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The Orioles And Royals Could At Least Still Beat Triple-A Teams … Right?

The Baltimore Orioles really struggled in the season’s second half, going 17-26 in the International League. Fortunately for Baltimore, they still managed to hold off the Charlotte Knights and Gwinnett Stripers by a comfortable margin in the South Division. Advancing to the postseason, the Orioles rallied to capture the league title with series wins over the Rochester Red Wings and Toledo Mud He — wait, what?

That scenario is a hypothetical minor league season simulated by Out of the Park Developments at the request of FiveThirtyEight. In reality, the Orioles are actually a major league team that resides in the American League East, where they were a staggering 60 games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox entering play Tuesday. The modern record for most games back of a division (or, before divisions, league) leader was set in 1906 by the Boston Beaneaters, who finished 66.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs.

Our forecast calls for Baltimore to lose 115 games, which would be tied for the fourth-most losses in a season since 1901. The AL record for games lost in a season is 119 by the infamously bad 2003 Detroit Tigers, while the 1962 New York Mets — an expansion club — hold the modern major league record for losses in a season (120). Both of those numbers are achievable for Baltimore this season. And the Orioles aren’t alone: The Kansas City Royals are also remarkably terrible, projected to lose 105 games. If the Royals and Orioles each lose at least 105 games, they would be the first teams to do so in the same season since 2002.

After unloading many of their assets at the trade deadline, Baltimore and Kansas City are struggling so mightily against real MLB teams that we were curious to see how they would stack up if they were relegated to Triple-A. At what point does the designation between a major and minor league team start to blur? And what are the implications of that blurring for the broader world of Major League Baseball?

To help answer the first question, we started with a minor league equivalency (MLE) calculator, which converts MLB statistics to their corresponding Triple-A numbers. The MLEs were not bullish on Baltimore’s chances in Triple-A: Assuming there is an 18 percent bump in wins above replacement1 when moving down from the majors to the minors,2 the Orioles were still projected to have just a .446 winning percentage in Triple-A. And the Royals? Their 2018 performance translates to a .489 winning percentage in Triple-A. For comparison’s sake, the Philadelphia Phillies are the most average team in baseball this season according to WAR. Their major league performance translates to a .585 winning percentage in Triple-A.

According to Out of the Park’s game engine, though, the Orioles and Royals would at least hold their own against minor league competition. In the aforementioned simulation, Baltimore went 79-59 (a .572 winning percentage) in the International League; a separate sim had the Orioles finishing 87-51 (.630) in the Pacific Coast League (another AAA league). Combined, those records would be good for 97 wins over the standard 162-game schedule.

(The Royals played at a 101-win pace against their AAA opponents in the simulations, while the Phillies projected for a 129-win pace.)

How would MLB’s worst (and most average) do in Triple-A?

Wins per 162 games by league for the Orioles, Royals and Phillies using Out of the Park Developments to simulate Class AAA results for each team

Wins per 162 games in…
Team Real-Life MLB Int’l Lg PCL AAA Combd.
Phillies 83.2 123.3 133.8 128.5
Royals 56.5 110.3 91.6 101
Orioles 46.8 92.7 102.1 97.4

Sources: Out of the Park Baseball, Baseball-Reference.com

Which winning percentage is “correct”? There are a few reasons to think Out of the Park’s findings are more realistic.3 Although many of Baltimore’s players rate at or slightly below the replacement level by WAR, that performance is by definition equivalent to the top level of talent found in the minors. Remember, even a completely replacement-level MLB team would rank among the upper echelon of AAA. Plus, many Orioles are also suffering horrendously down years. Out of the 38 veterans who have logged time for Baltimore this season, 29 are producing WAR below their established level from the previous three seasons. With slightly improved luck, against greatly reduced competition, even the Chris Davises of the world could expect better results. So, similar to a college football team trying to beat an NFL team, baseball’s best farm clubs would probably lose their share of games against the worst the majors has to offer.

But while studying the depths of the Orioles’ and Royals’ badness in the context of minor league teams is fun in itself, studying MLB’s bottom feeders is also useful for understanding how they fit into — and represent — some of the game’s larger trends.

Baltimore wasn’t necessarily attempting to be terrible to begin the season like the tanking efforts of teams like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs earlier this decade. But the Orioles were awful near the deadline and got even worse when they finally elected to rebuild, trading away many of their best players (such as Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop and Brad Brach). The Orioles were 32-75 through July and have picked up the losing pace with their depleted lineup, going 11-32 since the start of August and reaching 100 losses on Sept. 7.

The Orioles at least have the excuse of having to play 38 games against the Yankees and Red Sox. The Royals, meanwhile, are in the woeful AL Central, a grouping of teams that might be the worst division ever. The Royals rank last in the American League in pitching WAR (4.0), and only the Orioles (5.22) have a poorer ERA than Kansas City’s 5.05. Of the 18 Royals pitchers to log at least 20 innings, 10 are at or below replacement level.

