Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Examining the 2008 Orioles' season

Now that the 2008 MLB regular season has come to an end, the Orioles have finished in last place for the first time since 1988.

Finishing in last place is never a good thing, but the Orioles do happen to play in one of the best, if not the best, division in MLB -- the AL East.

The AL East was one of two divisions in baseball with four teams -- the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays -- that finished at least 10 games above .500. The other division was the NL Central, with the Cubs, Brewers, Astros, and Cardinals all at least 10 games above the .500 mark, and it took an insane 36-16 run by the Astros from the start of the second half to Carlos Zambrano’s no-hitter in the controversial two-game series in Milwaukee to be among those four.
Because the AL East is so tough, all five teams in the division finished at the top in strength of schedule. The Orioles (68-93) had an awful 22-50 record inside the division and were just 16-32 versus left-handed starting pitchers.

The Orioles, though, had a pretty good offense (except for a slow start and a sluggish finish): 11th in runs scored (782), 9th in total bases (2,384), tied for 10th in OPS (.762), 6th in doubles (322), tied for 13th in home runs (172), and 11th in batting average (.267).

While the hitting was surprisingly impressive, the pitching was dreadful. I’ve covered the Orioles’ terrible pitching in other posts, though, so I don’t think I need to waste much more time recounting the horror again; I’m looking at you, Steve Trachsel, Fernando Cabrera, Garrett Olson, Brian Burres, Bob McCrory, Jamie Walker, Kam Mickolio, Greg Aquino, Radhames Liz, Daniel Cabrera, Ryan “Ice Man” Bukvich, and Adam Loewen (pre-injury).

Anyway, let’s go through some of the positives and negatives of the season.

Positives

#1 -- Aubrey Huff’s great season.

Where did this come from? In January of 2007, the Orioles signed Huff to a 3-year, $20 million contract. In his first year with the O’s, Huff hit .280, but he hit only 15 HRs, drove in only 72 runs, and finished with a .337 OBP and a .779 OPS. Those numbers are decent for a hitter towards the bottom of the lineup -- not someone batting fourth or fifth in the majors.

This season, though, Huff had his best year since 2003 when he was playing with the Rays. That season, Huff hit .311/.367/.555 with 34 HRs and 107 RBI. This year, Huff hit .304/.360/.552 with 32 HRs and 107 RBI -- very similar. Huff finished 5th in the AL in OPS and tied for 8th in homers. He hit more home runs than Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz, Justin Morneau, and Carlos Pena. He also had 82 extra base hits (most in the AL) and stayed healthy all season (154 games played), which is something many of the Orioles weren’t able to do as the long season rolled along.

His dramatically improved presence at the plate was certainly one of the reasons why the Orioles offense was better than last season’s.

#2 -- The steady pitching of Jeremy Guthrie.

Guthrie was an outstanding starting pitcher this season on a team that, at the moment, only has one reliable starter. Guthrie finished with a 3.63 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 120 strikeouts (5.66 K/9), and only 58 walks in 190.2 innings pitched. Opposing batters also hit just .242 off of Guthrie.

Unfortunately, the Orioles didn’t really take advantage of many of Guthrie’s starts, and he finished the season with a 10-12 record. Meanwhile, a pitcher like Garrett Olson, with an atrocious 6.65 ERA, had a 9-10 record. So the next time that someone tries to point out a pitcher’s worth and immediately points to the number of wins or the win-loss record, simply ignore them.

#3 -- The players received in the Miguel Tejada trade: Luke Scott, Matt Albers, Dennis Sarfate, and Troy Patton.

The latter of these four, Patton, has yet to pitch for the Orioles because of a left labrum tear. But he’s only 23 years old, and he is hoping to recover in time to make the club next season.

Scott is a very streaky hitter, and this season was no different. He will probably never hit higher than .275 in a full season, but he did add some pop to the Orioles lineup by hitting 23 HRs and driving in 65 runs. His .807 OPS this season was actually a huge upgrade over the everyday left fielder last season, Jay Payton, who had a .668 OPS and only 7 HRs in 434 at bats in 2007.

