Wilkerson's versatility is the key to a 2020 return with the Orioles; Remembering Andy Etchebarren - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Rich Dubroff

Wilkerson’s versatility is the key to a 2020 return with the Orioles; Remembering Andy Etchebarren

Photo Credit: Joy R. Absalon

When the 2019 season began, the Orioles thought Cedric Mullins would be their centerfielder. After a horrid start when Mullins went 6-for-64 (.094), he was back in the minor leagues, and the Orioles searched for a new centerfielder.

They tried Joey Rickard, but he wasn’t the answer. Nor was Keon Broxton.

For most of the season, the Orioles’ centerfielder was none other than Stevie Wilkerson, who had never played the position professionally before this season.

In spring training, the Orioles thought Mullins, and perhaps later on in the season, Austin Hays, with perhaps some help from Rickard could take care of center.

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Austin Hays was the other option the Orioles considered in spring training, but he had another injury-challenged season after not making the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. But when Hays came up in September for the final three weeks of the season, he sparkled offensively and defensively, perhaps securing the position going into next year.

Wilkerson started 58 games in center, 15 in left and 7 in right.

Former manager Buck Showalter had projected Wilkerson as the next Ryan Flaherty, a switch-hitting utility man who could play the infield and the outfield.

But first-year manager Brandon Hyde had an infield of Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz and Jonathan Villar, who played steadily throughout the season. (Ruiz was sent to the minors briefly to make room for Jace Peterson.)

There really wasn’t a need for Wilkerson to play the infield, though he did get six starts at second.

Wilkerson struggled in the outfield, and though he committed only two errors in 184 chances, the defensive metrics weren’t kind to him.

BaseballReference.com’s WAR (wins above replacement) graded him with a -.8, almost all of it coming on defense. Offensively, he was 0.0, an average player.

Wilkerson hit .226 with an on-base percentage of .286. His OPS was .669, lower than any Oriole regular except for Chris Davis’ .601 and Richie Martin’s .581. He hit 10 home runs and drove in 35 runs.

Because the Orioles went with 13 pitchers for most of the season, Wilkerson ended up being invaluable to Hyde.

The 13 pitchers meant there were just 12 position players. One of them was a backup catcher, leaving just two subs.

Because Wilkerson could play all the infield and outfield positions, he became an important member of the 2019 team. Had the pitching been better, the Orioles could have gotten by with 12 pitchers, as was their original plan.

With four extra position players, the Orioles could have carried a backup outfielder or another infielder, lessening the value of a utility player. Next season, teams will carry 26 players, instead of 25, and will be limited to 13 pitchers, ensuring at least four extra batters.

Instead of Wilkerson’s maneuverability, fans probably will remember his 2019 season for his pitching and his acrobatic catch in the final game of the season on September 29.

By the time Hyde got around to using Wilkerson in the bullpen, he had already established himself in center field.

On July 12, in the first game after the All-Star break, with a doubleheader looming the next day, Wilkerson pitched a perfect ninth inning against Tampa Bay in a 16-4 loss.

Eight days later, he allowed a run in two innings to Boston in a 17-6 defeat.

A highlight in this lost season came on July 25 when Wilkerson became the first position player to record a save in the team’s 10-8 win over the Los Angeles Angels.

After Tanner Scott blew a three-run lead in the 15th, the Orioles scored two runs in the top of the 16th, and Wilkerson, who had been playing center, moved in to pitch. He retired all three Angels hitters in the 16th, and history was made at 4:27 A.M. Eastern Time.

Wilkerson’s success on the mound was built on his deception. He threw below the hitting speed and enjoyed his notoriety.

Orioles players wore “Let Stevie pitch” shirts, and Hyde allowed him to record the final four outs in a 23-2 drubbing by Houston on August 10. That one didn’t go as well. Wilkerson allowed three runs in recording those four outs.

On the season’s final day, with Anthony Santander unavailable, Wilkerson made a tremendous catch on Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr., falling into the right-field stands for a moment.

The catch saved the game for a time, but Wilkerson, whose error and misplaying a ball in the sun had cost the Orioles two runs in the third, made a mental error in the ninth that contributed to the game-winning run by Mookie Betts.

Next season, the Orioles could go with an outfield of Santander in left, Hays in center and perhaps Trey Mancini in right — with Mullins, Dwight Smith Jr., DJ Stewart and Mason Williams possibly competing for a job as extra outfielders.

Wilkerson’s personality and adaptability made him a popular player in the clubhouse and among the media. Clearly, Hyde enjoyed having him around.

Maybe there won’t be a place on the 2020 Orioles for Wilkerson. Hyde hopes that he won’t need position players to pitch as often as he did in 2019. Perhaps some of the natural outfielders are able to break through, lessening the need for Wilkerson.

The guess here is that he is back with the Orioles in spring training, trying to show that his versatility will help the team as the rebuild  continues.

Remembering Andy Etchebarren: Andy Etchebarren, who played 12 seasons with the Orioles, died Saturday at 76.

Etchebarren played for the first six Orioles postseason teams, and was named an American League All-Star catcher in 1966 and 1967.

He made his major league debut in 1962, and became the team’s regular catcher in its first World Series season, when they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in 1966.

Etchebarren concluded his 15-season career with the California Angels and Milwaukee Brewers.

