The Orioles’ weekend series in Kansas City began on a positive note, with the club scoring a season-high 14 runs in Friday’s rout of the Royals, before frustrating mistakes and blown late-inning leads resulted in consecutive losses Saturday and Sunday.
A few Orioles stood out during the three-game set — both for better and for worse.
The good: John Means’ emotional homecoming. The Orioles’ rookie ace, a Kansas native who grew up attending Royals games, pitched at Kauffman Stadium for the first time as a big leaguer Friday night. In front of family and friends, Means turned in one of the most impressive performances of his All-Star campaign, allowing just two runs and five hits in seven strong innings. It was Means’ fourth outing of the year of seven innings, and he was efficient, throwing just 74 pitches, his fewest of any start besides his three-inning starting debut April 9.
Means, after posting a 7.48 ERA in his first six starts of the second half, has rebounded in his past two with a 1.93 mark. He’s now 10-9 with a 3.55 ERA this season.
The strong outing came after a particularly trying week for Means, who told reporters after the game that his father, Alan, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Means spent five days on the family medical emergency list before making Friday’s start.
The bad: The Orioles’ glovework. By both conventional and advanced measures, the Baltimore defense has been atrocious this season. They’ve been charged with 91 errors, tied for fifth-most in the majors, and their -86 Defensive Runs Saved (per FanGraphs) is the worst mark in baseball. Oriole fielders have been plagued by physical mistakes and poor decision-making.
Both were on full display in Saturday’s ugly 7-5 loss. Centerfielder Stevie Wilkerson dropped a routine fly ball that sparked a Royals three-run rally in the fourth inning. Second baseman Hanser Alberto and first baseman Chris Davis, through indecisiveness and poor throws, turned a potential double play into just one out, extending the rally further.
No Oriole, though, had a worse defensive game than catcher Chance Sisco, who botched consecutive bunt plays in the eighth inning, each time making an errant throw while trying to force out the lead runner. The plays again raised questions about Sisco, who didn’t have a strong defensive reputation in the minors and has a -8 DRS this season. Some scouts have speculated that a position switch might be in order for the 24-year-old, especially with the Orioles’ top prospect, catcher Adley Rutschman, expected to arrive in the majors within the next two years.
The good: Hanser Alberto and Jonathan Villar. The two infielders each cemented their place in the Orioles’ history books over the weekend. Villar, less than a week after joining the 20-homer, 20-steal club, upped the ante Friday. By stealing his 30th base (and 31st and 32nd, for good measure), Villar became just the third 20/30 player in Baltimore history, joining Don Baylor (25 homers, 32 steals in 1975) and Brady Anderson (21/53 in 1992 and 24/36 in 1999).
Villar has been on a tear since the All-Star break, batting .315 with a .931 OPS in the second half, while matching his first-half home run total (10) in 42 fewer games. Once considered a possible non-tender candidate this winter, Villar’s second-half surge likely assures the Orioles will offer him arbitration. Even if they don’t foresee Villar on the roster long term, he should have trade value this offseason or next July.
Alberto, meanwhile, continues to be the most prolific hitter in the majors against left-handed pitchers. During his career-best five-hit game Friday, he stroked three of his knocks off southpaws, then added another two in Sunday’s 6-4 loss. He now has 77 hits against lefties this year, a new Orioles record, and the most in the majors since Derek Jeter’s 78 in 2012.
Alberto is batting a league-leading .418 against lefties. Only 13 players in baseball history have had a higher single-season batting average versus southpaws in at least 150 plate appearances. The most recent was the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, who hit .420 against lefties in 2017.
The bad: The Orioles’ bullpen. Despite a scoreless two-inning Orioles debut by right-hander Ryan Eades in the opener, it was a mostly forgettable series for the Baltimore bullpen, which was charged with a blown save and a loss in each of the final two games. On Saturday, flamethrowing rookie Hunter Harvey experienced his first hiccup as a major leaguer, coughing up a game-tying home run to Hunter Dozier in the seventh inning. Harvey, who was charged with his first earned run, became the 35th Oriole to give up a homer this year.
Left-hander Paul Fry took the brunt of the damage, getting charged with the loss in both games. He was a victim of bad luck in the first case — giving up three bunts, all of which turned into baserunners, and two into runs — but blew a one-run lead in the seventh inning on Sunday, surrendering an RBI double. Fry’s runner later scored against Shawn Armstrong.
The good: Anthony Santander. The switch-hitting outfielder continued his 2019 breakout performance with a five-hit series. That included a pair of home runs — one from each side of the plate — in Saturday’s loss. At 24, Santander became the youngest Oriole to do so since Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, who was 23 when he accomplished the feat on August 29, 1979.
Santander, who’s batting .293 with an .853 OPS, 16 homers and 47 RBIs, is more than fulfilling the potential that led former Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette to select him from Cleveland in the 2016 Rule 5 draft. It’s not too early to declare him Duquette’s best Rule 5 pick. Santander has been worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement this season, which is already higher than the entire Orioles careers of any other Rule 5 pick of the Duquette era. (Ryan Flaherty, who posted a 1.6 WAR in six seasons in Baltimore, ranks second.)
As Rich Dubroff wrote, Duquette’s influence is still being felt on the Orioles’ roster. Santander may well turn out to be one of his most successful acquisitions.
Five years after ALCS, Orioles and Royals nearly unrecognizable
Looking at the present-day Orioles and Royals, it’s hard to believe it was only five years ago that the clubs squared off in the American League Championship Series, battling for a trip to the 2014 World Series. Now, they’re two of the three worst teams in the majors, and a year ago, they were the two worst.
The clubs’ falls from grace weren’t immediate. The Royals, after sweeping the Orioles in that 2014 ALCS but losing in the World Series, made it back to the Fall Classic the following year and won the championship. They haven’t had a winning season since. The Orioles returned to the playoffs in 2016, losing the wild-card game in Toronto, before their sudden decline.
The teams have undergone near total roster overhauls since their ALCS matchup. Only one player on the field this weekend, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, participated in that 2014 matchup. Only Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez, who has missed the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, remain from the Royals’ 2014 ALCS roster. On the Orioles’ side, Davis is the only player still with the club from 2014, but he missed the ALCS while serving a 25-game suspension for using Adderall without a therapeutic use exemption from Major League Baseball.
The Orioles and Royals are in the middle of a full-fledged rebuilding process. Five years from now, perhaps one or both will be among the AL’s elite once again. But how many players from this weekend’s rosters will still be around?