Albers was pitching very well (3.49 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, .240 BAA) before an MRI revealed a partially-torn labrum in his right shoulder. Albers decided against having surgery and chose to rehab instead. If Albers, 25, is healthy enough to pitch at the start of next season, he may end up in the starting rotation.

Sarfate was also impressive in his first season with the Orioles. His overall numbers -- 4.74 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 86 Ks, 1.39 K/BB -- were not good at all, but they include his four starts (or disasters) on the mound. In those four starts, Sarfate amassed a 10.34 ERA in 15.2 innings pitched; however, as a reliever, Sarfate had a 3.38 ERA in 64 innings pitched and struck out 71 batters. His brief stint as a starting pitcher may have shown him that the way for him to succeed is as a reliever.

Interestingly enough, Sarfate also pitched most of the season with a fractured clavicle in his right shoulder. According to MASN’s Roch Kubatko in this blog post, “[t]he fracture occurred while Sarfate was moving into his new home [in April]. He bent over to pick up a set of keys that he dropped, and the door that he swung open slammed into his shoulder.” He ended the season on the 15-day disabled list, but he should be fine after he rests in the offseason.

#4 -- Melvin Mora’s second-half surge. (Yes, it’s not really a half -- whatever.)

Before a hamstring injury slowed him down with a few weeks left in the season, Mora was having arguably the best second half of any hitter in the American League. Mora hit .376 after the break; only one other player in MLB had a higher average over that period with as many at bats: Manny Ramirez (.388). Mora’s other numbers over that time period include 12 HRs, 55 RBI, and a 1.073 OPS.

Mora still finished the season with solid numbers -- .285/.342/.483, 23 HRs, 104 RBI -- but it would have been nice to see him able to complete the season while playing at such a high level.

#5 -- The first-half performances of George Sherrill and Jim Johnson.

George Sherrill and his flat-billed cap brought some stability to the Orioles bullpen in the first part of the season. Before the All-Star Break, Sherrill had a 4.08 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP in 39.2 innings pitched; he also accumulated 28 saves. But after the break, Sherrill pitched only 13.2 innings and put up some bad numbers: 6.59 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 3 saves. He also missed about a month battling some shoulder inflammation. There are two possibilities for Sherrill’s poor second half: 1) He pitched only 45.2 innings in 2007, so maybe the workload this season was too much for him; and 2) The All-Star Game went 15 innings, and AL manager Terry Francona had Sherrill throw 2.1 innings, which may have added some fatigue to Sherrill’s arm.

Nonetheless, Sherrill’s pitching in the first half was just an added bonus to the ample rewards the Orioles received in the Erik Bedard trade.

Another welcome surprise was the presence of 25-year-old Jim Johnson, who didn’t even start out with the Orioles on Opening Day. But Johnson was brought up after making one start for Norfolk, and he soon became the primary set-up man for Sherrill in the bullpen. Johnson’s numbers from April through July -- 53.1 IP, 2.03 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .181 BAA -- were fantastic, and he deserved to be the Orioles’ representative in the All-Star Game more than Sherrill.

But like Sherrill, Johnson began to fade a bit -- 15.1 IP, 2.93 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, .323 BAA -- after the break. He was shut down for the rest of the season in early September when an MRI revealed damage in his shoulder. He was heavily relied upon in the first portion of the season, which may have been the reason for his shoulder problems.

In the minors he had been a starting pitcher; in 2007, he threw 148 innings for the Norfolk Tides. Perhaps Johnson’s arm wasn’t completely ready for the demanding role of set-up man, but he should be fine for the start of spring training.

#6 -- Dave Trembley’s old-school coaching and post-game reactions.

No manager is perfect, and Trembley certainly had his fair share of questionable decisions as far as bringing in various relievers. But he did a good job with the hand he was dealt this season. Trembley also had the team playing at an extremely high level before the team’s abrupt collapse in August/September.

