The 2018 Baltimore Orioles in History: An Ill-Advised, Premature Comparison

Chris Davis and his historically bad season is one of the reasons the Orioles are struggling this season. (via Keith Allison)

Flirting with a sub-.300 winning percentage, the 2018 Baltimore Orioles are a kind of perfect team, better at losing than almost any team is at winning. It’s a little early to start looking at their place in history—even with their trade-deadline teardown, they could play .750 ball the rest of the way because baseball so often thwarts our expectations—but the dimensions of the disaster are already clear.

In the 1985 edition of his Baseball Abstract, Bill James compared the 1984 champion Detroit Tigers to six other great teams of relatively recent vintage. He did this via the time-honored game of “my shortstop is better than your shortstop.” He set up a faux-pennant race; each time a player ranked ahead of the competition, it was a win. The rankings were subjective, based in part on the players’ performance in the season in question, in part on career value. We’re going to do that here with the Orioles, but backwards: The goal is to find the best team at being bad, so whenever a team’s player is worse than another player, we’ll count that as a win.

The field:

The 1979 Oakland A’s (54-108, .333): The nadir of the post-glory years A’s.
The 1988 Baltimore Orioles (54-107, .335): Aging team keeps adding vets, opens the season 0-21.
The 1996 Detroit Tigers (53-109, .327): Going decades without developing a starting pitcher will hurt you.
The 1998 Florida Marlins (54-108, 333): Post-championship poor-mouthing teardown team.
The 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119, .265): Trying to recover from post-Sparky years collapse, they somehow rebuilt themselves worse.
The 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-115, .315): Randy Johnson and one of the worst offenses of all time.

First Base

7. Eddie Murray, 1988 Baltimore Orioles: A typical Murray season of .284/.361/.474, 134 wRC+ ball; whatever went wrong with the O’s in this period, it wasn’t his fault.
6. Carlos Pena, 2003 Tigers: A good glove man who took years to live up to expectations with the bat. He’d get there with a huge 2007, but here he was just passable.
5. Dave Revering, 1979 A’s: The second-best offensive season of a peak period that lasted all of two years.
4. Derrek Lee, 1998 Marlins: Lee would have some huge years in the future, but he was an underwhelming rookie.
3. Shea Hillenbrand, 2004 D-backs: A .310 hitter this season, but averaged .276/.318/.397 on the road. His lack of strikeouts (49 in 562 at-bats) seems like an illusion now.
2. Cecil Fielder and Tony Clark, 1996 Tigers: Clark, a rookie, would have a very potent (.282/.366/.506) five-year stretch for the Tigers, but hadn’t yet figured out the strike zone. Fielder wasn’t bad, but in a big offensive season, his production was just okay.
1. Chris Davis, 2018 Orioles: Having one of the worst seasons by any first baseman in history; the best you can say is that what little he does hit leaves the park.

Standings After One Position

1. 2018 Orioles 6-0
2. 1996 Tigers 5-1
3. 2004 D-backs 4-2
4. 1998 Marlins 3-3
5. 1979 A’s 2-4
6. 2003 Tigers 1-5
7. 1988 Orioles 0-6

Second Base

7. Jonathan Schoop, 2018 Orioles: Hopeless through the end of June, he’s killed it since then. To be replaced by the currently-injured Jonathan Villar, who won’t have to play too far over his head to hold this position.
6. Craig Counsell and Luis Castillo, 1998 Marlins: Counsell opened hot, went into a massive slump, and then caught fire again—right before C.J. Nitkowski broke his jaw with a pitch. Castillo took over and hit a punchless .203.
5. Warren Morris and Ramon Santiago, 2003 Tigers: Morris looked like a comer in 1998-1999, but this was his last chance after inconsistent results. Santiago hit .225/.292/.284, but could field a little.
4. Scott Hairston and Matt Kata, 2004 D-backs: The season began with a farewell-ing Roberto Alomar, who spent two months on the DL and was traded. Hairston had some pop for the middle infield, but was such a good glove he spent the rest of his career in the outfield.
3. Mark Lewis, 1996 Tigers: The second-overall pick in the 1988 draft never hit or fielded well enough to be a quality regular.
2. Billy Ripken, 1988 Orioles: Really, really bad, with a 48 OPS+ and poor defensive numbers as well.
1. Mike Edwards, 1979 A’s: No offense, no defense, although his 10 steals in 16 attempts was a vast improvement on his 27 out of 48 in 1978.

