It’s been a tumultuous season for Cleveland, what with management’s miserly misery, José Ramírez’s collapse from superstar to replacement-level hitter, and the Twins’ surge atop the AL Central standings. In April, in intense need of outfield help, Cleveland sent Cameron Maybin to the injury-ravaged Yankees for nothing more than cash in return, and the veteran outfielder has responded by hitting .314/.391/.500 in the Bronx.
But nothing from the first three months of the 2019 season was more ignominious than Cleveland’s performance in Baltimore this weekend. The Orioles hadn’t won consecutive games since early May. They hadn’t won any series since taking two of three from the White Sox in April. And they hadn’t won any game by more than four runs since one of those wins against Chicago. Yet on Friday, Baltimore walloped visiting Cleveland 13-0. On Saturday, they repeated the feat, with the same final score—marking the first time in MLB history that one team had won consecutive shutouts with at least 13 runs scored in each game. For two days, Cleveland made Baltimore look like the best team in baseball.
Through the Orioles’ other 82 games thus far, though, Baltimore has looked like the worst team in baseball—and one of the worst in baseball history. The 2019 season is congested with teams vying for the bottom of the standings, and that traffic has produced some stretches of truly terrible baseball: The Marlins inspired some “worst ever” chatter this spring after a 10-31 start, and the Tigers might be headed that way after a 5-20 June. But none of 2019’s other tanking teams can match the 24-60 Orioles loss for loss, and home run allowed for mammoth home run allowed.
A survey of Baltimore’s roster reveals that both the lineup and pitching staff boast one, and only one, bright spot. In the former, Trey Mancini (135 wRC+) has prospered while young players like center fielder Cedric Mullins II (-10 wRC+ in the majors; 51 in the minors) and shortstop Richie Martin Jr. (37 wRC+, all in the majors) have foundered at the plate, and Chris Davis (42) has written a tragedy all by himself. The defense remains disastrous after trending that way last season, and Orioles catchers rate among the worst framers in the league.
On the pitching side, rookie left-hander John Means is headed to the All-Star Game on the strength of a 2.50 ERA and one of the majors’ best changeups. Before this season, Means was a non-prospect: an 11th-round draft pick in 2014 with a career 3.83 ERA in the minors, whose best showing on any Orioles prospect list was 28th in 2017, prior to going unranked before both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Means has seven of Baltimore’s 24 wins, and fellow starters Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy have at least pitched with intermittent effectiveness between bouts of home run trouble. But every other Oriole who has made a start this season beyond that trio—a group 10 deep—has combined for a 7.52 ERA and allowed 2.9 homers per nine innings. The bullpen hasn’t fared much better, with closer Mychal Givens struggling to rein in both walks and homers en route to a 5.06 ERA; overall, the pen ranks 30th in WAR, 29th in ERA, and 28th in WPA.
Over a full season, the Orioles’ 5.82 team ERA would be the ninth-worst in MLB history, and the worst since the 1999 Rockies. That’s not quite a record, but the Orioles’ homer problems should be. Dan Straily’s allowed 22 homers in 47 2/3 innings, David Hess 20 in 66, the injured Alex Cobb nine in just 12 1/3. Overall, Baltimore is on pace to allow 320 home runs this year, which would obliterate the record of 258 set by the 2016 Reds. The gap between those two numbers is massive, so even with some positive regression the O’s should set the mark with room to spare; it’s so massive that, for context, for a player to break Barry Bonds’s record of 73 single-season homers by the same margin, he’d need to bash 91 dingers. (If Gleyber Torres played against only the 2019 Orioles, against whom he’s bashed 10 homers in 11 starts, he might actually hit 91.)
Overall, Orioles position players have been worth just 1.2 wins above replacement combined, 29th in the majors; their pitchers have been worth just 0.6 WAR, which ranks 30th. That all-around awfulness engenders more comparisons to history. Before the Cleveland series, Baltimore was on pace to finish with a minus-387 run differential, which would be by far the worst in MLB history. For reference, the 1927 Yankees, who were so outrageously excellent that their lineup earned the moniker “Murderers’ Row,” finished with a plus-376 differential. In other words, 80 games through the season, the Orioles were on pace to be as bad as the best Ruth-and-Gehrig team was good.
Baltimore’s pace looks better now, after the Cleveland series, with a minus-328 forecast that works out to minus-2.02 runs per game. But even that improved look still verges on historic territory: Only 13 teams in MLB history have lost by at least two runs per game, and the 2003 Tigers, who went 43-119, are the only team since 1962 to do so.
Worst Run Differentials in MLB History
|Team||Record||Average Run Differential|
|Team||Record||Average Run Differential|
|1932 Red Sox||43-111||-2.27|
|1911 Rustlers (aka Braves)||44-107||-2.06|
For a variety of reasons—the draft, the broader increased professionalization of the sport, old-time front-office situations that make today’s tanking efforts look quaint, etc.—the worst teams in baseball have generally improved over time so that the dregs of the 2000s are closer to the middle of the pack than the dregs of the early 20th century. Even amid that context, the Orioles of the past two seasons stand out as testing the limits of that trend, but let’s narrow the scope of history for a moment. Here’s a chart showing the worst teams in baseball’s expansion era (since 1961).
