Coming off an American League East championship in 2014, the Baltimore Orioles were expected to be in the thick of the postseason hunt again in 2015. Instead, the Birds took a significant step backward, declining by 15 games and settling for a .500 season (81-81) while missing the playoffs. What went wrong? What went right? Let's break it down in an end-of-season report card.
Much was made of the Orioles' losses of free-agent designated hitter/outfielder Nelson Cruz and right fielder Nick Markakis after the 2014 season. But in the end, the O's actually scored more runs in 2015 (713) than they did with a Cruz- and Markakis-led lineup in 2014 (705). It wasn't a well-balanced attack, however. As has been the case during the past few seasons, the Orioles' offense was overly reliant on the home run at the expense of plate discipline, ranking third in the AL in homers (217) but 12th in on-base percentage (.307) and 13th in walks (418).
No player in the majors brought more power than first baseman Chris Davis, who bounced back from his dismal 2014 in emphatic fashion. Davis led Major League Baseball with 47 home runs in 2015, and he could've nearly reached his career high of 53 had he not been robbed of five potential homers by spectacular outfield catches. Davis also led the Orioles with 117 RBIs, 31 doubles, 84 walks, a .361 OBP, .562 slugging percentage and .923 on-base plus slugging percentage.
Meanwhile, third baseman Manny Machado, after undergoing knee surgeries in both 2013 and 2014, was the model of health in 2015. He was the only player in the majors to start all 162 regular-season games. During that span, he established career bests in runs (102), home runs (35), RBIs (86), stolen bases (20), batting average (.286), OBP (.359), slugging percentage (.502), OPS (.861) and total bases (318). He became the second player in Orioles history to collect at least 30 home runs and 20 steals during a season, joining Brady Anderson (1996).
When the Orioles re-signed J.J. Hardy to a three-year extension during the 2014 postseason, they thought they were getting an excellent defensive shortstop who would hold his own offensively. Unfortunately, that was only half true in 2015. Hardy's hitting production completely dropped off the table, as he had a .564 OPS during 114 games. Hardy's OPS would've ranked as the worst in the AL -- by 50 points -- if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Hardy's swing may have been affected by the torn labrum he suffered during spring training.
Elsewhere, the O's received little production from a revolving door of corner outfielders, six of whom were designated for assignment during the season. But nobody symbolized the Orioles' outfield struggles more than Gerardo Parra. When the O's acquired Parra from the Milwaukee Brewers at the non-waiver trade deadline July 31, he was batting .328 with a .886 OPS. After joining the Orioles, Parra struggled, batting .237 with a .625 OPS during 55 games with the club.
Grading the Orioles' 2015 defense presents the ultimate conflict between traditional and advanced defensive statistics. Based on traditional stats, the Birds' defense was the best in the AL -- they committed the fewest errors (77) and had the best fielding percentage (.987). But advanced metrics paint a different picture. The O's ranked 11th in the AL in FanGraphs' defensive runs saved and seventh in ultimate zone rating. Overall, the Orioles' defense was a strong unit, but didn't quite live up to the excellent standards of 2013 and 2014.
At third base, Machado provided another case in which error totals can be misleading. He led the Orioles with 21 miscues, but his superb range and cannon of a throwing arm made him an excellent defender overall. He led the O's with 14 DRS and an 8.4 UZR, and he had no shortage of highlight-worthy defensive plays.
Ranking second in DRS among the Orioles was catcher Caleb Joseph with nine, despite playing 100 games. Joseph's constantly improving defense behind the plate is a primary reason he's likely expected to become the Birds' regular catcher in 2016. Elsewhere, Hardy's defense at shortstop -- four DRS and a 7.1 UZR -- helped him contribute to the O's, despite his struggles at the plate.
As a right fielder, Parra ranked as the Orioles' worst defender with a minus-seven DRS while playing 47 games. Parra is a two-time former Gold Glove winner, but he struggled defensively with the Birds, taking circuitous routes and bad angles to fly balls.
