On the first day of June 2020, following a not unusual three game drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays, Baltimore had a record of 30-30 and were four games back in the wild card race. But, encouragingly, there was a slate of upcoming games, 18 in total, against teams that were each performing similarly around the .500 mark. This was an opportunity for the Baltimore brass, and the franchise’s expectant fans, to see whether or not it had a team that could put a good run together against a group of apparent also-rans; the type of teams that a genuine playoff contender should be beating consistently.
Baltimore won 11 of those 18 games, with a batting average 10 points higher than their opponents, an OBP 22 points higher and a healthy K%-BB% of 17.6 compared to 11.1. Repeating that 60%+ win rate for the remainder of the season would be a big ask but if achieved would put the team north of 90 wins, with a viable chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
The next target was the All-Star break, a further six series and 19 games ahead. The series were split half against teams ultimately bound for the playoffs (Tigers, Red Sox and Mariners) and half against strugglers (the A’s and the Yankees twice). A 10-9 record was the result, missing the required win rate by a significant margin, but statistically the team’s key performance indicators remained healthy compared to their opponents. Despite slipping a further half-game in the wild card standings, Baltimore’s 51-46 record and general all around play meant there were reasons to be cheerful for the back end of the season.
At an individual level, tails were up in the dug out as OF Andrew McCutchen, 1B Christian Walker, 2B Trea Turner and ace pitcher Zach Greinke achieved All-Star, giving the franchise a significant representation at the big game. Except that, at the “11th hour”, an inflamed shoulder meant that Greinke would not take the field and the team would have to wait nervously for a diagnosis. Throughout the break, the team was on tenterhooks and, alas, when the news came it was bad. The injury was serious and brought Greinke’s season to an end. He took his 1.67 ERA, 62 FIP- and 9-5 winning record to the sick bay with him.
The pitching problems then began to mount up. Soon after Greinke’s diagnosis, the situation was exacerbated considerably. Top prospect Zane Cochran (who admittedly had struggled at times) picked up a rotator cuff strain and missed five weeks. Subsequently, fellow starter Hunter Harvey, who was enjoying striking out nigh on 30% of the batters he faced while walking not much more than 1-in-20, succumbed to an abdominal muscle strain and missed four weeks. He returned in late August, played three games, tore up his shoulder and was out for the duration. In mid-August, another blown out shoulder, this time to lights-out closer/stopper Aroldis Chapman (with his ridiculously good FIP of 0.84) ended his season too.
Unsurprisingly, the pitching collapsed, there was not enough cover to paper over the cracks of the big names that were missing. Over a six week stretch, the team struggled through an abysmal run, going 17-25. Offensively, while hardly setting the league on fire, the team continued in its usual steady manner but on defence it was a different matter entirely, as opponents’ numbers sky-rocketed, conceding a batting average of .263 and an OBP of .356 on the way to allowing 242 runs, a per game increase of 1.7 compared to what went before. The O’s were three games below .500 and 10.5 games off wild card pace.
Or, was it? As every team battles against every other team, there is one battle that can be forgotten, the battle against yourself. It is all too easy to capitulate when the going gets tough, to throw in the towel, adopt the “there is always next year” mindset. Or, a player, a team, a franchise, can pick itself up by its boot straps and do its damnedest to put on as good a show as possible despite the circumstances in which it finds itself. Without any influx of new talent, with all their crocked pitchers watching on, the Orioles decided that even though October ball was out of reach they would have the best September they could muster.
Over the remainder of the season, the management applied the use of openers to give more control over who actually pitches game-on-game, overcoming some of the issues of a struggling middle relief. The team got back to its 60%+ winning ways, going 14-9, outscoring opponents by 26 runs, out-hitting by 32 points of average and 16 of OBP. The modified approach to pitching resulted in the staff striking out 1-in-4 batters, and the O’s wound up with a winning record. At 82-80 it was the slimmest possible winning record, but – crucially – it was a winning record.
That extra victory which made the left hand side of the W-L dash bigger than the right hand side makes such a difference, or at least it does to the O’s. For a franchise that has been hamstrung due to previous financial mismanagement it is an extremely welcome ‘small win’, a baby-step towards respectability and the team becoming a contender. Greinke, Cochran, Harvey and Chapman will be back for 2021, and hopefully will be none the worse for wear. Baltimore also hopes the same is true for Zach Davies, who was a key starter in 2019 but missed the entire 2020 season due to an injured elbow. The home-run susceptible struggling middle relief has been swapped out for what should hopefully be a steadier bullpen, and tweaks on offence should improve that side of the club too. Baltimore bigwigs are doing everything they can in 2021 to find those elusive, playoff-delivering dozen-or-so extra wins. Stay tuned… O!, it should be a fun ride.