Third Base

7. Travis Fryman and Phil Nevin, 1996 Tigers: Talented, but only sometimes played up to star capabilities. Not Fryman’s best season, but not bad either—driving in 100 runs in this lineup feels like an accomplishment. Nevin, the first overall draft pick in 1992 (Astros), took over in September and played quite well.
6. Chad Tracy, 2004 D-backs: A rookie, Tracy only had one year as big as his minor league numbers seemed to portend. This wasn’t it, but he was still decent against right-handed pitchers.
5. Bobby Bonilla, Todd Zeile, Kevin Orie, 1998 Marlins: Cycled through vets as they traded before landing on one of the more notorious busted Cubs third base prospects. It sort of worked: Fish third basemen hit .280/.359/.417. Defense remained a concept. Docked a spot for Josh Booty.
4. Eric Munson and Shane Halter, 2003 Tigers: The third-overall pick in 1999 was selected as a catcher and played the hot corner like he was boxing in a wild pitch. He hit decently, whereas Halter didn’t hit at all.
3. Wayne Gross, 1979 A’s: An underrated three true outcomes player against right-handed pitching, at least in some years; this wasn’t one of them, but he did draw 72 walks.
2. Tim Beckham and Danny Valencia, 2018 Orioles: After reviving his career in 2017, Beckham is playing his way back into fringe status. Valencia is his usual good-hit/no-field self.
1. Rick Schu and Rene Gonzales, 1988 Orioles: Schu, the onetime heir to Mike Schmidt, was a poor fielder and couldn’t hit right-handed pitching; Gonzalez was all glove.

Standings After Three Positions

Finley’s remainders lead, Robinson and Showalter’s boys stay close.
1. 1979 A’s 12-6
T2. 1988 Orioles 11-7
T2. 2018 Orioles 11-7
4. 1996 Tigers 9-9
5. 2004 D-backs 8-10
T6. 2003 Tigers 6-12
T6. 1998 Marlins 6-12

Shorstop

7. Cal Ripken Jr. 1988: Ruined his numbers with a miserable September. He still finished with a 128 OPS+ and fielded like, well, Cal Ripken, Jr.
6. Manny Machado and Tim Beckham, 2018 Orioles: Despite troubling defensive stats, Machado was hitting well enough to rate ahead of Ripken in one of the Hall of Famer’s lesser years. Machado isn’t there anymore, and Beckham can’t compete in this crowd.
5. Edger Renteria, 1998 Marlins: Only 21 but in his third major league season, Renteria’s short-lived offensive peak was still four years away.
4. Andujar Cedeno/Chris Gomez/Alan Trammell/Travis Fryman, 1996 Tigers: There was a fleeting moment when Cedeno looked like he might be a quality regular. This season ended that. Gomez was not quite good enough to be called a replacement-level player for most of his long career. Trammell was a faint echo of his former greatness.
3. Alex Cintron, 2004 Diamondbacks: Had hit a surprising .317 with 13 home runs as a rookie in ’03. He never came close again, and his glove was nothing special.
2. Omar Infante and Roman Santiago, 2003 Tigers: Tigers shortstops hit an awesome .220/.283/.282. Infante’s supersub peak was in the future; here he was a 21-year-old rookie whose bat hadn’t yet been delivered.
1. Rob Picciolo and Mario Guerrero, 1979 A’s: Picciolo was the patron saint of impatience. Oakland shortstops drew just 23 walks in 1979; these two combined to take just nine in 540 plate appearances.

