Underappreciated Baltimore Orioles

  1. Randy Milligan (1989-92) (career stats) The most underappreciated Oriole of all time. What did Milligan do during his four years as the O's first baseman? Well, he compiled the fourth-best career on-base percentage in team history, tied with Ken Singleton. He was one of the best three hitters on the team for three of those four years. In 1990, he was by far the best, supplementing a modest batting average with 88 walks and 20 homers for a splendid line of .265/.408/.492, the 6th best OPS in the AL. He was a careful, patient hitter, who routinely led the league in number of pitches seen per plate appearance.

    How did the Orioles reward their star? By trading Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley, and Curt Schilling to Houston for another first baseman, Glenn Davis: a move generally considered the worst in team history. The often-injured Davis never took much playing time from Milligan, but it was clear Randy wasn't part of the Orioles' future, and he was signed by Cincinnati for the 1993 season. Both he and Davis were out of baseball by 1995.

  2. Jack Voigt (1992-95) (career stats) Jack Voigt didn't get a major-league at-bat until 1993, when he was already 27, and he made the most of it, logging .296/.395/.500 numbers in 64 games. Voigt was a solid bat off the bench available for almost any situation, thanks to his defensive flexibility: he played all three outfield positions, first base, third base, and he DHed on Harold Baines' days off. His finest moment in the orange and black was surely June 4, 1993, when the Orioles faced the Seattle Mariners and their ace Randy Johnson. Voigt, batting eighth, came up in the bottom of the second with two outs, the game still scoreless, and Mike Devereaux on second. Voigt rapped a single, the Oriole's first hit off Johnson, to put the Birds up 1-0. The Mariners put up four runs off Rick Sutcliffe; Voigt came up in the 7th and homered with the bases empty to make the game 4-2 in the Mariners' favor. But the Orioles battled back in the bottom of the 9th and the game went into extra innings, tied 5-5. In the bottom of the 10th, Voigt again came up with two men down and Mike Devereaux on second. On the first pitch, he singled to right: final score, Orioles 6, Mariners 5.

    Voigt had one more effective part-time season, for Milwaukee in 1997, and retired the next year. OK, he wasn't Eddie Murray. OK, he wasn't even Brady Anderson. But he deserves to be remembered; the Orioles would be a lot better if they had some players like him now.

    Of his 20 career home runs, 3 were off Kenny Rogers.

  3. Chris Hoiles (1989-1998) (career stats) Year in, year out, the best .250 hitter in baseball. Except in 1993, when he hit .310, which, combined with his usual power and ability to draw him a walk, gave him a line of .310/.416/.585. He finished 16th in the MVP voting that year, behind such heroes as Mike Stanley and the badly-declining Joe Carter. Hoiles's body gave out before his bat did; he hit .262/.368/.476 playing half-time in 1998, then retired. Interesting facts about Hoiles: he was caught stealing four times before his first successful steal, which came in his 5th major league season. On May 17, 1996 he came up in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Orioles down by three. He hit a full-count grand slam for the win. (The pitcher? Future Oriole lead-cougher-upper Norm Charlton.) In Hoiles's last season, he hit two grand slams in one game.

    Hoiles would be higher on this list had he not been belatedly inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame this year. But he hasn't yet gotten his due as the greatest Orioles catcher of all time.

  4. Harold Baines (1993-95,1997-99) (career stats) Harold Baines: professional hitter. Quietly played on most of the few good Orioles teams of the last twenty years, and hit when he needed to hit: .353 in the Orioles doomed 1997 ALCS, for instance. It seems in my memory as if he played for the Orioles much longer than this.
  5. Albert Belle (1999-2000) (career stats) The Belle signing is another famously bad Orioles move, like the Glenn Davis trade; the difference is that this move wasn't actually bad. Belle was one of the premier hitters in the game, and for the two years he was an Oriole before his hip did him in, he did just what he was signed to do; hit better than anybody else on the team. (Except 40-year-old part-time Harold Baines, that is.) And when he was healthy… well, let's just say, I was at this game. Orioles behind the Angels 3-0; Belle homers to make it 3-2. Orioles behind 7-3; Belle homers to make it 7-6. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases empty, Orioles still down 7-6, Belle homers again to send it to extra innings. Bottom of the 11th, Belle comes up again and Mike Holtz wisely hits him with the pitch. Three batters later, Ripken singles home B.J. Surhoff: Orioles win, 8-7. I have never seen a batter carry a team like this, before or since. If he hadn't gotten hurt, he might have been the second Eddie Murray.
  6. Todd Frohwirth (1991-93) (career stats) That Todd Frohwirth belongs on this list was pointed out to me by Tom Scocca. I cannot improve on the case as he made it, so here it is: "He pitched three years for the O's, getting credit for only 30 decisions (with a 17-13 record) and a mere 10 saves. But toiling through the glory-free middle of the games, he made 186 appearances, threw 298 innings, and gave up 90 earned runs, for a 2.71 ERA. That's 118 more innings than Gregg Olson, who got all the saves, pitched in that span. The underhand style meant he could go long if needed, or bounce back on no rest. In 1991, the best of those years, he led the team with an ERA of 1.87. He was essentially the perfect middle reliever. And he gets extra credit as an Oriole because those three brilliant seasons were the only good ones of his career, save for an unhittable 10-game rookie campaign with the Phillies. We got only the best of Todd Frohwirth, we got all of it, and it was very very good indeed."
  7. The 1997 bullpen (1997 team stats) When you think about the last great Oriole team, you think of Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Mussina, and Scott Erickson. But the great secret strength of this team was its superb bullpen, led by the nerve-wracking Randall K. Myers (1.51 ERA, 45 saves); ageless, impassive, Jesse Orosco (2.32 ERA); Arthur Lee Rhodes (3.02 ERA, 10-3), and the drastically underappreciated fireballer Armando Benitez. Orioles fans don't remember Benitez for his 2.45 ERA or his 106 strikeouts in 73 1/3 IP; they remember two decisive home runs he gave up to the Indians in the ALCS. The first was a three-run shot to Marquis Grissom with two outs in the 8th innning of game 2; but if home plate ump Jim Joyce hadn't mistaken previous batter Jim Thome's strike three for ball four, the inning would have been over before Grissom came to bat. The second came in game 7, top of the 11th, two outs, scoreless tie, to non-power-threat Tony Fernandez. Yeah, that one hurt. But you know what? When you get shut out for 11 innings, it's not the closer's fault you lost. Benitez stayed with the Orioles one more year after that, but was traded to the Marlins for Charles Johnson after the 1998 season. He's been predictably excellent everywhere he's pitched since then.
  8. Floyd Rayford (1980,1982,1984-87) (career stats). Great baseball name, great baseball nickname ("Sugar Bear,") one great year, 1985. He's sort of the fat black Jack Voigt of the 80s, actually: he turned in one fine season of spot-work, .306/.324/.521 in 105 games split between catcher, 3B, and DH, but was never able to win a regular job. The only season he played outside Baltimore was 1983, when the Orioles won the world series; he was in St. Louis, which had won the previous year.
  9. Other worthies. It's probably worth remembering that Larry Sheets and Ben McDonald were both really good when they were good. Once he is gone we will say the same about Rodrigo Lopez. Jim Dwyer stayed good longer than you might think. Eric Davis enjoyed a fine late-career renaissance with the Orioles but was actually pretty well-appreciated at the time; I may add him to the list in five years if everyone forgets how well he played for us.
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Jordan Ellenberg * ellenber@math.wisc.edu * revised 24 Dec 2006