Also, I thoroughly enjoyed Trembley’s post-game press conferences and interviews. He’s always mad when the team loses, as he should be, and he doesn’t hide the fact that he hates answering questions instead of being in the clubhouse talking with his players. His face almost always turns bright red; it’s an intimidating appearance. He’s not afraid to say what he feels is right or what needs to be said in certain situations. He’ll defend his players or call them out if he feels it’s necessary. Trembley is accountable for whatever happens on the field and aware of what it will take to turn this team around.

#7 -- Jay Payton won’t be back next season.

Payton plays the game hard; I understand that. He runs hard down the first-base line, he hustles after every ball in the outfield, and he’s not afraid to bang into the wall to make a catch. In a way, he’s kind of like David Eckstein: the guy who just plays the game “the right way” and looks like he’s giving everything he has. Well, that’s fine and dandy after a while, but when a team is losing and that player isn’t performing all that well, it doesn’t matter as much. When Eckstein was playing on World Series winners like the 2002 Angels and the 2007 Cardinals, it didn’t matter that he only had OPS’s of .751 and .738, respectively, because he played decent defense, moved runners over, and put the ball in play. Winning games makes individual players’ deficiencies matter less. Now, I bet you couldn’t even guess what team Eckstein finished the season with. (It’s the Arizona Diamondbacks, by the way.)

The two seasons in Baltimore have been the worst of Payton’s career. I mentioned his 2007 stats earlier, but his numbers this season were worse. He only hit .243 and had an OPS of .637, which is very bad. Sure, he basically played in a platoon role because of Luke Scott in left field, but Payton still had over 330 at bats -- he just didn’t hit well or get on base much. And that’s not even considering the fact that Payton made $4.5 million in 2007 and $5 million in 2008.

#8 -- Nick Markakis’s defense.

Markakis led all ML outfielders in assists this season with 17, and he committed just 3 errors while playing in 157 games. At the beginning of the season, opposing runners challenged Markakis; many of them soon learned that wasn’t such a good idea. Besides throwing runners out, he also made numerous outstanding diving catches and played solid all-around defense in right field.

#9 -- The presence of Adam Jones.

Having Jones in center field this season was a breath of fresh air for Orioles fans. Not only is he a solid player, but he’s only 23 years old. His numbers -- .270/.311/.400, 9 HRs, 57 RBI, 10 SB -- are not overly impressive, but this was his rookie season. Jones also covers a lot of ground in the outfield to form a fantastic center field-right field duo with Markakis. He certainly has plenty of room to improve, but Jones certainly possesses the tools to do so.

There’s no doubt that Jones has the potential to be exceptional on the field, but he’s already special off of it. First of all, he’s not afraid to take pictures for Yahoo! Sports with his eyes closed. Second, he hates to miss games, evident by his constant nagging of Dave Trembley to let him back on the field when he was dealing with a fractured foot. Trembley obviously had enough to deal with this year with a crumbling pitching staff, but the image of Jones asking, “Can I play now, Coach?” on a daily basis was (and still is) pretty funny.

#10 -- The limited appearances by Lou Montanez and Oscar Salazar.

When Jones was placed on the disabled list in early August, the Orioles purchased Lou Montanez’s contract from Double-A Bowie. At the time, Montanez had hit .335 with 26 HRs and 97 RBI in 116 games and was leading the Eastern League in all three Triple Crown categories. When the Bowie regular season ended about a month later, Montanez was still in the lead to clinch the Eastern League’s first Triple Crown since 1976. He also won the MVP award for his outstanding season.

Though he still needs to improve his outfield skills, Montanez, who turns 27 in December, played very well in the first 38 games in the majors of his career. The former third overall pick in the 2000 MLB Draft hit .295 with 3 HRs, 14 RBI, and a respectable .763 OPS. He also managed to homer in his first major league at bat against the Angels, which will leave him with an amazing memory for the rest of his life even if he ends up back in the minors next season.

Injuries and infield concerns also presented some playing time for 30-year-old Oscar Salazar. Mainly a corner infielder and designated hitter, Salazar batted .284 with 5 HRs, 15 RBI, and an OPS of .879. The 34 games played with the Orioles were the first for Salazar since a brief 8-game appearance with the Detroit Tigers in 2002.