Catcher

7. Brad Ausmus and John Flaherty, 1996 Tigers: Flaherty began the season as the regular, then left in the trade that brought Ausmus. Tigers catchers didn’t hit much (.244/.300/.400), but they weren’t automatic outs, and both of these cats were strong defenders.
6. Terry Kennedy and Mickey Tettleton, 1988 Orioles: From debut through 1983, Kennedy hit.285/.333/.426 (114 OPS+), but those days were long gone. Tettleton, however, was just beginning; through already 27, he was starting a strong nine-year run as a three true outcomes god, albeit one whose glove was something you tolerated.
5. Gregg Zaun, Mike Redmond, Charles Johnson, 1998 Marlins: Johnson was traded in May. Redmond hit quite well in limited playing time, but Zaun was miserable at .188/.274/.292 in 106 games. All three of these guys were good players, even if they were in and out in 1998.
4. Jeff Newman and Jim Essian, 1979 A’s: Newman made the All-Star team with 16 first-half homers but was impatient and neutered by the Oakland Coliseum. With good patience, Essian was often a decent reserve, but this was one of his lesser seasons.
3. Caleb Joseph and Chance Sisco, 2018 Orioles: So far, Orioles catchers have hit .213/.278/.334 in aggregate. Sisco, presently back in the minors, may yet be the catcher of the future, but he’s not the catcher of 2018.
2. Brandon Inge, 2003 Tigers: Would make his mark as a superb defensive third baseman. At this moment he’d played the rough equivalent of one full season in the big leagues and had hit .194/.247/.298.
1. Juan Brito, Robby Hammock and friends, 2004 D-backs: Arizona’s revolving-door backstops hit .226/.286/.365. None of them did much to recommend themselves in other seasons, though Chris Snyder and Brent Mayne had their moments as part-timers.

Standings After Five Positions

A’s threaten to pull away, but Diamondbacks worse than anyone thought.
1. 1979 A’s 21-9
2. 2004 D-backs 18-12
T3. 2018 Orioles 16-14
T3. 2003 Tigers 16-14
T4. 1988 Orioles 12-18
T4. 1996 Tigers 12-18
5. 1998 Marlins 10-20

Left Field

7. Bobby Higginson, Curtis Pride, and DVD extras, 1996 Tigers: What an odd career: This was Higginson’s sophomore year and arguably his peak .320/.404/.577. He was all over the place afterwards and was through as a good player at 30. Pride had a 122 OPS+ in a half-season of work.
6. Cliff Floyd, 1998 Marlins: Frangible, but played in a career-high 153 games. Hit .282/.337/.481, which by his standards was not a special season.
5. Luis Gonzalez and Quinton McCracken, 2004 Diamondbacks: At 36 the injury termites were wearing out Gonzalez. He missed the last two months after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. McCracken was an indifferent replacement.
4. Craig Monroe and Dmitri Young, 2003 Tigers: Young had the best offensive season of his career but was a bad fielder who did his best hitting as the DH. Monroe lived on the razor’s edge, a corner outfield prospect who didn’t quite sock it at the level you’d expect from a player at those positions. For four years he hit .267/.312/.466, which was just good enough. Once he slipped from that level he was gone.
3. Rickey Henderson and pals, 1979 A’s: Rickey’s debut. At 20, he wasn’t yet the megastar he would become. Everyone else the A’s tried here was disastrous, with the result that even though Rickey hit .264/.337/.346, left fielders hit .230/.289/.307 overall.
2. Dealer’s Choice (Pete Stanicek, Larry Sheets, Joe Orsulak et al), 1988 Orioles: The left-field dogpile hit .248/.311/.366, which in this crowd is not terrible. Stanicek looked like a good prospect,—a switch-hitting second baseman with good patience, a solid average in singles, and stolen bases. The O’s brought him to the majors, moved him to the outfield, and none of that happened.
1. Trey Mancini, 2018 Orioles: Just as you might buy food from a weak restaurant because it’s the only ones who deliver, you might take poor defense from a left fielder if he hits. At this writing, Mancini’s OBP is teetering on the .300-OBP mark. Only Chris Davis’ historic season prevents him from being the least-valuable Oriole of 2018.

