The Quest for 81: Bad Bounces in Birdland

Coming into this year, things were looking up for the Baltimore Orioles. With a young pitching staff that had shown signs of maturing over the second half of the 2010 season and a lineup boosted by free agent veterans like Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, it wasn’t inconceivable that the Orioles could shoot to break .500 for the first time since 1997. While they were still stuck in the challenge AL East, the O’s made it clear this off season that they’re no longer a team to gloss over — competing for the playoffs was still a few years away, but they could still serve as spoilers and make other teams fight for the wins.

Well, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. The Orioles entered today with a 32-37 record and a -42 run differential, sitting 2.5 games behind the fourth-place Blue Jays — who, by the way, are currently at .500. While that’s far from a horrible place to be, just about everything that could go wrong for the O’s this year has gone wrong.

I mean, just look at this list of misfortunes:

• Free agent acquisitions Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero have both looked like they are on the last legs of their career. Guerrero’s walk rate has shrunk its lowest ever rate (2.6%), while Derrek Lee’s power has all but disappeared in the AL (.105 ISO). The two of them are being paid a combined $15 million, but have so far combined for only 0.1 WAR. At least they’re only one year rentals, right?

Brian Roberts, who was supposed to come back from an injury-riddled 2010 season and be a catalyst for the O’s offense at the top of the order, has only played in 39 games so far this year. He’s been on the DL for a couple weeks now with post-concussions symptoms, and there’s still no set timetable for his return. And when he’s played, he’s only managed a .276 wOBA.

Nick Markakis has continued his decline into mediocrity, flashing a horrible .292 wOBA while only managing 11 extra base hits on the year. Even if he never lived up to the promise he displayed when he was given his 6 years, $66 million contract, he was still 17% above average at the plate last season. This year? He’s been 21% below average.

Brian Matusz was supposed to be their emerging staff ace, but he’s suffered through some injuries this season and has only managed to pitch 17 innings so far. And during those innings, he’s struggled with his command and has allowed four homeruns while walking 9 and striking out 11.

• The bullpen was supposed to be one of their team strengths this season with the additions of Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo, but both those pitchers have posted FIPs in the high 4s. Mike Gonzalez has returned from his injuries last season, but he’s still had a longball problem, allowing seven homeruns in just 23 innings. What, you mean to tell me relief pitchers are difficult to predict? Never!

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s been an overall rather disappointing year for the O’s so far this season. But if you consider the amount of bad luck they have had, it’s pretty impressive that they’ve still managed to fall only four games short of .500. If a few players regress from their starts and things start to come together for them, they could easily finish the year over .500 and give their fans a fun season.

Of course, some things have gone well for the O’s. Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta have both emerged as legitimate major league starters — with Arrieta showing some much-needed improvements in his strikeout rate this year — and J.J. Hardy has been one of the O’s most productive shortstops in recent memory (1.5 WAR, .233 ISO). Matt Wieters has increased his power and average from last season, and although he still hasn’t lived up to expectations, his production is great to get out of the catching position.

But what good is a .500 record if there isn’t much hope of taking that a step further next year? If I were an O’s fan, I’d be keeping my eye firmly placed on how Matusz, Britton, and Arrieta perform going forward. Pitching will take a team far, and a large portion of their franchise’s future depends on how these young pitchers continue to develop.

In Birdland, the Quest for .500 continues. For their sake, let’s hope the charge is led by their pitching staff.



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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


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Danny
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Danny
5 years 2 months ago

Not sure I’ve ever heard of Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo being counted on to ensure the bullpen is a “strength” of a team before.

ddriver80
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ddriver80
5 years 2 months ago

As a Jays fan, If they are improvements to your bullpen, you might as well call the game after 6 innings.

There is a reason Accardo played the whole season in AAA last year

Bill
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Bill
5 years 2 months ago

They’re paid like they are good relievers. But, yeah they suck and everyone outside of the O’s front office knew they would once more be lousy. At least, the Gonzales signing made some sense. He was Ok the prior year.

