That these Orioles, at 14-26, reached the quarter-pole of the 2019 season this past weekend a shade better than last year's 40-game record of 12-28 illuminates the difficulty of evaluating an on-field product while it’s undergoing a rebuild.
What does it mean when a team so different than the last — the 2018 Orioles had eight All-Stars, while the 2019 Orioles have eight players who have been waived or designated for assignment in the past year — performs similarly to the one that came before it? Do the modest expectations for this year’s team make things look better, or is losing still losing no matter who's doing it?
As an extension of the relaxed, do-your-work-but-enjoy-it atmosphere manager Brandon Hyde created in spring training, it's no surprise that even as they lose twice as often as they win, the Orioles feel there's one key difference.
"Just vibes," catcher Austin Wynns said. "I'd say we are young, and basically the thing that's different is the chemistry here for all of us. We're close. It's just the chemistry is a little bit different. It's just a hard question.
"We didn't know how the vibe was going to be until it happened, but everyone was going to go about his business the right way. We weren't going to have a losing mentality. We're going to go out there and compete and win a game, no matter what. Losing doesn't put people in a good state of mind. Losing sucks, period. But how do you deal with it? How do you handle that and move forward and overcome that? You're going to see a lot of fight around here."
"It honestly feels like we should be more than two games better than we were last year,” veteran first baseman Chris Davis said. “But it's a different feel in this clubhouse. I think you guys can feel it when you walk in. It's a different atmosphere, and we're having fun, we're enjoying ourselves but we're taking our jobs seriously. At the same time, we're going to enjoy each and every day, and I think that's big for this group of guys."
That the Orioles are so similar to last year's club in so many ways through the first quarter of the season is as startling as it is expected, considering the roster. It also shows that, for a team that had such ambitions, just how bad last year went. The 2018 Orioles had a minus-72 run differential through 40 games, with an expected win-loss record just a game better than their actual one at 13-27. They collectively hit .230 with a .687 OPS, struck out 24.3% of the time, and had a wRC+ (weighted runs created) of 85 — 100 is league-average.
This year’s Orioles have a minus-75 run differential through 40 games, with that Pythagorean record at 13-27. They're batting .237 with a .690 OPS, and had a wRC+ of 82 entering Sunday's game.
From a pitching standpoint, the wholly remade bullpen goes a long way to explaining why the collective ERA is worse than last year by a wide margin. The only pitchers in the bullpen Sunday who were there last Mother's Day weekend were Mychal Givens and Jimmy Yacabonis. The rotation is too similar to be much improved, and as a group, the Orioles’ 84 home runs allowed puts them on pace to break the major league record with ease.
And yet, the resulting losses feel different. They've piled up to the point that it's all started to blend together in a sad painting. But they aren't coming in the context of a season that was meant to extend into October, so each individual loss doesn't have the consequence of pulling them farther and farther away from that goal.
Take, for example, Wednesday's 2-1,12-inning loss to the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles' pitchers, including the resurgent Andrew Cashner, held Boston down as Chris Sale was tearing through their lineup, and Trey Mancini's deep drive to center field in the 11th should have won it for them if it weren't for Jackie Bradley Jr.'s home-run robbery. An inning later, their fourth reliever of the night — Yefry Ramirez — served up a game-winning home run.
It was disappointing, to be sure. It just wasn't the end of the world, even if it was a game that would have felt great to win. Hyde's focus afterward was on all the good from that night rather than all the chances the Orioles had to win it but didn't cash in.
"We've had some hiccups," Hyde said. "We've had some games. That's normal. That's baseball, right? But I feel like there's multiple games that we've had chances to win that we haven't, and I hope that as we improve and our guys get better and guys start having more confidence, that we can win those games that we lost the first 40, that we kind of had in our grasp.
"There's a lot of close games that have gotten away from us, and I'm hoping these next 40 that we continue to improve and those games, we can adjust and make better decisions from the standpoint of being able to stay in those type of games instead of losing those games. But [I'm] happy with our effort, for sure, these first 40 games. I think our effort has been phenomenal. Now, it's continuing to improve and continuing to learn at the big-league level. Now, it's about how to stay in games late."
What's to come?
A week on the road takes the Orioles through New York and Cleveland to face a pair of pitching staffs who aren't exactly the best matchups for their bats, considering they're each in the top-five in strikeout rate in the American League entering Sunday's games.
It's also a continuation of one of the more unfortunate aspects of the Orioles' schedule. With two playoff teams in the Yankees and Red Sox, plus the 90-win Rays, in the AL East, every time the Orioles go out of the division and face a playoff team is a disadvantage. That's their fate when it comes to playing the Indians and returning to Baltimore to face the Yankees again — for the 13th time in the first 51 games — before heading to Colorado to meet the wild-card-winning Rockies over Memorial Day weekend.
That means a three-plus week stretch in which the Orioles play a team that won 90 or more games a year ago (and is playing well enough now to replicate it in 17 of 20 games). Not exactly the best conditions to be rebuilding in, unless of course you've built a culture where it's not the end of the world to lose on a given night.
What was good?
It's pretty much canon for this Orioles season that Trey Mancini is good. It has been fascinating to see that in the month since he got a hit, Chris Davis has been, too.
But at the next level, Dwight Smith Jr. and Jonathan Villar have each had the type of season in which they are judged by the last thing you remember them doing. By that standard, with home runs both Saturday and Sunday to give him a team-high eight, Smith was good this week.
He entered the week bumping up against the .300 batting average mark for the first time since the first week of the season, and fell back down with three hitless games. But the home runs give the Orioles the kind of production they need at the top of the lineup, and quite frankly, this isn't a lineup built to put together big innings — or get hits with runners in scoring position at all — without home runs. Smith is immune to that largely, entering Sunday batting a team-high .452 with runners in scoring position.
But if he doesn't score them with a home run, it's unclear who will at this point.
Renato Núñez was one of those guys who produced in the middle of the lineup at one point, but is in quite a rough patch at the moment. With a two-hit day in the series finale against the Chicago White Sox on April 24, he raised his average to .301 with six home runs.
He has four hits in 52 at-bats since, dropping his average to .221. Hyde gave one of his most frank assessments of the season this weekend when discussing Núñez's struggles.
"For me, he's just pressing," Hyde said. "When guys press, they get tense. Their swings get real big. It's like he's trying to hit three home runs in one swing instead of just being — Nuney has always been a good hitter, middle of the field, power when the pitcher makes a mistake. And I feel like he's just trying so hard. We know he's scuffling, we know he's pressing. He's just battling himself at the plate.
"I'd just love to see him relax, take a base-hit through the middle, line drive the other way. Something to kind of get him going to get him centered, squared in the middle of the field. I just feel like he's trying way too hard."
On the farm
For all the rightful excitement about first-round pick Grayson Rodriguez and his dominant start at Low-A Delmarva, his teenage rotation-mate Drew Rom is having quite a start himself.
With five shutout, one-hit innings Saturday against Hagerstown, Rom extended his scoreless streak to 14 2/3 innings, dating to April 20. He struck out five in the win to give him 35 strikeouts with a 2.05 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP in 26 1/3 innings.
The Orioles' fourth-round pick in last summer's MLB draft, the lanky left-hander is the youngest pitcher to make a full-season affiliate with the Orioles. He has room to grow into more fastball velocity and has feel for a breaking ball and changeup, making him exactly the type of project that could thrive in the Orioles’ new pitching setup.