There are a lot of reasons why the Orioles are the worst team in Major League Baseball. Take your pick. Questionable roster moves back in the spring? Sure. The front office mortgaged the future and now the future is here? Makes sense. That Chris Davis contract? Absolutely. It’s all bad. Up and down the organization, many things have led to the 2018 Birds being so awful. That includes the decisions made in the dugout every night.
Buck Showalter has cemented himself as one of the best managers in Orioles history, and it’s not only because of the way his teams have performed on the field. Three playoff appearances and an AL East crown are awesome, of course. But he has stood out because of the way in which he has embraced the city of Baltimore, its people and the culture surrounding it during his time in town. For those reasons, he will always been a beloved figure.
However, he cannot escape the dark cloud of this season just because of past successes. His dedication to some of his tried and true veterans has been a problem. His recent inability to manage a less than full-strength bullpen has been a problem. And his old school approach to building the daily lineup has also, most definitely, been a problem.
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, understand that lineup construction is not THAT big of a deal in the long run. If this was an Orioles team in the playoff hunt, you should worry about every little thing. But these guys aren’t good. The one or two additional wins that an optimized lineup would nab them is not worth worrying about on the whole, but it may be indicative of the way in which the coaching staff and, possibly, ownership think about strategy.
If you’re interested, Beyond the Box Score had a really good piece on building an ideal lineup nearly a decade ago. Keith Law has one as well. Both posts reference the same source material and explain that the way in which baseball minds have traditionally thought of the daily lineup was all wrong, even though it doesn’t make a huge difference anyway. A guy should not bat leadoff just because he’s fast, although that is a nice characteristic. A team’s best hitter should not hit third. The all or nothing slugger shouldn’t hit fourth. You get the idea.
The daily lineup of an MLB team can be an ever-evolving beast. A million factors can come into play and, on a team like the Orioles where it seems as if every hitter is struggling, it can be a tough chore to come up with an effective offensive strategy of any kind.
Even still, all of this data backs up a certain way of thinking that says a lineup can score more runs with a certain configuration of their hitters. No matter what a team’s aspirations are, they should do what they can to score more runs. Based on some of the Orioles lineups this season, it’s not entirely clear what the thinking has been.
First, let’s go back to Opening Day. Expectations were high. Temperatures were low. And the Orioles looked like a real baseball team. This is the lineup that Showalter went with that day, accompanied by their career statistics:
- Chris Davis (.323 OBP, .479 SLG)
- Manny Machado (.333 OBP, .485 SLG)
- Jonathan Schoop (.296 OBP, .444 SLG)
- Adam Jones (.317 OBP, .460 SLG)
- Trey Mancini (.330 OBP, .467 SLG)
- Tim Beckham (.305 OBP, .429 SLG)
- Pedro Alvarez (.310 OBP, .448 SLG)
- Craig Gentry (.332 OBP, .334 SLG)
- Caleb Joseph (.270 OBP, .359 SLG)
Davis leading off caught many people off guard, but you can kind of understand what Showalter was going for here. Even when Davis has struggled in his career (which he was this year, even back in the spring), he has been able to earn walks. This strategy didn’t work, but it was outside-the-box thinking that I can appreciate, and it wasn’t something the manager stuck with beyond the first week of the season because it wasn’t panning out.
Machado, we understand now and should have known then, is the team’s best hitter, so it’s nice to see him hitting second, but can we be sure that jives with Showalter’s actual thinking? Schoop was coming off of an all-star season and Machado had struggling to start 2017. It’s possible he viewed the second baseman as the bigger offensive threat and therefore hit him third.
Personally, I would have swapped Beckham and Alvarez and then done the same with Gentry and Joseph, but that is admittedly nit-picky. Overall, it is a lineup that is far from perfect, but it makes some sense.
Since then, 64 games have happened. Machado started unbelievably hot before coming back to earth, Schoop had some injury trouble and pretty much every one else is having the worst season of their careers.
In that time, this has been the O’s most typical lineup, according to ESPN:
- Trey Mancini
- Adam Jones
- Manny Machado
- Jonathan Schoop
- Chris Davis
- Mark Trumbo (.301 OBP, .459 SLG)
- Tim Beckham
- Anthony Santander (.250 OBP, .313 SLG)
- Caleb Joseph
Again, there are some aspects here that make sense, but it’s far from ideal. Machado should be hitting second. Having Mancini’s OBP so high is logical, but then is his power being wasted? Davis had been having monumental problems all season. Continuing to hit him fifth kills so many rallies.
This is a lineup that would be great if every man were performing at or near his peak. We all know that this has not been the case.
But that lineup is based off of the entire season. Perhaps Showalter has learned from his early errors and corrected the everyday lineup as of late?
On Sunday, the boss deployed this crew (along with 2018 stats):
- Jace Peterson (.304 OBP, .247 SLG, 6 steals)
- Adam Jones (.301 OBP, .453 SLG, 10 home runs)
- Manny Machado (.380 OBP, 591 SLG, 15 doubles, 18 home runs)
- Mark Trumbo (.298 OBP, .398 SLG, 7 doubles, 3 home runs)
- Jonathan Schoop (.255 OBP, .368 SLG, 9 doubles, 6 home runs)
- Chris Davis (.232 OBP, .233 SLG, 4 doubles, 4 home runs, 83 strikeouts)
- Trey Mancini (.309 OBP, .381 SLG, 11 doubles, 8 home runs)
- Chance Sisco (.338 OBP, .336 SLG, seven doubles, two home runs)
- Joey Rickard (.277 OBP, .383 SLG, one double, three home runs)
There are many things wrong with this picture. Peterson is not a lead-off hitter. Jones is not the team’s best hitter and should, therefore, not be hitting second. Davis should not even be in the lineup, and he certainly should not be hitting sixth. Sisco has the second-best OBP of anyone in this lineup and the third-best (Danny Valencia, .348) on the team, and yet he is buried at eighth, possibly the least important role in the entire offense. In short: this is not setting up a team to succeed.
Look, no one is saying that Showalter has an easy job here. You could inject an additional Machado into the lineup and these guys would still be pretty bad. The manager has been shuffling the lineup on an almost daily basis. There have been three different leadoff hitters this week. The catchers are moving in and out of the lineup. Davis has been on the bench more often. Adjustments are being made, but nothing is really working.
However, he has not exhausted all options. Against righties, bat Sisco lead off. He has the low power, decent OBP profile to fit there. Machado slots in behind him to give him more chances with runners on base. Trumbo hits third. It’s not as important of a position as once thought, and he’s been good enough (on this team) to stay there for the time being. Let Mancini bat clean up. It’s been a disappointing sophomore season, but his hard contact and fairly low BABIP indicate he’s due for a turn around eventually. Jones goes fifth, which is actually a very important role. The centerfielder has been, arguably, the team’s second-best hitter and this is a good spot for that. Schoop moves down to six and everything after that doesn’t matter much.
It’s clearly not that simple. Correcting this club’s run scoring woes is more complicated than putting one hitter at the top of the order. It requires wholesale changes that cannot happen in the blink of an eye. It requires young hitters down in the minors to get a bit more seasoned and come to the rescue in the next couple of years.
The reason for this team’s struggles are not in how they stack up one through nine, but if they could even eek out an additional handful of runs each week, it could lead to a couple more wins and, in doing so, save the sanity of many Birdland faithful.