There’s a video that someone posted on Youtube in November of 2012—a highlight video commemorating the Orioles just-finished season. It begins with slowed-down, black-and-white footage of the Baltimore Orioles’ legendary final game of the 2011 season: With Jonathan Papelbon pitching for the Red Sox, with two out in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Robert Andino shot a line drive into left. The ball was bobbled, Nolan Reimold sprinted home, and the Orioles won 4-3. The crowd went wild.
The game had no implications for the Orioles beyond its ending.They had been in last place entering the game, and when the game was over, the battle won, they were still in last place. But in pulling out that final win, they had been the final nail in the coffin of the Red Sox and their epic September collapse, playing an essential role in one of the most dramatic, unlikely days in the history of baseball. In that moment, it didn’t matter as much that they were a last-place team, that it was their fourth consecutive last-place finish, their 14th consecutive losing season. It was magical, even if the outlook for the next season was made no brighter for the magic.
In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles, who had been losers for the better part of a generation, went 93-69—a neat reversal of their record the previous year. They outplayed their run differential by 11 games. The years of futility, gone on for so long that it seemed like they might never end, were over. Luck finally seemed to be on their side. And thus the video is titled: “2012 Baltimore Orioles: Magic!”
And in the seasons that followed, the Orioles did indeed appear to be pulling a sort of magic act. For five consecutive competitive seasons—which included losses in the Wild Card game, the ALDS, and the ALCS—every system we have to forecast the way teams will perform prior to the beginning of the season had foretold nothing good for the Orioles. Every season, somehow, the Orioles managed to outplay them. In 2012, they were led by Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and J.J. Hardy; in 2013, Manny Machado put together the first superstar season of his superstar career, and Chris Davis hit 53 home runs. In 2014, when the Orioles won 96 games and their first division title since 1997, they got a breakout season out of Steve Pearce, and 2016 gave them one of the best bullpen performances in memory, with closer Zach Britton going practically unscored-upon.
There was always some unexpected element, some unlikely combination of factors, that lifted the Orioles into success. Despite all odds, for those five seasons, the Baltimore Orioles were the American League’s winningest team. They kept on winning, somehow, right up until Zach Britton didn’t pitch in the 2016 Wild Card game.
The projections didn’t like the Orioles’ chances in 2018. ZiPS had them at 78-84; PECOTA was less optimistic, at 71-91. But then, the projections had never liked them very much. There was less reason for optimism than before: The Red Sox and Yankees had only added to their already-powerful rosters. Even if the outlooks of the Rays and Blue Jays were dubious, those two teams seemed like an insurmountable obstacle at the top of the division. The race for the second Wild Card spot, though, was less clear-cut. Some good luck, a few breaks going their way, and they might be able to pull out another season of contention.
On Opening Day, in front of a sellout crowd at Camden Yards, the Orioles beat the Minnesota Twins 3-2 on an Adam Jones walk-off. They proceeded to lose five games in a row. They would not win their 10th game of the season until May 10. On September 7, they lost their hundredth game of the season, and on Tuesday, with their 108th loss, they set a team record. Of all the seasons of futility that the Orioles franchise has seen over the past two decades, the 2018 season has been the worst. Even if the Orioles were to win all their games from here on out, this season will go down as one of the worst in baseball history.
Which, considering the kinds of seasons the Orioles have had over the years, almost seems like an achievement. The 1988 Orioles infamously lost 21 games in a row to start the season, but even they didn’t lose 108 games—they managed to recover enough to finish 54-107. The 2018 Orioles have been a marvel of bad baseball. Their most valuable player who hasn’t been traded away is Richard Bleier, a reliever who’s been on the disabled list since June 15. They have been shut out 15 times, and walked off eight. Chris Davis, still riding out his seven-year, $161 million dollar contract, is batting .171/.246/.302 with a 36 percent strikeout rate. The Orioles’ entire offense has been worth 1.8 WAR, less than Corey Dickerson has been worth by himself. Their pitching staff has a collective ERA of 5.20. The team, with a lineup of veterans, was awful in the first half, and have been equally awful in the second half after trading the vast majority of those veterans away. There is no one element of this team that has failed to perform. It has been everything.
Watching this season unfold every day as an Orioles fan, or participating in it as a player, must have been unbearable. From an outside perspective, though, it’s a sight to behold. You have to admire a team that has found at least 108 different ways to lose in a 162-game season. And as bad as the Orioles have been, they’ve even managed to be unlucky. Their run differential would have them at 51-100—still terrible, obviously, but not quite record-setting levels of bad. Now, they are looking down a long, rocky road, with little light to be seen from this vantage point. They will have to rebuild their unremarkable farm system from the ground up, an effort they’ve already begun with the trades they made this season. It’s unlikely that winning baseball will return to Baltimore anytime soon.
Still, it’s incredible to think that just two years ago these Orioles were in a tight, exciting postseason race—that they were, to the bafflement of all, one of baseball’s best teams for most of this decade. The outplaying of all expectations seems to have caught up with them now, though, and it has done so with a vengeance. This season has been a historic disaster. The future might not hold anything good for a long while. But, at the very least, it’s hard to imagine things getting any worse.