Andrew
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Andrew
5 years 2 months ago

This seems like a list of things that have gone wrong, but not necessarily all due to bad luck. Maybe the Matusz injury, and maybe Markakis being THIS bad (but still has clearly been in decline, for whatever reason). But if you had predicted the rest of those issues in the preseason I doubt any of us would have called you crazy.

gu03alum
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gu03alum
5 years 2 months ago

I thought the Orioles traded away two reliever to acquire Mark Reynolds while another reliever was charged with murder. I’m not sure that the team was realistically looking at the bullpen as a strength to begin the season.

Steve
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Steve
5 years 2 months ago

I don’t think you’re looking at everything here. First, if you’re counting Mickilio, then you have to count the other arms in the Hardy deal, too. Even so, the only relief pitcher that was dealt that was considered to be a major contributor in the bullpen was David Hernandez. Even, the murder suspect, Alfredo Simon (who is now on the team), wasn’t a sure thing to be in the pen. He was considered the 25th man at best. The only real pitching that they dealt was Hernandez (along with non-tendering Matt Albers) and the acquisitions of Accardo and Gregg were supposed to make up for them.

I think with Gregg and Koji at the back of the pen and Jim Johnson and Mike Gonzalez before them, many did expect the pen to be somewhat reliable. The problem is Gonzo exploaded and Gregg was handed the closer role even though Koji is better equiped for it.

Steve
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Steve
5 years 2 months ago

Nothing ever seems to break right for this team. It’s like a continuous train of bad news. Highly touted prospects like Wieters disappoint. Almost every free agent signed, flops (Atkins, Lee, Vlad, Gonzalez, etc…). Players who are going well get hurt (Reimold, Matusz). Players who are signed to be franchise lynchpins go into decline immediately after the ink dries (Roberts, Markakis). The few successes, like Adam Jones or Britton, are buried in the pileup.

I have a hunch nothing will change until Angelos exits the building.

kick me in the GO NATS
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kick me in the GO NATS
5 years 2 months ago

What somebody has a voodoo doll with Angelos’ picture on it, and if he leaves fortune changes (likely)? Maybe Angelos as one of the biggest bankrupt’rs of firms in the US as a union lawyer and tort lawyer has earned so much bad Karma with the greater powers that the teams pays!

SeanP
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SeanP
5 years 2 months ago

Bad karma? Like getting compensation for workers who suffered illnesses from working in asbestos-heavy conditions?

That’s where Angelos made most of his money.

Bill
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Bill
5 years 2 months ago

The ridiculous punitive damages he sought and got in the asbestos litigation makes him a piece of trash. Of course, the real problem is the complete trainwreck that is the American judicial system. I know a lot of people who lost their pensions because of this because their company made a product that no one had any idea was harmful.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
5 years 2 months ago

While many things have gone wrong for the O’s, certainly nowhere near “all” things have gone wrong for them.

In the starting staff, Britton’s unexpected performance has more than offset Matusz’ injury, while Guthrie/Arrieta have been slightly better than expected to balance out Bergesen/Tillman being slightly below expectations.

In the ‘pen, Gregg has been as good as could have been expected (maybe even better), while Johnson and Uehara have been so lights out that it certainly balances out any mild dissappointed by the other poor performances out of journymen borderline MLBers that filled out the rest of the bullpen heading into the year.

Even in the ugly looking lineup, there has been plenty of good news as well:

OPS+ 2011 – 2010 (+/-)

Hardy: 140 – 93 (+47)
Reynolds: 116 – 97 (+19)
Jones: 120 – 107 (+13)
Wieters: 96 – 89 (+7)
Lee: 104 – 84 (-20)
Guerrero: 99 – 121 (-22)
Scott: 108 – 142 (-34)
Roberts: 67 – 103 (-36)
Markakis: 81 – 119 (-38)

definitely more bad than good there, but that’s not exactly a case of “everything going wrong”. some youngsters improving, some oldsters falling off a cliff, one prime guy having a huge year (Hardy) and one having an awful year (Markakis), combined with one vet coming back down to earth after a career year (Scott).

The only geniune two solid pieces of bad luck I see here are Markakis turning into a pumpkin in his young prime, and the Matusz injury. Though even then, it’s hard not to see the surprise years of Hardy and Britton balancing that out for the most part.