He was manager Davey Johnson’s bench coach in 1996 and 1997 and managed Oriole affiliates in Aberdeen, Bluefield, Bowie, Frederick and Rochester. He also managed the independent York Revolution.

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Boog Robinson Robinson

    October 7, 2019 at 7:37 am

    RIP Mr. Etchebarren. Kind enough to give a young boy his autograph and a few minutes of conversation along the 3rd base line in Fenway. It’s like it happened just yesterday. Forever an Oriole in our hearts.

  2. SpinMaster

    October 7, 2019 at 8:21 am

    Rich: With the rosters at 26 and only 13 pitchers included, it will be interesting how the O’s construct the roster next year. I suspect that any player with options will be up and down the Norfolk shuttle and the extra outfielders will probably be on the train. Unfortunately, the 4 extras (excluding the back-up catcher) will probably need to be reduced by 1 since C.D. will be on the roster.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 7, 2019 at 8:40 am

      That shuttle may not be as active, Spin since options are supposed to be reduced to a 15-day minimum from a 10-day minimum.

  3. Orial

    October 7, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Thoughts on Etchebarren–other than Yogi he had a face that only a mother could love but was truly loved by O’s fans of that day. He was a throw back. Had that Hollywood character actor look about him. Caught some great staffs. Will miss you Andy. As far as Stevie his stats indicate a player that in no way should be given a second look BUT oh those intangibles. Him making the team in 2020 could be a sign of the real talent not coming in but also a sign of his “out of the box” qualities. I actually hope he returns but oh those stats.

  4. willmiranda

    October 7, 2019 at 10:19 am

    I’m sorry, Rich, but I can’t accept your inability to write about Wilkerson’s phenomenal catch without mentioning his less competent plays. There’s no connection, except that they occurred in the same game. Yes, when he made the catch, it temporarily saved the game, but what made it outstanding was the degree of difficulty. Also, Richie Marin’s OPS was .581, quite a bit below Wilkerson’s and even below Davis’s. Since he played in 120 games, I would count Martin as a regular.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 7, 2019 at 11:37 am

      You are correct on Richie Martin, Will. Thank you for pointing that out.

  5. Bhoffman1

    October 7, 2019 at 11:02 am

    I sure hope we get to see A outfield of Mountcastle, Hays and Santlander next year and Diaz possibly too with Mancini taking most reps at 1st base. If Vilar is resigned I hope to see him everyday at 2B. I’m not a fan of utility players who can play many positions but do everything below par. Stevie played his heart in the OF but he never should have been there to begin with.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 7, 2019 at 11:40 am

      Bruce, one of the points I was trying to make was that the Orioles’ pitching was so inconsistent that they were forced to carry Wilkerson.

      You’re correct that good teams have better utility players.

    • Hallbe62

      October 7, 2019 at 12:24 pm

      Mancini should be moved back to his natural position at 1st Base.

      He is not a big league outfielder and chances are good he never will be.

    • Raymo

      October 7, 2019 at 5:39 pm

      If Mountcastle’s arm isn’t good enough for an infield position, it ain’t gonna thrill us in the outfield. Will his bat be enough to let us overlook that deficiency?

      • Jbigle1

        October 7, 2019 at 9:19 pm

        No. It won’t. The last thing I’m hoping for is seeing Mountcastle anywhere near the outfield grass. His tools defensively are Trey Mancini. You don’t like trey Mancini in the outfield? Nobody does. That’s exactly what you’d get with Mountcastle. That’s the exact kind of crap we shouldn’t do. No more players playing somewhere they have no business being.

  6. OriolesNumber1Fan

    October 7, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    RIP Mr. Etchebarren. All-star catcher in 66 and 67. Helped call great games in 66 world series when the Orioles swept the heavily favored Dodgers and gave up a total of two runs. Also managed and coached on all levels of the team. He definitely bled Orioles orange. My only wish would be that he would be included in the Orioles Hall of Fame.
    Hopefully Wilkerson won’t be asked to play that much outfield next year if he makes the roster. Switch-hitter that can play all positions including pitching in relief in an emergency would be quite valuable on any roster, if he’s not asked to play every day.

  7. Hallbe62

    October 7, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    R.I.P. Andy. You made quite a catching pair with Ellie

    • Raymo

      October 7, 2019 at 5:46 pm

      Indeed! Neither was a stud, but they were a really solid tandem behind the plate. And a tip of the hat to the 3rd catcher in the glory years of 69-71 Clay Dalrymple.

  8. Birdman

    October 7, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    Stevie was one of our best relief pitchers, a WHIP of only 1.125 … better hold on to him.

  9. Borg

    October 8, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    I wouldn’t mind Wilkerson getting 120 starts next year in center field, just as long as it is for another team. When are the Orioles going to stop being enamored of players who can do a lot of things badly? Watching Flaherty, Rickard, and Wilkerson make me think I am watching a high school team where the coach likes some player so puts him in all the time even though more talented players ride the bench.

    I’ve said it on here before and I’ll continue saying it–the Orioles should have called up Williams before Wilkerson, or at least shortly after Wilkerson made it obvious he could neither play CF at a major league level or hit major league pitching. Williams can do both and he has the stats to prove it. If Wilkerson is on the roster moving north next year, ti will save me a lot of time because I will know well in advance the Os will not be worth watching.

    It’s sad to hear about Etchebarren, one of my favorite players growing up. Nothing makes a person more aware of time passing than having childhood favorites pass away.

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