By William Gregory
(Photo: G Fiume/Getty Images)
“The Baltimore Orioles have been an embarrassment to the league for far too long,” Commissioner Rob Manfred remarked at the 2020 MLB Winter Meetings, “By a vote of 29 to 1, they are set to be expelled from MLB prior to the 2021 season.”
While the Orioles had been awful since the signing of the Chris Davis megadeal, what MLB had just done was unprecedented. Never has a team been expelled from any of the four North American professional sports leagues for not being good enough to compete. With the United States reluctant to adopt any sort of relegation pyramid, it seems this was the only option.
Many fans erupted in disgust over what they saw to be the beginning of the eradication of small-market teams. Mike Elias, the general manager of the Orioles, was a key cog in the Houston Astros front office that unabashedly tanked in the early-2010s. Why should the big-market teams receive preferential treatment?
Nevertheless, the Orioles were now homeless after the pandemic shortened the 2020 season. The team’s 91-year-old owner, Peter Angelos, decided that they must find a new league for 2021. Nippon Professional Baseball had lost a lot of money with decreased gate revenue following the cancellation of 23 games in 2020, as well as limited capacity seating throughout the playoffs. They blew through much of their cash reserves and needed a boost. A deal between the two entities seemed inevitable.
Shortly after New Year’s Day on January 2, an agreement was reached. The Orioles would become NPB’s 13th team after joining the Pacific League. Angelos paid $50 million as part of an expansion fee with guaranteed television rights as well as the ability for them to compete for the Japan Series title in their first season. To ease travel burdens but also to remain in the United States, the Orioles have chosen to play their home games in Honolulu, Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium.
The 2021 season is now about to begin, and the Baltimore Orioles have the second biggest payroll in the league. Preseason predictions project them to be the fourth best team in the regular season. They also project fourth-year outfielder Austin Hays to be this year’s MVP. With the Orioles set to play against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for their first NPB game, John Means takes the mound at Aloha Stadium.
John Means suffered an elbow strain after two scoreless innings, and his replacement Bruce Zimmermann gave up five runs. The Orioles battled back in the ninth to tie the game, and eventually won on a Cedric Mullins bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 11th inning. The Baltimore Orioles start 1-0 in NPB. Veteran starter Mike Leake is signed in free agency to fill the void.
The Orioles finished April with a 14-13 record with a .518 winning percentage, below their projected .595. They seem to be just an average team in the Pacific League. Cedric Mullins has 1.5 WAR, but with only 124 OPS+, a lot of his value comes from stolen bases and stellar center field defense. Trey Mancini is ripping the cover off the ball with a 162 OPS+. Ryan Mountcastle has been a disappointment with a slugging percentage under .300. The Orioles bullpen has proven to be inconsistent, with Paul Fry, Cole Sulser, and Tyler Wells being outstanding, however the rest of the arms have ERAs closer to 10 than zero.
At the all-star break, the Orioles are a solid 31-24. Still behind the Orix Buffaloes for first place in the Pacific League, and far behind Central League’s Yomiuri Giants who possess NPB’s best record at 44-21. The Orioles have the best offense in NPB, however their pitching in terms of runs allowed is tied with the last-place Chunichi Dragons for last in the league. Reliever Tanner Scott and opening day rotation member Jorge Lopez have been disappointing with both having negative WAR. Lopez was bumped in the rotation in favor of of Tyler Wells.
On June 5, the Orioles sent seven players to the all-star game. Stars Mullins, Hays, Mancini, as well as a re-emerged Mountcastle, and surprise breakouts Terrin Vavra, Pedro Severino, and Dean Kremer. The Pacific League beat the Central League 6-3, but no Orioles player played a crucial role. Mike Leake, a signing before the season started, had been the best pitcher on the team but suffered a torn meniscus on June 2nd. Mike Leake, a signing just days after the season began, had been the best pitcher on the team but suffered a torn meniscus on June 2.
As we simulate to the trade deadline, Baltimore needs better starting pitching as well as some bottom of the lineup hitters. Chris Davis has returned from injury and slots into the team’s starting DH spot, but Adley Rutschman is mashing in AAA. What will the Orioles do to get themselves over the hump?
They didn’t call up Rutschman, but it doesn’t matter. On July 31, the Orioles had the best record in the Pacific League at 59-37. Cedric Mullins came alive in June and July, slashing .356/.473/.658 and .306/.458/.597 respectively. He also won a Player of the Week award for the week of June 7. Those two months put Mullins at the forefront of the MVP conversation, outpacing both leagues with 6.7 WAR, while being projected to finish with 10 WAR in a 143-game season. The Orioles lineup remained potent, but the pitching staff took another hit with Dean Kremer tearing his rotator cuff on July 27. Surprisingly, the Orioles made no trades before the deadline and chose to make the playoff push without any substantive additions. John Means has returned to headline a Frankenstein rotation of long relievers in Keegan Akin and Conner Greene, along with veteran Matt Harvey. 27-year-old relief pitcher Tyler Wells was selected as the July Rookie of the Month after pitching a 374 ERA+ in 23 1/3 innings.