Other than that, we’re pretty much left with the “bad luck” being the failures of Guerrero, Lee, and Roberts. two 35yr olds who have been on a steep decline for years now, and a 33yr old who missed the majority of last year to major injury. And it’s really hard to see their failures as “bad luck”, to be honest.

Kurt N
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Kurt N
5 years 2 months ago

Baltimore really needs Wieters and Matusz to bounce back, or else the rebuilding will be more slowed by several years. Neither so far have much of a track record that indicates alot of success though.

Ross
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5 years 2 months ago

I agree about Matusz but Wieters is FINE. He has been absurdly good defensively and average offensively. As Steve said, “his production is great to get out of the catcher position.” He’s still young and might one day post a 6 WAR season but to ask a 24.5 yr. old catcher to bounce back during a season when he has posted a 1.5 WAR through mid June isn’t fair.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
5 years 2 months ago

Maybe we could look at it a different way – we could look at what this Orioles’ lineup would look like this year if every single player repeated their year from last year, compared to what they’ve done this year. I’ll shuffle up the orders to make best use of the numbers the players put up each year. I’ll use OPS+ and ERA+ for convenience ballparking.

2011 Numbers — 2010 Numbers

1) 2B Roberts 67 —– 2B Roberts 104
2) CF Jones 120 —— RF Markakis 119
3) SS Hardy 147 —— LF Scott 143
4) 3B Reynolds 116 — DH Guerrero 121
5) LF Scott 108 ——- CF Jones 107
6) DH Guerrero 99 —- 1B Lee 104
7) C Wieters 96 ——- 3B Reynolds 97
8) 1B Lee 84 ——— J.Hardy 93
9) RF Markakis 81 —– C Wieters 90

UT Reimold 136 —— IF Andino 114
IF Andino 80 ——— OF Pie 93
C Fox 76 ———— C Fox 86
OF Pie 63 ———— UT Reimold 66

The current lineup looks slightly worse than it would have if everyone was repeating last year’s performance, but not crazy worse.

Britton 129 ———- Guthrie 111
Guthrie 113 ———– Matusz 98
Arrieta 90 ———— Arrieta 91
Tillman 86 ———– Bergesen 85
Bergesen 78 ———- Tillman 72
Matusz 73 ———— Britton 00

This starting staff has improved over last year’s individual performances, with Britton’s surprise start being as good as anyone could have hoped for from Matusz this year.

CL Gregg 123 ——- CL Gregg 120
SU Uehara 160 —— SU Uehara 149
SU Johnson 157 —– SU Berken 140
MR Simon 131 —— MR Johnson 125
MR Jak’kas 79 —— MR Rapada 114
MR Accardo 76 —– MR Gonzalez 107
MR Rupe 73 ——– MR Simon 86
MR Gonzalez 61 —- MR Rupe 77
MR Berken 60 —— MR Accardo 54
MR Rapada 56 —— MR Jak’kas 23

The backend of the bullpen is pitching better than should have been expected, though the depth middle relief arms have not been as good as expected.

Overall, the team hasn’t performed all that much different than what last year’s performances from these same players would have indicated, I don’t think. And unless there’s a good argument to be made that there were better odds that the individuals in the lineup would improve overall rather than regress, I can’t see that much bad luck at play here.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 2 months ago

Wieters has had a hell of a year behind the plate, too. 40% of runners thrown out and he leads all catchers in runs saved.

Hopefully some of the stopgaps pick it up soon so they have at least some value at the deadline.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 2 months ago

If Pujols walks away from StL, and Berkman goes to 1B … part of me wonders if Markakis would be a “change of scenery” guy in StL.

Doug
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Doug
5 years 2 months ago

Only Guerrero, Jones, and Hardy hit consistently. Wieters is next, I guess, then Lee. Did Reynolds get dealt, Guthrie, Andino, as none were mentioned. Reynolds is getting RBI’s but lousy BA, lousy defence (heading for 40+ errors), strikeouts as bad as ever (do they keep stats on most consecutive games getting at least one SO?).

Daniel
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Daniel
5 years 2 months ago

batting average, K’s,RBI, and errors to judge a player? good god man, you’ve just hit rock bottom. his OBP is still looking good and the power is coming. I believe he still leads the team in walks. I’d argue that outside of Hardy, he’s been the most consistent bat in the lineup this year.