Defensive metrics also weren't kind to second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who amassed a minus-three DRS and minus-five UZR. Schoop's range and mobility were limited after he returned from a knee injury that put him on the disabled list for nearly three months.
To put it bluntly, the Orioles' starting rotation is perhaps the biggest reason the O's are sitting at home watching the postseason instead of participating in it. The Birds' offense, defense and bullpen were good enough to win. But the starting staff -- consisting almost entirely of the same pitchers from the 2014 AL East champion Orioles -- simply collapsed. The starters' 4.53 ERA was the second worst in the AL and increased nearly a full run from their 3.61 mark in 2014. O's starting pitchers allowed 483 runs during 2015, compared to 401 the previous year.
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, whose 3.34 ERA was tops on the Birds' starting staff and seventh best in the AL, was the Orioles' most reliable starter by a wide margin. Chen also led the O's in innings pitched (191.1) and WHIP (1.22), and he delivered a quality start during 20 of his 31 outings. The bad news for the Birds is that Chen is a pending free agent and is expected to be too costly for the Orioles to retain.
The only other above-average O's starter was right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who rebounded from a brutal debut season with the Birds in 2014 to post solid 2015 numbers. Jimenez's 32 starts were the most of any O's pitcher, as were his 12 wins. It was a tale of two seasons for Jimenez, though. He posted a 2.81 ERA during 17 starts before the All-Star break, then a 5.63 ERA during 15 starts after.
Though he was gone from the Orioles' rotation by the end of the first half, right-hander Bud Norris' implosion proved costly for the Birds. Coming off a career year in 2014, Norris was never effective from the get-go in 2015, compiling a 2-7 record with a 6.79 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and 11 home runs allowed during 11 starts (55.2 innings). The O's went 4-14 during games Norris pitched (including as a reliever) before they released him in August.
In a larger sample size, righties Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez also suffered a backslide. Tillman, coming off back-to-back seasons of more than 200 innings pitched, got to 173 in 2015 because of his frequent ineffectiveness. He narrowly avoided a season ERA above 5.00, getting it down to 4.99 during the final game of the year. And Gonzalez's season unraveled after he returned from a groin injury in June. He posted a 6.53 ERA during his final 14 starts, notching two quality starts during that span.
Strong bullpens have been the backbone of the Orioles' success since 2012, and the 2015 relief crew was no exception. O's relievers compiled the third-best ERA in the AL (3.21), and they also ranked third in strikeouts per nine innings (8.98) while allowing the second-fewest home runs per nine (0.80). The Birds' bullpen excelled at pitching out of jams, stranding 75.9 percent of inherited runners, tied for second in the AL.
Whenever the Orioles held a lead after seven innings in 2015, a victory was nearly assured, thanks to their dominant late-inning tandem of right-handed setup man Darren O'Day and lefty closer Zach Britton. At the age of 32, O'Day posted a career year for the Birds, setting new personal bests in ERA (1.52), WHIP (0.934) and strikeouts per nine (11.3) during 68 games. O'Day also added his first career All-Star selection to his ledger. Like Davis and Chen, O'Day will ride his stellar season into offseason free agency.
Britton, during his first full year as a closer, emerged as one of the game's best. He converted 36 of his 40 save opportunities (90 percent), and his four blown saves were usually the result of a string of infield singles. Britton, too, was named to the AL All-Star team, on the strength of his 1.92 ERA, 10.8 strikeouts per nine and 0.99 WHIP. He was a ground ball machine, inducing 8.33 grounders for every fly ball.
No regular O's reliever had a particularly poor season, but left-hander Brian Matusz continued to be an enigma. On the surface, his statistics were solid -- a 2.94 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine -- but he seemed to get flustered under pressure, surrendering a .917 OPS during situations FanGraphs classified as high leverage (when games were on the line). Matusz also made seven appearances during which he didn't record an out.