Center Field

7. Dwayne Murphy, 1979 A’s: Murphy was a 24-year-old rookie with a .387 on-base percentage. That was good, but there were home runs and Gold Glove defense still to come.
6. Adam Jones, 2018 Orioles: Strangely streaky, he can fool you into thinking he’s one of the best players in baseball for weeks at a time. Then he hits .210 for a month and you remember he’s terminally impatient and defensively stretched in center field.
5. Steve Finley and Luis Terrero, 2004 D-backs: Finley had just a little left to give at 39 and was traded at the deadline. Terrero, a non-hitter, took over.
4. Todd Dunwoody and Mark Kotsay, 1998 Marlins: Both rookies playing after the post-’97 Fish-purge. Dunwoody looked like a good all-around prospect in the minors, but plate judgment was a problem and his power stayed in Charlotte. Bumped up for solid defense.
3. Chad Curtis and Kimera Bartee, 1996 Tigers: We’ll try not to hold Curtis’ post-career behavior against him insofar as these rankings go and say only that while stretched as a starter, he was a useful fourth outfielder and platoon player. Then again, he was also a divisive holier-than-thou figure in the clubhouse, so let’s just move on and note that no one ever said anything bad about Kim Bartee, including pitchers (career OPS+: 49).
2. Alex Sanchez, Eugene Kingsale, Andres Torres and guests, 2003 Tigers: There have been terrible teams with good center fielders (Wally Berger of the 1935 Braves led the NL in home runs and RBI). This wasn’t one of them. Sanchez was a .296 career hitter with no other skills. Experimental alternatives included former Rockies catching prospect Ben Petrick, making a heroic effort to play despite Parkinson’s disease.
1. Fred Lynn, Brady Anderson, Ken Gerhart, 1988 Orioles: In order of appearance, a player whose time had gone, another whose time had yet to come, and a third who had no time at all. As a group: .221/.275/.391.

Standings After Seven Positions

The aught-three Tigers make their move with weak outfield.
1. 1979 A’s 25-17
2. 2003 Tigers 24-18
T3. 2018 Orioles 23-19
T3. 1988 Orioles 23-19
4. 2004 D-backs 22-20
5. 1996 Tigers 16-26
6. 1998 Marlins 14-28

Naming Rights and Naming Wrongs: Let’s Rename Those AL Ballparks!
In this space, stadium names are the name of the game.

Right Field

7. Gary Sheffield and Mark Kotsay, 1998 Marlins: Sheffield was traded after a quarter of the season. Kotsay was just okay, but played well enough to launch a long career.
6. Melvin Nieves, Bobby Higginson, and partners, 1996 Tigers: Nieves was a switch-hitting slugger, at least when he could make contact—which he rarely did. Fielded .943 as an outfielder, which is hard.
5. Soup Du Jour (Joe Orsulak, Larry Sheets, Keith Hughes, and whoever showed up), 1988 Orioles: Orsulak was overqualified for bad teams but underqualified to be a starter on good ones. Sheets was a 143 OPS+ regular in ’87, but it didn’t carry over. Hughes was a popular tweener who was traded four times in five years. Aggregate: .238/.293/.357.
4. Bobby Higginson, 2003 Tigers: The good Higginson is above. This is the evil Higginson, whose contract kept him going even though he was done.
3. Danny Bautista, 2004 D-backs: A strange career. He did little in the minors. He did almost nothing in the majors. He was primarily a right fielder but played nearly 900 games with an OPS+ of 83. Played 141 games in ’04 and was never seen again, which is rare.
2. Mixed Nuts (Anthony Santander, Joey Rickard, Mark Trumbo, and heirloom vegetables), 2018 Orioles: So far, an aggregate .221/.274/.374 with little hope of improvement.
1. Tony Armas, Larry Murray, Mike Heath and the gang, 1979 A’s: Imagine if Ryon Healy had 80 power and a killer throwing arm and you’d sort of have peak Armas. That was a year off in ’79 due to injuries. The subs were so bad that as a group A’s right fielders hit.192/.259/.297.