The lineup isn’t much better.

How did K.C. and Baltimore get here? Most damaging are their relative struggles to draft and develop quality players and prospects, and little help is on the immediate horizon as the Orioles and Royals ranked 25th and 26th in a composite ranking of midseason prospects.

Although Baltimore regularly exceeded expectations in the 2010s under manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette, the team now faces a long and difficult rebuild with a thin farm system and in a tough division.

“We’re the worst team in the business, but we’re not unlike Kansas City, who had a good run,” Duquette said. “You go through a winning cycle. You don’t draft up high. Your players get older. There is a lot of stress on your resources to replace your players.

“Our situation in Baltimore was we put an inordinate amount of resources into the major league to try and sustain the competitive window. That was a decision by the ownership. Along the way, we didn’t invest in the infrastructure required to sustain it, and by that I mean the international [free agent] recruiting, the analytics, the technology, the front office personnel. The ownership group made a conscious choice to invest money into the major league team to extend the competitiveness of the team a bit longer.”

One of the biggest takeaways from the Orioles’ and Royals’ struggles is that the gap between the haves — the super teams — and have-nots might be growing. From 2010 to 2016, an average of 4.9 teams per season had scoring differentials or 100 runs or greater. Eight teams accomplished the feat last year, and eight teams are projected to do so again this season.

Conversely, seven teams are expected to post negative differentials of 100 runs or more this year after six reached the mark in 2016 and 2017. Over the past decade, three teams have a run differential of -200 or worse, including the DisAstros of 2012 (-211) and 2013 (-238) and the San Diego Padres of 2017 (-212). There will likely be three such teams this season in the Orioles, Marlins and Royals. By run differential between the first- and last-ranking teams, the Orioles are 3.34 runs worse per game than the Astros, which is the second greatest margin in any season since 1954.

Part of this is by design. The Cubs and Astros tanked specifically to acquire premium draft picks and clear payroll, following the NBA’s worst-to-first model. The fact that those two teams won the past two World Series will only strengthen belief in this philosophy. The Royals arguably employed the strategy, too — perhaps inadvertently — to form a core that took the club to the 2014 and 2015 World Series, winning the 2015 title. Two key members of those Royals teams, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, left as free agents last winter.

Duquette has been a major league GM since the early 1990s. Does he believe rebuilding strategies have become more extreme?

“I think one of the things that is different now … is players over 30 now are way less productive than they were in the 1990s and 2000s,” Duquette said. Older players have indeed become less productive and account for fewer seasons being played since performance-enhancing drug testing began in 2004.

“Those are generally some of the players that would be available to make an impact on your major league team. … It’s always been a young’s man game [but] with those [older] players not being available on the market, I think teams, in general, are placing a higher value on the prospects they have, and younger players.”

As long as relegation to the minor leagues isn’t a part of baseball, tanking is a logical approach to acquiring premium young talent. But it won’t always work — and it might not be in the game’s overall interest.

In the American League, the Indians and Red Sox have already clinched playoff berths, and the Indians have clinched the A.L. Central. The Red Sox and Astros have 99 percent chances of capturing their divisions, while the Yankees and Athletics have 99 percent chances of winning the league’s wild cards. So midway through September, there are no AL playoff races — and that is likely playing some role in declining ticket sales.

MLB attendance is down 4.28 percent (2.88 million) from last season’s pace through Sept. 17. A number of factors are at play, including cold early season weather, improving in-home TV/streaming experience and changes to the secondary ticket market. But American League attendance, and its fewer games of interest, is down more (5.97 percent decline and loss of 1.83 million fans) than attendance in the National League (2.99 percent decrease and 1.06 million fans).

The Orioles have suffered the fifth-largest attendance drop in the majors to date (-405,652 fans) while the Royals are third (-523,317).

“If you lose over a 100 games, that’s extreme,” Duquette said. “It’s hard on your club, and it’s hard on the fan base to continue to maintain enthusiasm.”

While rebuilding has always been part of baseball, the depths of such retooling projects are becoming more extreme in nature. They’re so extreme that the gap between the worst major league teams and minor league play might be closing.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

CORRECTION (Sept. 20, 2018, 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article repeated an error made by betting company regarding the modern record for how far back a team finished in the standings. The betting line said the record was 65.5 games in 1909. The record was actually set by the Boston Beaneaters in 1906 at 66.5 games.

Footnotes

  1. Using a mix of FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference.com’s versions of the metric.

  2. Which we arrived at by reverse-engineering the MLE calculator’s 15 percent penalty in on-base plus slugging for moving from Class AAA to the majors.

  3. And no, they didn’t pay us to say that.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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