyers as all, focusing their efforts on getting the maximum possible return on every one of their flippable assets. However, ownership’s refusal to bend to the new norm of cycles of peaks and troughs has them staring down the barrel, neither competing now or pooling valuable resources for the future.