There are a number of ways to describe the Orioles’ 2021 season, starting with bad. But it also offered signs of perhaps a brighter future.
The Orioles lost 110 games. They became the first team in Major League Baseball history to have losing streaks of 19 and 14 games in the same season. During the 19-game losing streak, they were barely competitive.
But unlike the 2019 club, which lost 108, the Orioles had what Trey Mancini called “a core group forming in the lineup” and a significantly improved minor league system that features the top position player in catcher Adley Rutschman and the top pitcher in Grayson Rodriguez.
The core group Mancini referred to started with the leadoff hitter, centerfielder Cedric Mullins. Even though he appeared to tire in the final two weeks, Mullins finished with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, the first in Oriole history to accomplish that feat.
Mullins was the starting centerfielder on Opening Day for that 2019 club, but after a 6-for-64 start, he was sent to Triple-A Norfolk and then to Double-A Bowie. He earned his way back in the abbreviated 2020 season, batting .271.
It wasn’t a surprise that Mullins became a regular in center field in 2021, but his statistical breakout was. The nod as starting centerfielder for the American League in the All-Star Game for the injured Mike Trout was validation of his growth.
Mullins played a Gold Glove-caliber center field. He made a number of outstanding catches but none better than when he took a home run away from the New York Yankees Gary Sanchez — his left shoulder even with the top of the wall as he reached high above it with his right arm to make the catch.
At the beginning of the season, Mancini was probably the favorite to win Most Valuable Oriole, which he won in 2019. Mancini’s ability to rebound from his season-long absence because of colon cancer surgery and chemotherapy in 2020 was the inspirational story of 2021.
Mancini seemed worn down at times, but playing 147 games, the same number he played in his 2017 rookie season, was remarkable. His .255 average, 21 home runs, 71 RBIs and a .758 OPS were all lower than his 2019 season, but more than respectable.
If the Orioles had players that produced as well as he did at second base, shortstop, third base and catcher, they would have won many more games.
Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Mountcastle, whose 33 home runs were the most ever by an Oriole rookie, is another who could be a star in the coming years.
That’s also true of outfielder Austin Hays, who had a healthier season and played 131 games, coming on strong at the end. Hays hit .284 with a .921 OPS from September 1st on with eight home runs and 22 RBIs. His play in the outfield was strong and while he still hit far better against left-handers (.308) than right-handers (.221), his numbers against right-handed pitchers improved in the season’s final weeks.
Relief pitcher Tyler Wells was a Rule 5 draft pick whose development was unexpected. Manager Brandon Hyde liked the makeup of the 6-foot-8 reliever so much that he used him as a closer with mixed results. But Wells did earn four saves and struck out 65 in 57 innings before his season ended because of inflammation of his right shoulder.
Starting pitcher John Means thrilled the baseball world with his May 5th no-hitter in Seattle but won only two more games after that, although Means did miss six week weeks because shoulder fatigue. Means was still ninth in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among American League pitchers and had a 3.62 ERA. Because of the time he missed for injury, Means threw 146 2/3 innings, just under the 162 needed to qualify for ERA leaders. (A 3.62 ERA would have have placed him eighth among qualifiers.)
Hays, Mancini, Mountcastle, Mullins, Means and Wells were among those who had success in 2021, but the Orioles were often overmatched, and their pitching was often inept.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde acknowledged the obvious — that playing in the American League East, where every other team won at least 90 games, takes it toll. Even though the Orioles were competitive at times in the final weeks against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, their final six games against the Toronto Blue Jays were mismatches.
It’s hard to believe that the Orioles beat the Blue Jays, 6-3, on September 10th because in their last five meetings, they allowed 72 runs.
The Orioles didn’t play Tampa Bay after August 29th, but they helped contribute to the Rays’ margin of victory in the American League East. They lost 18 of 19 to Tampa Bay, and many of those losses were lopsided. The Rays outscored the Orioles, 150-71.
After losing 17 of 19 to the Yankees in 2019, the Orioles were 8-11 against them this year, their best mark against an AL East opponent.
In 2014, the Orioles won the AL East and played well enough to qualify for the wild-card game in 2016. It now appears that the distance between them and the others in the East is insurmountable.
Moves to help reduce that distance need to be made this offseason. Hyde has said that playing 76 of 162 games against the best divisional opponents should make you stronger, but it can also be terribly discouraging.
The offseason is for changes, and there should be a dizzying amount of them. Although many fans are resigned to more 100-loss seasons, Elias vowed in his season-ending news briefing that he expected the record to improve measurably in 2022.
That would be the most welcome improvement of all.
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