Sports columnist Peter Schmuck talks about 'what went wrong' with this seasons Baltimore Orioles. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Editor's note: One year after the Orioles won 96 games and their first American League East title since 1997, they can finish no better than .500 and will miss the postseason. In the coming days, The Baltimore Sun will break down what went wrong in 2015 and how to fix it.
It is a simple enough matter to break down the past season and find all the reasons the Orioles did not score enough runs — or distribute them more evenly — to deliver their fans a fourth consecutive winning season.
The Orioles offense was consistently inconsistent because it was not built with enough versatility and connectivity to overcome the predictable ebb and flow of a free-swinging lineup with an inordinate dependence on the home run.
That's the opinion of observers inside and outside the organization. Major league scouts who observe the Orioles on a daily basis (but are not allowed to comment on them publicly) point to the high strikeout and low walk totals to explain the team's meager on-base percentage. Manager Buck Showalter would rather dwell on a long list of positive individual performances, but he doesn't have to look hard for another big reason his team's OBP receded this year.
"You lose two guys who walk as much as Nelson and Nicky did, it will," he said.
Indeed, the departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis last winter had a huge impact on the Orioles' ability to produce runs. Everybody knows that. The inability of the front office to find anyone to replace an adequate percentage of that production left the Orioles with gaps in the lineup that widened as the season wore on.
The Orioles came into 2015 with the intention of improving on last year's .311 OBP to offset losing Cruz and Markakis, but entered the final weekend of the season looking up at that number and 27 other major league teams.
It is not a new problem, but the Orioles were able to gloss over it in previous years because of their huge power numbers.
"Sometimes you get kind of a false sense of security thinking that's kind of your safety blanket," hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh said. "I would like to see us a little better manufacturing runs. For me as a hitting coach, I feel like an offense should be like a golf bag. You have different clubs for different lengths and different positions on the course. I think that's the same way you look at an offense. You have some guys that have some power and you have some guys that can get on base.
"Moving forward, I think those are some things we want to try to improve on."
Trouble is, the Orioles appear to be on the verge of perhaps trading one problem for another. They already seriously downgraded their power potential when they let Cruz leave last winter. Now, they face an uncertain offseason in which they are expected to lose both Chris Davis and Matt Wieters to free agency. If so, that would mean that over a span of two winters, they will have removed nearly 100 home runs from their offensive equation.
Coolbaugh walked into the middle of this and — predictably — has become an easy target on the fan blogs and message boards, but Showalter bristles at the suggestion that he has had anything but a positive impact on the club.
"That's the least of our problems," Showalter said. "He's as good as you want to find. I don't even think about it. Articulate. Smart. Good relationship. Knows hitting backwards and forwards. That's a hot button for me. This is the best coaching staff I've ever had. They're really good. They were good last year and they'll be good next year. They were good this year."
If anyone is still looking for proof, Showalter points to some of the offensive highlights of the 2015 season.
"You've got Manny [Machado] having a career year and Jon Schoop having a career year," Showalter said. "Chris Davis … who was one of the reasons Scott was attractive because of the past relationship there. Matt [Wieters] was hurt for a lot of the year. The rest of the guys are doing what they are supposed to do and we have some guys doing more than they've ever done."
And yet, Showalter concedes the club has lacked offensive versatility and that has reduced his ability to force the action on the bases.
"I don't think I've ever given less signals," he said. "If you see where we are with stolen bases, it got to the point where the percentage is just not there. You're just throwing outs away. And when you swing and miss a lot, and you don't steal a lot of bases, that's the two combinations you look for in hit-and-run situations."
The Orioles' contact issues are well known. There are only three major league teams that have struck out more this year, but the Orioles went to the American League Championship Series with nearly the same number of strikeouts last season. That's an area Coolbaugh wishes he could have fixed, but he was not in a position to dictate new approaches to the established hitters in the lineup.
"I think one of the things coming in as a first-year coach, you don't want to disrupt what has been successful with the organization over the last few years," Coolbaugh said. "The offense has been what it is. It has been that way for the last four years and, consequently, getting to the American League Championship Series last year, you don't want to come in and say, 'OK, we're going to completely change something that they do well.'"
So, where do the Orioles go from here? They say they want to re-sign Davis, which would keep their power base largely intact, but they would still need to add some hitters who can provide that connective tissue that keeps the offense humming between home runs.
Presumably, they will pursue a quality corner outfielder and try to re-sign midseason acquisition Gerardo Parra. That would certainly help. They also could use another contact guy to provide some more position depth and join the revolving designated hitter role.
"We know this team is based a lot on the power end of it and that can be a detriment sometimes against some of the better pitchers in the American League East," Coolbaugh said. "In the American League in general, you're not always going to be able to go up there and be able to hit home runs off them to win ballgames."