The Orioles always appear to be looking for serviceable bench players, and both Montanez and Salazar deserve a chance to stick around next season.

Other notables: The great offensive seasons by Roberts and Markakis; this gem from Joe Angel: "Trachsel's taking a long time between pitches... well, if you had his stuff, you wouldn't want to throw it either"; Buck Martinez’s crazy hair; Juan Castro’s defense; listening to Gary Thorne say “Guillermo Quiroz,”; Jim Palmer’s random stories and love for In-N-Out Burger; Kevin Millar’s blond hair experiment; and his one-time at bat music after apparently losing a bet.

Negatives

#1 -- Another second-half collapse.

Nothing signals the end of summer like the annual Orioles collapse in the second part of the season. This season, the Orioles managed to tread water in late July (6-8) and August (11-17), but the epic implosion eventually came in September when the Orioles went an astounding 5-20. Yes, 5 wins and 20 losses.

The horrible final month capped off a 22-45 post All-Star Break record for the O’s, during which the Orioles happened to have separate losing streaks of 5 games (8/22-8/26), 8 games (8/29-9/6), and 10 games (9/17-9/26).

Both injuries and bad pitching certainly played a significant role in the team’s second-half downfall, but so did the schedule. The Orioles finished off the season with 37 games in this order: 3 vs. Boston, 3 vs. New York, 3 vs. Chicago, 3 vs. Tampa Bay, 3 vs. Boston, 2 vs. Oakland, 4 vs. Cleveland, 3 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. Toronto, 3 vs. New York, 4 vs. Tampa Bay, and 3 vs. Toronto. Those eight teams finished the season with a combined record of more than 100 games over .500 (699-596). So the Orioles looked terrible as the season came to an end, but they had lots of help.

#2 -- Awful pitching.

Just posting the numbers:

Overall pitching: 13th (out of 14 teams) in AL in ERA (5.13), 14th in walks (687), 14th in strikeouts (922), and 13th in runs (869).

Starting pitching: Tied for 13th in ERA (5.51), 13th in innings pitched (882.0), 14th in walks (395), 14th in strikeouts (514).

Relief pitching: 11th in ERA (4.50), 3rd in innings pitched (540.0), 14th in walks (292), 7th in strikeouts (408).

Ouch.

#3 -- Daniel Cabrera’s pitching (and batting).

Since his debut with the team in 2004, the Orioles have been waiting for Daniel Cabrera to turn the proverbial corner and harness his raw skills. After yet another disappointing 2008 campaign, the Orioles may still be waiting in 2009 if the front office decides to bring him back since he’s eligible for arbitration and may get around $5 million.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, Cabrera’s performance this year was arguably the worst of his career. Cabrera finished the season on the disabled list with a right elbow sprain and the possibility of his back affecting his pitching at various points during the season. Some injuries may explain not only his awful numbers -- 5.25 ERA, 1.05 K/BB, 1.61 WHIP, .286 BAA -- but also his fluctuating pitch speeds on the radar gun. Before this season, Cabrera consistently reached the upper 90s with his fastball; this season, he sometimes threw in the upper 80s to low 90s.

But to dismiss many of Cabrera’s troubles because of the possibility of an injury would be foolish; his pitching mechanics haven’t improved in five seasons, and he is usually among the league leaders in walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches. This season was no different -- 2nd in the AL in walks (90), 1st in HBP (18), and 1st in wild pitches (15). It’s bad enough that Cabrera simply cannot correct his troubles on the mound; instead, every time he pitches and Jim Palmer is in the broadcast booth, Palmer lectures about how Cabrera’s mechanics seem to have deteriorated.

And the mention about Cabrera’s hitting is for this reason: in 14 career at bats, Cabrera has struck out 14 times. He’d probably have a better chance swinging a telephone pole.

