The Best All Time Orioles Seasons at Every Position (Infield)
I started writing this piece a few weeks ago and life was upside down then. It’s been rolled over several times since. The point either way though is that there is no sports and there won’t be sports for a while. The absence of sports now though doesn’t mean we all don’t want to discuss sports or think about them. We do. We absolutely do. That’s led to a lot of looking back at former players, former seasons. I think that fits pretty well with the Orioles because, let’s be honest, even if they were playing, we might not want to actually watch.
With that preamble in mind, I wanted to start at the absolute top, by creating the best Orioles team possible made up of the best seasons at every position. I picked a starting lineup, five starting pitchers, three relievers, and a manager who is Earl Weaver because honestly. The rules are simple. No player can be picked more than once. That’s it. That’s the rules. Let’s get to it!
This is a big project so we’re going to do this in installments. Today we’ll do the infield. We’ll get to the outfield and catcher soon, then we’ll do the starting staff, and then the bullpen and manager.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
First Base: 1961 Jim Gentile: 46 HRs, 141 RBIs, 8 WAR
Runner Up: 2013 Chris Davis, 53 HRs, 138 RBIs, 7.1 WAR
We’re going to start with probably the most controversial choice. As you can see, the name listed above is not Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Murray undoubtedly was the best Orioles first baseman of all time. By career WAR at first base, Murray more than triples Jim Gentile. But Murray never put together a season like Gentile’s 1961. Murray’s high in OPS was .940 in 1982. His OPS was 56 percent above league average that season. Gentile’s OPS in ’61 was over 100 points higher and 87 percent above league average. Gentile’s ’61 remains the sixth most valuable season by WAR any Orioles hitter has ever had. It was an incredible year and one that likely would’ve been recognized with an MVP award had it not happened in 1961, the year Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run mark. That’s tough timing.
Maybe when his career is over it’ll be easier to put things into proper context, but right now Chris Davis just makes me sad. His utter ineptitude at the plate over the past two seasons has obscured what a brilliant hitter he was in his mid and late 20s for the O’s. This culminated in a brilliant 2013 season that saw him slug over .600 while leading the AL in homers with 53. Those 53 remain the most home runs ever hit in a single season by an Orioles player.
Second Base: 2005 Brian Roberts: .314/.387/.515, 6.8 WAR
Runner Up: 1973 Bobby Grich: 17 SBs, BB% 2.3% higher than K%, 7.8 WAR (largely comes from defensive value)
It would be easier to base these rankings purely on WAR. That would take me off the hook, for one. WAR is a fantastic stat, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. There is some subjectivity involved, and here is a perfect example of where WAR falls short. In 2005, Brian Roberts hit… well, you can see his numbers above. He finished 18th in the AL MVP that season, but probably should’ve been second or third (he finished second in WAR behind Alex Rodriguez). Bobby Grich’s 1973 season ranks higher by a win (7.8 WAR to 6.8), but Grich had a .760 OPS that year. That’s fine, but nothing noteworthy. Grich’s WAR comes from his spectacular fielding. But here’s the thing: Roberts was also a spectacular fielder! And in 2005 he was an almost MVP caliber hitter as well!
Grich is maybe more well known for leaving Baltimore to sign with the Angels as one of the original big money (for the time) free agents. Following the 1976 season, the Orioles lost Grich, Reggie Jackson (Yankees), and starting pitchers Wayne Garland (Indians) and Mike Cuellar (Angels) all to free agency. Grich went on to play 10 seasons with the Angels putting up numbers comparable numbers to his time in Baltimore. Grich’s career is one often cited as one of the biggest snubs by the Hall of Fame. For their part, the ’77 now Grich-less Orioles won 97 games, but finished 2.5 games behind the Yankees. As there was no Wild Card back then, this meant they missed the playoffs. This happened in large part because without Grich, the Orioles started 23-year-old Billy Smith at second base, and Smith hit, if you can call it that, .215/.281/.300, for an OPS 37 percent below league average. Had the kept Grich, the Orioles very likely would have finished ahead of New York, meaning, at the very least, the Yankees wouldn’t have been denied their 1977 World Series championship.
Shortstop: 1991 Cal Ripken: .323/.374/.566, 34 HRs, 113 RBI, 10.6 WAR!
Runner Up: There is no runner up to this season. It stands alone.
Unlike at first base, there was no question who would occupy the shortstop spot on this list. The only question was which Cal Ripken season it would be. And, really, there’s not much question there either. Step back a second and ask yourself, in the history of baseball, what are the greatest seasons ever by a shortstop? According to FanGraphs, the best ever (by WAR) is Lou Boudreau’s 1948 season with Cleveland, at 10.9 WAR. Boudreau was a Hall of Famer and he put together the best offensive and defensive seasons in his career at shortstop for Cleveland’s last World Series winning team. The second best of all time is Ripken’s 1991. Despite that Ripken did it for a miserable 67-win ’91 O’s team, he won his second AL MVP award anyway (for the record, Boudreau also won the AL MVP award for his 1948 season). There is still a thought in the award voting media that a player on a last place team should not win an MVP award, and that thought was even more prevalent in 1991 than now, yet Ripken’s season was so overwhelming that even the unenlightened Knights of the Keyboard were unable to deny Ripken his due. Among the great seasons listed here, Ripken’s ’91 is perhaps the greatest, a peak above peaks, the pinnacle of his all time great and Hall of Fame career. It’s a shame the Orioles weren’t able to give him any help that year.
Third Base: 1964 Brooks Robinson: .317/.368/.521, 28 HRs, 8.1 WAR
Runner Up: 1978 Doug DeCinces: .286/.346/.526, 28 HRs, 6.6 WAR
Like shortstop above, the question isn’t who, it’s when. Brooks Robinson’s best season by WAR was his 1964 season and I see no reason to disagree with that. Since being called up by the Orioles in 1955, Robinson was often a good, but never a great hitter, with one exception, that being 1964. That season Robinson posted his highest slugging percentage, his highest on-base percentage, hit the most homers he ever hit in a season (28), led the AL in RBIs, and won his only MVP award. Robinson’s career batting numbers look worse than they were because he spent the majority of his career in awful hitting environments. For example, in 1968 Robinson had a .304 on-base percentage and slugged .416. Typically those are, if we’re being frank, unacceptable numbers for a third baseman, but that season Robinson’s OPS was 17 percent above league average and he finished 17th in MVP voting. Robinson’s ’64 season looks more like what we think of now as being a very good season by a third baseman, but in 1964 it was that much more difficult to hit well. But when you pair that with Robinson’s excellent defense, you get the best season by an Oriole third baseman ever.
Matthew Kory is a Orioles / MLB Analyst for BSL. He has covered baseball professionally for The Athletic, Vice Sports, Sports On Earth, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two boys, and his cats, Mini Squeaks and The President.
Co-Host of The Warehouse