Sunday, March 20, 2016

Best Baltimore Orioles Team of My Time

The Baltimore Orioles are my favorite baseball team. For a long time, they were my favorite team in all of sports, as baseball was my favorite sport. Over the past ten years or so, hockey and the Washington Capitals have supplanted baseball and the Orioles, respectively, but both sit right there at number two. As a result, I have a pretty long memory of Orioles players, and opinions on most of them.

Historically, when I've debated the "best XYZ ever," the standard has been to span all of history in order to find potential selections. Best home run hitter? Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron were always in the mix. Best basketball center? Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain find their ways into most lists. And deservedly so; all of those players had remarkable careers.

The thing is, I never saw them play. So I can reflect on their statistics and read articles about them and hear anecdotes about how dominant they were, but those aren't my stories. I have no firsthand experience with their play. And the reality is, sports are all about our personal connections to the games. I can talk all day and night about how good Walter Payton and Bobby Hull were, but there won't be any mustard behind it. Just as, if my nephew ever tries to talk about Frank Thomas or Larry Bird, there won't be any personal nature to it.

Therefore, what I like doing is proposing not to talk about the greatest XYZ of all-time, but to talk about the greatest XYZ of MY time. So, in a sort of tandem effort to go along with my recent podcast about the Orioles in 2016, I'm going to present for you the greatest Orioles team of my time, position-by-position. Well, most positions. I'm not going to try to rack my brain for the best long reliever of the past 30 years...even though it's obviously Rodrigo Lopez.

Here we go.

Catcher - Chris Hoiles
Hoiles was a middle-of-the-lineup masher for some good teams and some bad teams, all of them Orioles teams. He spent his entire ten-year career in Baltimore, and his 162-game average was 27 homers and 81 RBI. While he wasn't exceptional, he was a steady force for the Orioles for years and years.

First Base - Chris Davis
This choice was between Davis and Rafael Palmeiro. I went with Davis because, while Palmeiro was solid and productive, he was never the most important part of the team. Since 2012, Davis' bat has been crucial to the team's vault back into competitiveness. And while the metrics don't seem to bear it out, Davis' defense at first base has been surprisingly solid.

Second Base - Brian Roberts
I started coming up with this list of players while I was without Internet access for a week (yes, it was utterly miserable). After coming up with a starter list, I spoke with some friends and checked online to see who I was forgetting, and Roberts was the first of those guys. He's the Orioles' all-time leader in games played at second base, and he was a fixture at the top of Baltimore's lineup for the better part a decade. He might be an all-time Oriole; he's definitely the best 2B of my time.

Third Base - Melvin Mora
There's a case to be made for Manny Machado, even this early in his career, but as of today, Melvin Mora is my pick. He came over from the Mets in the Mike Bordick trade, and started out a super-utility player. After a couple years of filling in as needed, Mora developed into Mr. Reliable for the O's at third. He was a steady bat, contributing heavily to some of those competitive-but-still-not-very-good teams in the mid-2000s.

Shortstop - Cal Ripken, Jr.
I will not explain this. If you don't know why, I can't help you.

Left Field - Brady Anderson
Brady Anderson was a big part of the Orioles before I ever started paying attention to statistics, so it was kind of interesting to go back and look at his actual performance. One conspicuous aspect of Anderson's play is that he had a career on-base-percentage of .362. That's really, really good.

We'll always remember him as one of the more obvious beneficiaries of performance-enhancers (his 50 HR in 1996 were symptomatic of a culture of abuse), but the truth is that he was just a really great player for the Orioles. The only nuance was whether to pick him in left field or center field; I chose left field because center field had a better alternative.

Center Field - Adam Jones
The O's pulled off a pretty big theft in acquiring Jones, Chris Tillman, and George Sherrill for Erik Bedard in 2008. Bedard was a very good pitcher at the time (see below), but Jones and Tillman were both highly-touted prospects, and Sherrill was a serviceable bullpen arm. While Tillman's progress has been slow, Jones almost immediately became central to the Orioles' lineup. Jones's free-swinging ways are still a bit frustrating to watch, but his performance over the years more than makes up for the depressed on-base numbers.

Right Field - Nick Markakis
Markakis is a perfect example of a guy who shines on this type of list, but would never get consideration on an all-time list. He's a very good fielder and a high on-base guy, which slotted him in the leadoff spot for a good chunk of his time in Baltimore. He never produced at a high enough level to merit serious consideration for end-of-season awards, or even really as an All-Star, but he's one of the locals' favorites, and probably will be for years to come.

Starting Pitcher 1 - Mike Mussina
Starting Pitcher 2 - Erik Bedard
Starting Pitcher 3 - Wei-Yin Chen
Starting Pitcher 4 - Sidney Ponson
Starting Pitcher 5 - Scott Erickson
I sort of knew this before I started this exercise, but the Orioles' pitching has been pretty bad for a long time. Looking at that list up there, you're not finding many happy tales. Mussina is obviously the exception, a borderline Hall-of-Famer who won a ton of games for the Orioles and Yankees. After him, though, it gets pretty slim.

Bedard was solid for three years and spectacular for one. Chen was the most reliable pitcher on two playoff teams, so he gets that #3 nod. And Ponson and Erickson were both unexciting workhorses, the kind of pitcher the Orioles seem to target (welcome to the team, Yovani Gallardo!). If you want to talk about the Orioles, there's no need to mention much about the starting pitching.

Right-handed Reliever - Darren O'Day
Left-handed Reliever - B.J. Ryan
Closer - Gregg Olson
Despite their troubles in the starting rotation, the Orioles have actually had a fair share of dominant relievers. O'Day has had an ERA under 2.00 with the O's, with over a strikeout per inning. B.J. Ryan boasted incredible strikeout rates during his time with the O's. And Gregg Olson is the team's all-time leader in saves with 160. Perhaps that's why the O's have mostly invested in innings-eaters for their rotation; just get to the seventh and we're in good shape.

The Orioles of my lifetime don't boast many great players. Ripken was obviously huge, and Mussina could get some HOF votes (though I doubt enough to get in). But it's no surprise that they've had to scrap and claw for their few playoff opportunities in recent years. Hopefully Machado is ushering in a new era of competition for the O's...and let's keep snagging those ace relievers.

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