On August 20, the Orioles still led the Pacific League, but Yomiuri and the Hanshin Tigers still led them in the overall standings. After their strongest months of the season from May to June with a combined winning percentage of .657, the O’s started slow in August with four losses in six games. They finished the month 13-11, their worst month since April. Not a good sign for a team with championship aspirations to limp into the playoffs.
The 2021 Orioles finished 73-48, good for first in the Pacific League. They rank third in NPB in wins. Aloha Stadium was a boon for Baltimore, with the O’s winning 40 of their games at home. Cedric Mullins cooled off in August, hitting for only a .714 OPS, but still led the team with a 7.3 WAR. He also had 43 steals in 44 chances! The Orioles All-Stars took up the top five WAR spots. Chris Davis could have challenged for the team lead, but he only played 38 games.
The statistics for the pitchers still healthy for the playoffs don’t look as good as the offense, but they still ranked first in strikeouts and pitching WAR for the Pacific League. A top-heavy bullpen all year, contributions from closer Cole Sulser, Rookie of the Year candidate Tyler Wells, and the 36-year-old former Mexican League soft-tosser Cesar Valdez patched several holes in a bullpen that ranked fifth in the Pacific League. The five main relievers other than those three pitched to a combined 0.3 WAR. The whole pitching staff needs to step up in the playoffs, unless the offense can outscore their opponent in every game.
Here are the season-long statistics. Already possessing a top-tier offense in all of NPB, if the pitching staff was supported by better defense as well as playing in a more pitcher-friendly park, Baltimore could have challenged for the best overall record in NPB. Alas, they settle for a sub-league championship.
The Orioles are set to meet the Saitama Seibu Lions in the second round of the NPB playoffs. The O’s closed out the regular season against Saitama, but the Lions won’t be rusty for the upcoming series after their win in two games against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. The Lions, led by super slugger Hotaka Yamakawa and all-world catcher Tomoya Mori, hope to beat the Orioles with their stellar defense and bullpen.
Game one was an evenly matched game with the Lions getting the best of Baltimore left-hander Paul Fry to win 6-2. Baltimore won the next two off the back of Trey Mancini home runs and a Terrin Vavra four-hit performance. With Keegan Akin on the bump in Game four, the Orioles clinched a spot in the Japan Series with a 7-4 win. Baltimore so far has proven that they can outscore anybody, in spite of some bad pitching performances. Trey Mancini won series MVP with hits in all four games. Reliever Cole Sulser picked up two saves in the series, and has yet to allow a run. However, they are soon to face their toughest challenge yet in the 89-54 Yomiuri Giants.
The Giants have an incredible top two-thirds of their lineup, but will be without their Eiji Sawamura MVP award frontrunner Tomoyuki Sugano and several other rotation pieces. Still remaining are two pitchers that could have been the leaders of the Orioles’ rotation in Shosei Togo and Angel Sanchez. Togo led NPB in strikeouts and K/9, while Sanchez captured the ERA crown with a 2.26 ERA. Former major leaguer Rubby de la Rosa saved 33 games for the Giants as well. An extremely tough matchup for our Baltimore boys.
John Means and Shosei Togo faced off in game one, where the Giants beat the Orioles 10-4. Means has continued to have a disappointing season throughout the second half of the year. Yomiuri DH Eric Thames hit a solo shot in the fifth inning, and the Giants pulled away.
In game two, Matt Harvey and Angel Sanchez both allowed five runs before leaving in the fifth inning. The Orioles bullpen shut down the rest of the game, and Cedric Mullins hit his second homer of the game in the sixth inning to give Baltimore a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
With the series tied 1-1, the Orioles traveled to Tokyo for a three-game set. Despite giving up six walks in two and a third innings, Baltimore reliever Conner Greene picked up the win in the 11-inning, 8-6 affair. The Orioles lead 2-1.
In game four, the Orioles continued to show that their lack of pitching depth won’t stop them. The whole lineup has gotten in on the scoring, with only Trey Mancini having less than a .250 playoff batting average. They won 11-8 in a Tokyo barnburner.
Down 3-1, the Giants have their last shot to keep their season alive in their home stadium. Norfolk Tides call-up Adam Plutko gets the start on a bullpen day for Yomiuri. It seems inevitable that the Orioles will take home the Japan Series title in their first NPB season.
The Orioles win Game 5 and take home the Japan Series! Baltimore once again flexed their offensive muscles, winning in another high-scoring game 8-6. Cole Sulser saved the game to stay unscathed during the playoffs. No runs allowed in eight innings. Austin Hays won Japan Series MVP after a three-hit, five-RBI performance for the series. Yomiuri could not stop the Oriole offense all series.
The Orioles kept the parade going, winning several regular season awards. Seth Mejias-Brean and Austin Hays took home Golden Gloves. Terrin Vavra, Cedric Mullins, and Trey Mancini won Best Nine awards. Vavra won the Rookie of the Year and Tyler Wells finished second. Brandon Hyde won Manager of the Year. The crown jewel of the 2021 season for the Orioles, besides the championship, was the MVP award given to Cedric Mullins, who led NPB in WAR by a wide margin.
With nothing left to prove to commissioner Manfred and MLB, the Orioles were extended an offer to rejoin the league. After a short period of deliberation, the Orioles declined, opting into experiencing the beginning of an NPB dynasty.