#4 -- Watching the Orioles run the bases.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if it’s not, then it’s definitely Trembley-explanatory. Here are some comments from Trembley after the O’s ran themselves out of another inning on Sept. 22 against the Rays:

“We had two crucial baserunning mistakes. It's three balls and two strikes and you're running, and it's a fly ball. Don't you stop? It's not Kamikaze baseball. You don't just run until you're out. To me, that's just a total mental breakdown on his (Salazar's) part. Total. And to be honest to you, that's embarrassing to me and the club and the people who are watching the game. And I'm not burying him, but that's not right."

Orioles’ baserunners seem to frequently run themselves out of bigger innings by getting greedy or not paying attention. Also, many runners on the team don’t get good secondary leads and are pretty bad at going from first to third on a single. Sure, the O’s have many slow runners like Millar, Hernandez, Huff, Scott, Quiroz, and Salazar, but slow runners can still pay attention and take the extra base when necessary.

#5 -- Jamie Walker.

Walker, 37, was placed on the disabled list in late June with inflammation in his left elbow. He battled back to rejoin the Orioles in about a month, but he appeared to still be feeling the effects of the same injury and just wasn’t the same pitcher.

His numbers show just how ineffective he was this year: 6.87 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, .325 BAA. Left-handed batters hit .304 off of him and had 7 HRs. Even though he has one more year left on his contract, the Orioles may choose to let him walk and cut their losses.

#6 -- Luis Hernandez and Freddie Bynum both failing to keep the shortstop job.

When the Orioles started the season with Luis Hernandez as the starting shortstop, Hernandez wasn’t asked to do much. He was supposed to play solid defense and maybe hit around .250. But he didn’t have much range at shortstop (he’s more of a second baseman), and he batted .241, had a .295 OBP, and had only one extra-base hit, a double, in 79 at bats.

So, when Bynum was activated from the disabled list on May 8, the Orioles handed him the starting shortstop job and asked him to do the same. Instead, Bynum proceeded to produce at a lower level than even Hernandez did. Bynum, who also isn’t really a shortstop, didn’t play good defense; he made 5 errors in 32 starts and didn’t get to many hits to the left or right of him. (Remember how this game ended?) He was also horribly unproductive at the plate: .179 AVG, 0 HRs, 8 RBI, .444 OPS.

The inability of both Hernandez and Bynum led to fans being forced to watch Alex Cintron play the infield like Roger Dorn before he found out that Rachel Phelps wanted to move the team to Florida and get rid of all the players in Major League. At least the team traded for Juan Castro, who didn’t hit well but actually fielded his position -- imagine that.

#7 -- Ramon Hernandez’s relatively unproductive season.

Hernandez had a sluggish year behind the plate; in 118 starts, he was tied for 2nd in the AL in errors among catchers (9) and 3rd in passed balls (9). Though the pitching staff didn’t help him to hold runners very efficiently, Hernandez also played a significant role in allowing 99 stolen bases, the most in the AL. Only two everyday catchers had worse numbers in the running game than Hernandez (.195 caught stealing percentage): A.J. Pierzynski (.186) and John Buck (.174).

As far as hitting, Hernandez had a very solid second half. He hit .288 with 7 HRs and a .791 OPS after the All-Star Break, but he hit just .237 with 8 HRs and a .747 OPS before the break. For someone who made $7.5 million this season, those numbers just don’t add up.

Other notables: Having Orioles pitchers give up leads almost immediately after getting them; watching Daniel Cabrera cover first base; lots of injuries; the possible return of Danys Baez to the bullpen next season; Rick Dempsey in the broadcast booth; Mark Viviano as the sideline reporter instead of Amber Theoharis; horrible camera angles and the lack of replays from MASN; and starters routinely going fewer than 5 innings.

Even though this season didn’t end well, there’s always next year. Besides, the Orioles have plenty of things to look forward to next season and in seasons to come; nonetheless, the front office has plenty of important decisions to make in the offseason.

I’ll try to go over most of them in the next post.

2 comments:

  1. The highlight of the year was definitely anytime Gary Thorne said "Guillermo KEEYYY-ROHS"

    ReplyDelete