At 47-115, the 2018 Baltimore Orioles were widely pitied as the worst team in baseball in 2018. Like many cellar-dwellers in recent memory, their futility, once demonstrated, was accepted as a given, and opponents fawned over the opportunity to play them. For those of us who remember the hype that surrounded the futility of the 2003 Tigers, however, the lack of discussion around the Orioles as a historically bad team was perplexing. While nobody remembers those Orioles as a good team, the run-of-the-mill reactions to their abhorrent finish give them an unusual distinction as perhaps the most overrated and underappreciated bad team in baseball history.
How bad were the Orioles? Capital Frontiers recently completed a study of all 2,480 teams that have played a major league season since the World Series began in 1903. The analysis compared overall records, pythagorean runs-scored vs. runs-allowed metrics, consistency of performance in different situations (road games, vs. left-handed pitchers, and against strong opponents), postseason performance, strength of the league, margin of victory, performance relative to the division, and future prospects of the team. Adjusted for the strength of the league, the 2018 Orioles scored as the second-worst team in the history of baseball, worse than the infamous 1962 New York Mets or the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished an embarrassing 36-117. That the Orioles don’t get more recognition for being not just bad in the moment – but historically bad – is a shame.
The Orioles’ 2018 cratering was an unfortunate nadir for a team with an excellent record just four years earlier. While the Orioles weren’t expected to be great, they weren’t expected to be historically bad. In February 2018, Bleacher Report projected them to win 70 games, 23 more than they actually won. Star players Manny Machado and Adam Jones gave them a chance, and few teams would be so blessed to have accomplished veteran manager Buck Showalter.
While the Orioles’ offense was well below average, their pitching was consistently atrocious. Their performance was consistently bad throughout the season, with nearly equal futility before and after the All-Star Break. They had losing records against 17 of the 19 teams they faced, and were especially bad on the road. Because the Red Sox were so strong atop their division, they finished an incredible 61 games out of first place.
The Orioles’ futility is notably bad when compared to the ’62 Mets and the ’16 A’s because with a deeper pool of athletes available today there are fewer truly awful teams. Their performance compared to the typical clustering of records in the modern era is worse relative to what is typical today than either of those teams’ performances were relative to what was typical then.
What truly differentiates these Orioles as an historically bad team is their lack of prospects for near-term improvement. The Mets were an expansion team, while the A’s were one of the youngest teams in the league. While these Orioles have a roster slightly younger than average today, they are significantly older than the 2003 Tigers. And it’s not like there’s a generation of young talent ready to burst forth from the minors. Their Farm System, according to Bleacher Report, is ranked 20th out of 30 teams going into 2019, with only two players in the top 100.
The Orioles are more poorly positioned than other bad teams to get better anytime soon. Invariably, however, they will improve. For the moment, however, let’s pause and give them the credit they deserve but haven’t yet gotten as one of the worst teams in history and the biggest story of baseball from 2018.