Yes, you read that headline correctly.
The Baltimore Orioles are coming off a historically poor season that accumulated 115 losses. It’s very possible that the Orioles will lose 100 games again in 2019. Even though no one expects the Orioles to come anywhere near the playoffs this year, the brand new, technology-driven approach introduced to several young players by General Manager Mike Elias, Assistant GM Sig Mejdal, and Manager Brandon Hyde makes this year’s Spring Training the most exciting Orioles camp in years.
How could this be? The Orioles traded away several key pieces during the 2018 season, most notably Manny Machado. Then the front office decided to not retain former manager Buck Showalter or fan favorite Adam Jones. The package of players the Orioles attained for names like Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, and Zach Britton didn’t blow the roof off the warehouse. How could this year’s camp with so many unfamiliar names make anyone excited?
The previous regime of Showalter, Jones, and Machado brought winning baseball back to Baltimore, including three playoff appearances dating back to 2012. No one can take that away from them. However, since winning the division in 2014, the Orioles slowly regressed to an old, un-athletic, one-dimensional ball-club. They lived or died with home runs and continued to show an inability to develop pitching.
While the Orioles slowly declined, several other teams around baseball started integrating technology and analytics into their team processes. Former Orioles GM Dan Duquette expressed a desire to bring analytics to the Orioles, but Showalter continued to use an old-school approach. The message became stale, Showalter made several controversial decisions regarding lineups or team transactions, and the walls quickly came crumbling down.
Luckily, things changed after the 2018 season wrapped up. The Angelos boys – John and Lou – hired Elias and Mejdal, two men who helped the Houston Astros go from last-place division dwellers to World Series champions in a span of five years. Elias picked Hyde, who spent the last five seasons learning from the great Joe Maddon, to be the new Orioles skipper. The O’s still have 20 days until Opening Day, but the early vibes coming from Sarasota have been nothing but positive (Unless you’re talking about Chris Davis).
There have been noticeable changes to this year’s camp under Hyde. Music blares during on-field workouts. There’s designated free time set aside for the players and coaches to mesh. With so many positions open on both the major league team and the minors, there’s nothing but competition. With Hyde entering his first season as the manager, there’s no favoritism or bias towards anyone.
“[Hyde] is awesome,” shortstop Richie Martin said. “It’s a good change of pace. He makes everyone feel comfortable, he’s all about providing us with a good environment and making sure that everyone’s comfortable. At the same time, we’re putting in good effort. He’s all about hard work, hustle, and playing the game the right way.”
Martin is one of the brightest stories coming out of this year’s camp. The top Rule 5 pick of last year, Martin’s .391 average in 23 at-bats could win him the shortstop role on the 2019 Orioles.
“It’s a different atmosphere,” said starting pitcher Alex Cobb. “There’s just a lot more going on, and it comes from guys that came from different organizations that are really on the forefront. I feel like they’ve got a good combination.”
It’s encouraging to hear both young players and veterans speak so highly of Hyde’s first camp as the Orioles skipper. And as the Orioles catch up to the rest of Major League Baseball on the analytical front, finding out how players are using the technology to help their game is very fascinating.
“I think it will be fun to watch this season and see how [analytics] affects not only pitchers, but what we’re able to do with our defenders, where to position them,” Cobb said. “There’s a lot of information out there.”
Cobb has some experience using analytics from his time with the Tampa Bay Rays. Signing with Baltimore midway through Spring Training last year negatively impacted the first half of Cobb’s season. Hopefully a full camp and access to data helps Cobb get his 2019 campaign off to a better start.
“It’s been beneficial for all of us to see how things are coming out and to see how we can manipulate things or change some things that might be beneficial for us as pitchers,” said pitcher Branden Kline. “It’s definitely helped me and I’m looking forward to going along with it and seeing what else we can come up with.”
“There’s no argument anymore,” left fielder/first baseman Trey Mancini said. “If you’re still saying, ‘I don’t buy into that,’ or, ‘It’s not useful,’ then you’re just lying to yourself. People may have a hard time coming around on that, but that’s just the facts. I can’t wait, honestly, to see all that. It’s going to make us all better players.”
It’s really puzzling trying to guess why the Orioles were so reluctant to explore analytics for as long as they did. Maybe the Angelos boys felt a change of heart after the Britton trade when the pitcher said that the Yankees used things that he had not seen before during his tenure in Baltimore.
Using all of this data is huge for the future of the Orioles, but the progress goes beyond just technology. For example, Hyde and new Orioles pitching coach Doug Brocail are toying with Mike Wright, a pitcher who’s struggled in the big leagues.
So far in four Spring Training outings, Wright has thrown 10 shutout innings with seven strikeouts.
Remember that guy Jake Arrieta, who saw little success with the Orioles and then magically turned into a Cy Young winner when the Cubs allowed him to throw his cutter? Oh yeah, Hyde was on that coaching staff and watched it happen. This group of coaches knows what they’re doing.
Perhaps the most exciting development of Spring Training is noticing how well some of the young prospects are performing. The guy who comes to mind first happens to be Chance Sisco, who had a very disappointing 2018 season. So far this spring in 14 at-bats, Sisco is hitting .429 with six hits (four home runs) and 10 RBI. There’s still more than two weeks left of camp, but as of now Sisco is a lock to make the roster.
Outfielders Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz are two of the top prospects in the Orioles system. Hays missed most of the 2018 season while dealing with ankle surgery. Diaz was the biggest name traded to the O’s for Machado. Diaz has received more at-bats than anyone (30) so far this spring, hitting .367 with 11 hits and six RBI. Hays, in 25 at-bats, owns a .320 average with eight hits (three home runs).
Diaz will likely start the season in Double-A or Triple-A, but Hays is making it awfully hard for the coaching staff to keep him in the minors, even coming off an injury. Hays played a handful of games with the Orioles at the end of a 2017 season, but Diaz has never played above the Double-A level. That means there’s some funky service time rules in Diaz’s case. While Hays won’t have any problems coming north with the major league team, we likely won’t see Diaz in Baltimore until June.
There’s some young arms that are turning heads too. Along with Wright, Paul Fry (4.0 IP), Evan Phillips (5.0 IP), and Jimmy Yacabonis (4.0 IP) have yet to allow an earned run. With Nate Karns still battling arm issues that are preventing him from stretching out his outings, there’s two open rotation spots that Wright and Hess seem to be the closest to locking down.
Other than Davis striking out in seven of his first 12 at-bats of camp and subsequently battling a hip injury, all signs coming from Sarasota feel promising. The Orioles won’t be a contender in 2019, but during rebuilds the focus should be on the young names who could become the next faces of the franchise. Isn’t that exciting to think about?
When Jones, Nick Markakis, and Matt Wieters were in the position that Hays, Diaz, Cedric Mullins, and others are in now, the Orioles front office had no plan whatsoever. Now the front office has a data-driven, new-age plan that’s proven to be successful in places like Houston. The first two or even three years of this rebuild might not yield in many wins. But if Elias’s plan works like it did with the Astros, the Orioles should be in position to make a run in four or five years and remain a playoff contender for multiple seasons.
Image Credit: Baltimore Sun