David
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David
5 years 2 months ago

Markakis’s bad performance this year is definitely influenced by bad luck. He has the highest LD rate of his career (21.7% vs. 18.8% career), but the lowest BABIP (.273 vs. .323 career). His declining power numbers are concerning, of course, but his average and OBP should be a lot better (and who knows, maybe if those numbers were better, maybe pitchers would throw him more strikes, and he’d turn more of those into extra base hits – he also has the lowest first strike percentage of his career).

mmulvihill76
Member
mmulvihill76
5 years 2 months ago

Agreed, David. Much of his awful start can be attributed to bad luck. But I think most of the hyper-criticism of his “underperformance” is based on peoples’ perceptions of the player he seemed destined to become, rather than the player he has consistently been, an above-average outfielder with slight pop and decent speed. His career high in homers is 23 and steals is 18, both of which he achieved in his sophomore season, at the age of 23. His career trajectory (in terms of power and speed) is a bit baffling, but his other numbers have remained fairly consistent.

david
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david
5 years 2 months ago

citing vlad’s walk rate as a negative trend is pretty dumb. just because it’s true doesn’t make it significant.

designated quitter
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designated quitter
5 years 2 months ago

1. There was no way the Orioles would sneak up on people the way they did last year when they hired Buck.

2. They are much better with home- grown talent than free agents. They are also the worst traders in the division if not the league. Only not signing Milton Bradley keeps them from the bottom.

3. Anyone who couldn’t see the impending declines of Derrick Lee and Vlad ‘the Implaer’ Guerrero just wasn’t paying attention.

4. Guys who have been hurt in the past are excellent candidates to get hurt again, especially if they’re over 30.

David
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David
5 years 2 months ago

“They are also the worst traders in the division if not the league.”

Are you joking? MacPhail has one of the best trade records in all of baseball:

– J.J. Hardy (1.6 WAR) for Jim Hoey (-0.6 WAR) and Brett Jacobsen (minor leagues)
– Mark Reynolds (0.4 WAR) for David Hernandez (0.6 WAR) and Kam Mickolio (0.2 WAR)
– Luke Scott (6.5 WAR), Matt Albers (1.3 WAR), Dennis Sarfate (0.2 WAR) and others for Miguel Tejada (6.2 WAR)
– Adam Jones (7.6 WAR), Chris Tillman (0.6 WAR but only 23 years old), George Sherrill (1.4 WAR before being traded for 2 prospects), and others for Erik Bedard (2.9 WAR over the duration of his original contract)

and of course, in the last two deals, he actually made the team younger and cut payroll as well. Hardy added about $7 million to the payroll this year, but he’s currently a Type A free agent and is likely to either sign an extension or get traded (for prospects) anyway. the Reynolds deal is probably the worst he’s made as GM, but I think that’s praising with faint damnation :)

Dash
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Dash
5 years 2 months ago

The Os should blow it up. Their CF can’t field his position, the RF is replacement level, and their starting staff has a bunch of hopeful ML #3’s. Trade Lee, Vlad, Scott, Hardy, Jones, Pie, Markakis, Tillman, and Guthrie for whatever they can get. Rebuild (again) around Wieters, Matusz, and Britton. Their current “core” will never compete in the AL East where every team outshines them at nearly every position for now and the future.

David
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David
5 years 2 months ago

Jones is only 25. why would you trade him in order to rebuild? not to mention his career UZR/150 is -3.5, which is perfectly respectable for a premium position like CF. trading Markakis doesn’t make sense either because you’d be selling low, and anyway, I doubt you could get anything of value without eating a lot of his contract. trade Tillman? the kid’s 23 years old! I think he still has 5 more years under team control, as well, because of all the time he’s spent in the minors… and do you really think that if a GM offered any kind of decent prospect (plus salary relief) for Lee or Vlad (or Pie for that matter), MacPhail wouldn’t take that in a heartbeat? if anything, he’s too quick to pull the trigger on trades like that. trading away Chad Bradford for cash considerations still annoys some O’s fans…

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