Top Right-Handed Starter

7. Brandon Webb, 2004 Diamondbacks: Had half a Hall of Fame career before arm miseries derailed him, but uncharacteristic wildness would have kept ’04 off his plaque.
6. Mike Boddicker, 1988 Orioles: Solid curveballer who could have won the 1984 Cy Young Award. Traded at the deadline for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling, which says something.
5. Rick Langford, 1979 A’s: An ill-starred curveballer; first he got little support from a downward-trending team, then Billy Martin pitched his arm off.
4. Dylan Bundy, 2018 Orioles: The Orioles waited a long time for their 2011 first-rounder to be healthy enough to pitch. It turns out to have been a bit like anticipating the Star Wars prequels. Draft-board hindsight makes the wait that much more poignant.
3. Livan Hernandez, 1998 Marlins: Often a good pitcher (especially when he had a little help), but badly abused by his managers and had just one good season after he was 30.
2. Omar Olivares, 1996 Tigers: Occasionally effective starter whose walks were always trying to outpace his strikeouts.
1. Nate Cornejo, 2003 Tigers: Ground-ball guy who struck out 46 batters in 194.2 innings. Think about that.

Standings After Nine Positions

Alan Trammell’s charges make a race of it.
T1. 1979 A’s 33-21
T1. 2003 Tigers 33-21
3. 2018 Orioles 31-23
T4. 1988 Orioles 26-28
T4. 2004 D-Backs 26-28
5. 1996 Tigers 22-32
6. 1998 Marlins 18-36

Top Left-Handed Starter

7. Randy Johnson, 2004 D-backs: The last great season of a unique career.
6. Justin Thompson, 1996 Tigers: Just a rookie here, Thompson had one great season in him (7.7 WAR in 1997) before he was halted in his tracks by injuries.
5. Jeff Ballard, 1988 Orioles: One of the most extreme pitch-to-contact guys of the postwar era, in ’89 he would win 18 games while striking out 62 in 215.1 innings. That hadn’t happened in almost 50 years. He’d never make the majors today.
4. Mike Maroth, 2003 Tigers: Famously hung in there to become the first 20-game loser since Brian Kingman with the 1980 A’s. He earned it.
3. Jesus Sanchez, 1998 Marlins: Traded to the Marlins by the Mets for Al Leiter—a good Mets trade! Never overcame consistent command problems.
2. John Henry Johnson and Craig Minetto, 1979 A’s: Johnson, traded to the Rangers in June, was better later as a reliever. Minetto never established himself in the major leagues.
1. 2018 Orioles: No lefty starter. We’ll list Alex Cobb here. Sorry.

