What makes a bad baseball team? The answer in 2022 isn’t terribly hard. Even in recent years, one could just vomit up the words “Baltimore Orioles’ and probably land pretty close to spot-on. Luckily, they’ve got some company this year.
Bad teams take on a number of iterations across the sporting landscape. In Major League Baseball, though, they’re somewhat unique. Teams slashing payroll, avoiding paying their own players through arbitration, and standing pat through all movement periods — free agency, the trade deadline in a contention window, etc. — are ideas that have become too commonplace in today’s game.
The Last Contenders in Baltimore
In that sense, the Baltimore Orioles are not super unique. They did, after all, have to take a path not dissimilar to that on their way down here. The last season they were contenders was 2018, when they made the tournament as a wild card. Even that team, though, was a shell of their 2016 team that featured Manny Machado, 85 combined home runs from Chris Davis & Mark Trumbo, and a pitching staff that featured names like Kevin Gausman, Chris Tillman, and Zack Britton.
The two full seasons since then have featured a 54-win and a 52-win campaign, with a dreadful Boston Red Sox club in 2020 serving as the only reason their 25-win 2020 squad stayed a game out of last place all three seasons in that window. This year’s roster, however, has a chance to be at least a little bit different.
Turning It Around
Not in terms of divisional outcomes, mind you. The New York Yankees are tearing through everybody they play. The Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, and Red Sox are all at varying levels of contention. But considering how the last few seasons have gone, 6.5 games out of a wild card spot isn’t the worst place you can be if you’re the O’s.
The Orioles won 14 games in June, including three-of-four against a supposed contender in the Chicago White Sox. They’re six under .500, as of this writing. As far as baseball’s bad teams go, the Baltimore Orioles have as much reason for optimism moving into the summer heat as anybody.
Consider the other “bad” clubs that exist. Without using any sort of real criteria (outside of standings and their perceived effort level in reaching contention in 2022), we can probably surmise that these are the group to which I am referring:
- Chicago Cubs
- Oakland Athletics
- Detroit Tigers
- Kansas City Royals
- Washington Nationals
- Cincinnati Reds
- Pittsburgh Pirates
You could argue that a few other teams belong in there based purely on results. The Los Angeles Angels. The Colorado Rockies. Probably the Arizona Diamondbacks. But that group of seven in the bullet-pointed list is what we’ll run with for now. Which makes eight with the Orioles. (Side Note: Isn’t it bleak that there’s an argument to be made for 33 percent of the league here? Ah, well.)
The Best of the Bad
A quick look at the numbers tells you a pretty clear story. The only team that the O’s aren’t ahead of in position player fWAR (6.0) is the Chicago Cubs and their 9.7. Baltimore has the lead over the other six in wRC+, with their 93 mark (the Cubs are at 102). Their team ISO, at .154, though, leads the whole group and, in fact, ranks 14th in the league overall. That’s something to hang your hat on if you’re a team in Baltimore’s position.
Where the O’s really reign supreme over their unfortunate counterparts are in the other two phases of the game. Their pitching staff sits ninth in the league (and third in the American League!) in pitching fWAR (8.4). The next closest team out of that group is Detroit, with a 6.8 mark. While they’re striking out hitters at the league’s second-lowest rate (7.35 per nine), they do feature the sixth-best BB/9 in baseball (2.91). That figure edges the Tigers’ 3.22 number and easily trumps the remainder of the teams on that list. Their 4.01 ERA as a staff also leads the group.
Their bullpen has been especially impressive. Baltimore’s relief corps has accrued 3.9 fWAR, which trails only Atlanta’s 4.5. And, yeah, there are likely more impressive groups of relief pitchers around the league, but posting the league’s third-best groundball rate and one of the lower walk rates (3.15/9) is a strong foundation for some success. The defense helps, too. Baltimore is tied for the third-most Defensive Runs Saved (36) and is above average virtually everywhere on the defensive scale. At the very least, rolling those arms in relief and a good group of gloves supporting them should garner some more prospect volume in their strong farm system (in what should, ideally, be one of the final deadlines of selling for this rebuild).
It’s not as if the Baltimore Orioles are obliterating their bottom-dwelling compatriots across the board. But they hold a lead in enough statistical areas that we could likely give them an edge in the aggregate. More importantly, though, this is not purely a discussion about 2022. As with any rebuilding club, the discussion is about the future, both in the short and long term.
The A’s, Nationals, and Reds are still in the early stages of their rebuild. There isn’t a lot of hope on the horizon. Pittsburgh has some standouts reaching the top level, but we legitimately don’t know what direction this goes for them in the next couple of years. The Royals and Tigers appear to have entered a purgatory stage, as neither should be as bad as they are at this point. And the Cubs have an improved farm system, but also an intense aversion to spending, so we don’t know where they head from here, either.
Optimism Moving Forward?
That could very well leave the Orioles as the team with not only the best performance, generally, of the bunch in 2022, but with the most optimism as to what the next few years look like. Even with Adley Rutschman graduating from MLB’s Top 100 Prospect List, Baltimore still features five prospects on the list. That number is tied with Pittsburgh atop the list and includes a pair in the top five in Grayson Rodriguez and Gunnar Henderson. Perhaps even better is the fact that of the Orioles’ top 30 prospects, over half are projected to arrive by next year. Development is obviously not linear, but it would appear to bode well for the O’s. Especially when you consider the current state of some of MLB’s other “bad” teams.
This year’s trade deadline has an opportunity to say a lot about this team. There’s a bit of a semblance of a core (Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, etc.), so who ends up around after July could say a bit about what heights this team can reach next year. Regardless, their performance this year, along with their stable of prospects that are on the cusp, could have this team in a strong position within the next couple of years.
The really unfortunate thing for the Baltimore Orioles, though, is their division. They’re not going to run circles around the field in regard to free-agent spending. And there aren’t a ton of inroads to contention with their competition in the American League East. Nonetheless, their 2022 performance certainly has them in a better position than we might have expected, given what the last couple of years have looked like. At the very least, that lends itself to optimism moving forward, and likely far more than you’ll see from the other bottom-dwelling clubs in Major League Baseball.
Featured Image by Cody Rogers (@codyrogers10 on Instagram and Twitter)
One month later….Orioles are 21-7 in their last 28 games. This team is just getting started.