Worst MLB Records in the Expansion Era (1961–2019)
|2019 Orioles (so far)||24||60||0.286|
It’s possible that the Orioles don’t end the season on this chart. The aforementioned 2019 Marlins have gone 22-19 in the past quarter-season with series wins against the Mets, Padres, Brewers, and Phillies twice; the Orioles could follow their route in breaking a losing habit for a bit, even if that outcome doesn’t seem likely. But a difficult schedule doesn’t help—their first nine games after the All-Star break, for instance, come against the Rays, Nationals, and Red Sox, and in August, they have a 13-game stretch against the Yankees, Astros, Yankees again, and Red Sox. And their start to the season has been so dismal, and lasted so long, that they should come close to the 110-loss benchmark: FanGraphs projects the Orioles’ final 2019 record as 54-108; Baseball Prospectus pegs it at 55-107.
In analyzing that chart and the Orioles’ historical forebears, three elements stand out and suggest a broader point about the state of the Baltimore franchise. First, the 2019 Orioles join the 2018 Orioles, whose 47-win campaign seemed impossibly grim—only for the 2019 version to finish the first half of the season on basically the same pace. At the moment, two Baltimore teams in successive years rank among the four worst teams in more than half a century, and with fitting winning percentages: The WAR statistical framework is structured such that a team made up entirely of replacement-level players would finish with a .294 win rate, so the O’s have been right below the replacement-level threshold for a season and a half.
Second, a few of the non-Orioles teams on this list have another feature in common beyond their putrid production. The 1962 Mets were an expansion team (and the ’63 and ’65 Mets followed soon after), as were the 1969 Expos and 1969 Padres. One might therefore conclude that the present-day Orioles look like an expansion team, which is a striking indictment by itself—but actually, Baltimore looks even worse than a typical expansion team.
The 14 expansion franchises to join MLB since 1961 were uniformly terrible in their first season, subject as they were to roster restrictions and a lack of existing organizational infrastructure; the best of the bunch (the 1961 Angels) still lost 91 games. On average, those teams won just 37.5 percent of their games, which works out to a 61-101 record in a 162-game season. By Pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s expected winning percentage based on run differential, the average scoots up a bit, to a 63-99 record. The Orioles are more than a dozen games worse. It makes sense, then, that the team starting from a sub-expansion level would undergo its own drastic change in organizational infrastructure, via the front-office overhaul it embraced this offseason.
Third, and perhaps most pertinently for the team’s future outlook, the most recent team on that chart besides the Orioles is the 2013 Astros, who supply the model Baltimore is trying to replicate. New Orioles general manager Mike Elias came to Baltimore from Houston, where he helped oversee the Astros’ rebuild. (He is credited, for instance, with pushing to take Carlos Correa with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.) He’s therefore familiar with the kind of slow, targeted trajectory toward contention Baltimore seems to be following.
Both teams start from roughly the same position. In both 2009 and 2010, immediately before their multiyear run as the worst team in baseball, the Astros had the worst farm system in the majors, per Baseball America’s organizational rankings. In both 2016 and 2017, immediately before their slide, the Orioles’ farm ranked 27th.
Except Baltimore has already bottomed out even below Houston. The Astros from earlier this decade were sufficiently abysmal to earn the no. 1 pick three years in a row, see their TV ratings plummet to 0.0, and lose 47 percent of their attendance compared to half a decade prior. Yet their worst record in any single season was 51-111. The Orioles were worse last year, and they’re on pace to be worse this year, too.
And this is the same franchise that won the most games of any AL team from 2012 to 2016. Just three players who appeared in the 2016 wild-card loss—Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Givens—are still on the team. The sad Orioles cycle was on freshest display last week, when at the same time that Manny Machado returned to Baltimore with—shocker—a home run off Orioles pitching, the team introduced last month’s no. 1 draft pick, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, who projects as the franchise’s next two-way star.
Rutschman inked the largest signing bonus ($8.1 million) in MLB draft history, and FanGraphs already ranks him the no. 8 prospect in baseball before he’s played a single professional game. He’s also Baltimore’s only top-50 prospect, and other Orioles prospects like outfielder Yusniel Diaz—the key return piece in last summer’s Machado trade—haven’t advanced this season. Even the most optimistic view at the moment pegs Baltimore’s farm system toward the middle of the league’s rankings, and it likely can’t get much better anytime soon (or at least until next summer, when the franchise will surely enjoy another no. 1 selection): The Orioles already traded their most enticing veterans last year, without much long-term promise in return. Baltimore brought back 15 players for Machado, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, and Kevin Gausman last summer, but just one—Diaz—ranks among their top 10 prospects now.
Houston went from initiating the teardown to the playoffs in five years, and to the World Series in seven. It’s nigh impossible to make team-specific predictions that far out, but it’s equally impossible to imagine an equivalent timeline now for the Orioles. They’re bad now, but that’s less news than expectation; they were supposed to be bad, just as they were bad last year, and just as they’ll be bad next year, too. The question is how long that losing future extends—and if they’ve already seen their worst, or if they have yet further depths to plumb.