Third Starter

7. Kevin Gausman, 2018 Orioles: There are no great pitchers in this group; listing Gausman here is a gesture toward what the Braves thought of him at the trading deadline.
6. Steve McCatty, 1979 A’s: His career was a series of league-average seasons sandwiched around 1981, when he led the AL in wins and ERA. Working for Billy Martin, he completed 16 of 22 starts and was never that good again, but maybe he wouldn’t have been anyway.
5. Jeremy Bonderman, 2003 Tigers: 2001 first-rounder rushed to the majors and allowed to take his lumps. He had obvious ability, but the Tigers committed malpractice. Better later, but only momentarily.
4. Jose Bautista, 1988 Orioles: Rule 5’d from the Mets to the O’s and chucked into the rotation, he was surprisingly effective (which is not to say he was good). Had a couple of superficially effective years out of the Cubs’ pen in the early ‘90s.
3. Felipe Lira, 1996 Tigers: Another expansion-type pitcher, Lira showed that every dog (or Tiger) can have his day, throwing complete-game shutouts at the Twins and Blue Jays in ’96.
2. Casey Fossum, 2004 D-backs: An effective swingman for the Red Sox as a rookie, he never pitched consistently well again. Still retained enough allure to be included in the package that brought Curt Schilling back to Boston.
1. Brian Meadows, 1998 Marlins: Had a nine-season career in the majors without ever pitching well, but teams wanted to believe in him for some reason.

Standings After 11 Positions

A’s cling to narrow lead with six to play.
1. 1979 A’s 39-27
2. 2003 Tigers 38-28
3. 2018 Orioles 37-29
T4. 1988 Orioles 31-35
T4. 2004 D’Backs 31-35
5. 1998 Marlins 28-38
6. 1996 Tigers 27-39

Closers

7. Matt Mantei, 1998 Marlins: Effective when healthy, but you could rarely say that about him.
6. Tom Niedenfuer, 1988 Orioles: Had a better career than you might remember given a high-profile susceptibility to the long-ball that showed up in the ’85 playoffs and never left.
5. Gregg Olson, 1996 Tigers: Fourth-overall pick in the ’88 draft was rushed to the majors and for six years he lived up to the hype. This season was not one of the six.
4. Brad Brach, 2018 Orioles: Traded to the Braves; we’ll know his replacement the next time the Orioles have a save opportunity—look for it next April.
3. Dave Heaverlo, 1979 A’s: Decent reliever for a couple of years with good command, threw 130 innings out of the pen in ’78 and the command vanished. A tale as old as time.
2. Greg Aquino, 2004 D-backs: With the exception of the odd Mariano Rivera, “closer” is a role, not a skill, and players go up and down the saves rankings like a one-hit wonder on the pop charts. Aquino was a contingency after Matt Mantei suffered a season-ending injury in May. The following season, Jose Valverde took over. The Aquino movie was over with no sequels.
1. Franklyn German, 2003 Tigers: Acquired as part of a three-way trade involving Jeff Weaver that didn’t work out well for anyone. A total bust.

Final Standings

Give the ’18 Orioles more time?
1. 2003 Tigers 44-28
2. 1979 A’s 43-29
3. 2018 Orioles 40-32
4. 2004 D-backs 36-36
5. 1988 Orioles 32-40
6. 1996 Tigers 29-43
7. 1998 Marlins 28-44

References and Resources


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Paul G.
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Paul G.

Thank you. That was fun.

It would have been interesting to include the current Royals, since they are only one win ahead of the O’s for worst record at this point.

miniditkamaddon
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miniditkamaddon

This was awesome. I feel like you could widen this to include so many more teams. But if I could ask for one, it would be the ’55 Senators, who were included in the classic game Micro League Baseball as a joke.

nickdims
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nickdims

Yep. This is the goods! Well done.

Big Daddy V
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Big Daddy V

This format is a little unfair to the ’03 Tigers. Their pitching staff was so atrocious, top to bottom, it’s what really carried them to their historic record.

yorobert
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Member
yorobert

This was a fabulous read-thanks!

ThomServo
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ThomServo
Fun article. Small quibble- it might be inaccurate to describe the 1988 Baltimore Orioles as an ‘aging team that kept adding vets.’ This club was just a bit before my time so I wanted to take a closer look. Among it’s 9 most regular position players, and it’s 5 most regular SPs, the Orioles only featured 3 players over age 28- Fred Lynn age 36, Eddie Murray age 32, and Mike Boddicker age 30. The average team age was 27.7, which is near average, and the PA and IP adjusted age is similarly roughly average. Lynn, the team’s only player… Read more »