In 2015, Manny Machado enjoyed perhaps the best individual season by an Oriole this millennium. At the tender age of 22, Machado hit .286 with 35 home runs, 20 steals and an .861 OPS, providing elite defense while playing in all 162 games. It was a breakout from a precocious talent, a sign of things to come for a budding superstar.
It is also a campaign that, when selecting the Orioles’ all-time roster based on the best single-season performances, does not make the cut. Neither does Machado’s 2016 season, which was arguably just as impressive. That’s how high the bar is for this exercise, where the challenge is to pick an all-time team based on the best individual season at each position, not the best player to play each position overall.
Unfortunately for Machado, Brooks Robinson would’ve bested him under those guidelines as well. But the overall point remains, and similar difficult decisions were required elsewhere on this hypothetical roster.
Behold and debate. Here is the Orioles' all-time team based on the best individual seasons:
Catcher: Chris Hoiles, 1993
Key stats: .310/.416/.585, 29 HR, 82 RBI, 162 OPS+, 6.8 bWAR
A solid, productive backstop for a decade in Baltimore, Hoiles is best known for his grand slam heroics in 1996 and ’98. But ’93 was his most complete season, when Hoiles set the Orioles' single-season catcher record for a qualified hitter for bWAR, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS+. Throw in his plus defensive ratings, and Hoiles’ ’93 campaign ranks as the most valuable by an O's catcher by a considerable margin.
First base: Chris Davis, 2013
Key stats: .286/.370/.634, 53 HR, 138 RBI, 370 total bases, 168 OPS+, 7.1 bWAR
For as unproductive as Davis has been toward the end of his contract, it’s worth remembering how he earned it: by winning two home run titles as part of a half-decade as one of baseball’s most feared sluggers. The first came in 2013, when Davis’ 53 homers broke Brady Anderson’s franchise single-season record. Davis also led MLB in RBIs and total bases, earned an American League Silver Slugger Award and an All-Star nod and placed third in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting that season.
Second base: Bobby Grich, 1974; Brian Roberts, 2005
Key stats for Grich: .263/.376/.431, 19 HR, 82 RBI, 17 SB, 135 OPS+, 7.3 bWAR, 6.8 fWAR
Key stats for Roberts: .314/.387/.515, 18 HR, 73 RBI, 27 SB, 139 OPS+, 7.3 bWAR, 6.8 fWAR
Toss-up time. Remarkably, Grich’s 1974 season and Roberts’ 2005 campaign register identical WAR values by both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, though they got to those totals in different ways. Four-time AL Gold Glove Award winner Grich’s value was mostly found in his defense and on-base skills, while Roberts was more of a dynamic offensive player.
Both received All-Star recognition and AL MVP Award votes during the seasons in question, and both watched the perception of their careers evolve: Grich morphed into more of a power hitter with the Angels, while Roberts became injury-prone and later was connected to performance-enhancing drugs. But for this exercise, their similarities in the aggregate make this category too close to call.
Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr., 1991
Key stats: .323/.374/.566, 210 hits, 34 HR, 114 RBI, .940 OPS, 11.5 bWAR
Arguably the best individual season by a position player in Orioles history, Ripken’s 1991 campaign is also, by bWAR calculations, tied with Honus Wagner's 1908 as the most productive by a shortstop in baseball history.
In 1991, Ripken was at the height of his power. Playing in all 162 games, of course, he became the first full-time shortstop with at least 30 homers, 200 hits and 40 doubles in the same season. Ripken won the second of his two AL MVP Awards, as well as All-Star MVP honors, an AL Gold Glove Award, an AL Silver Slugger Award and even that summer’s Home Run Derby.
Third base: Brooks Robinson, 1964
Key stats: .317/.368/.521, 28 HR, 128 RBI, 8.1 bWAR
Elite glove? Check. Career year at the plate? Check. Robinson did it all in 1964 and was rewarded accordingly, beating Mickey Mantle handily for AL MVP honors that season. Playing in 163 games, Robinson set career highs in hits, batting average, homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and a slew of other major categories, while leading AL hitters in RBIs. At the time, it was one of the best all-around seasons from a third baseman in MLB history. It also remains the best year of Robinson’s legendary career at the hot corner, and the best by an O’s third baseman.
Left field: Boog Powell, 1964
Key stats: .290/.399/.606, 39 HR, 99 RBI, 176 OPS+, 5.7 bWAR
Powell was primarily a left fielder when he broke out as a 22-year-old in 1964, socking 39 homers and leading AL hitters in slugging percentage for an Orioles team that was getting ready to take the league by storm. He would be a big part in the dynasty to come, growing into a four-time All-Star and eventual AL MVP. But by some measures, Powell was never more productive relative to his peers than in ’64: He was 76 percent better than the average hitter, per OPS+. That’s a number only Mike Trout routinely tops these days.
Center field: Brady Anderson, 1996
Key stats: .297/.396/.637, 50 HR, 110 RBI, 369 TB, 156 OPS+, 6.9 bWAR
Speculation has always followed Anderson’s 1996 breakout, because so few saw it coming and Anderson never repeated that level of production. Nevertheless, it is unquestionably the best season by an Orioles center fielder. A light-hitting leadoff hitter for eight seasons prior, Anderson walloped 50 homers in ’96 -- more than double his previous career high. He was only the 14th player to reach that milestone at the time, and he remains one of only four to compile at least 50 homers, 20 steals and 100 runs scored in a single season.
Right field: Frank Robinson, 1966
Key stats: .316/.410/.637, 122 runs, 49 HR, 122 RBI, 367 TB, 198 OPS+, 7.7 bWAR
Is Robinson’s Triple Crown season the best by an Oriole? Many believe so. Many also consider it the best debut season by a player on a new team in baseball history. By now, the story is well told: Acquired in an infamously lopsided deal with the Reds for Milt Pappas and others, Robinson arrived in Baltimore and powered the O’s to their first World Series title behind a dominant offensive campaign. He’d then go on to serve as the engine of their dynasty to come, leading the O’s to four of six World Series from 1966-71.
Designated hitter: Nelson Cruz, 2014
Key stats: .271/.333/.525, 40 HR, 108 RBI, 322 TB, 137 OPS+
Cruz was coming off a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs when the Orioles signed the slugger to a one-year, $8 million deal in February 2014. It turned out to be a major bargain. After hitting at least 22 homers in five consecutive seasons, Cruz launched a Major League-leading 40 as the centerpiece of a lineup that defied expectations. The result lifted the O's to their first division title in 17 years, and it secured a lucrative multi-year deal for Cruz in Seattle the following season.
Starting pitcher: Jim Palmer, 1975
Key stats: 23-11, 2.09 ERA, 25 complete games, 10 shutouts, 169 ERA+, 8.4 bWAR, 6.9 fWAR
Orioles history features six AL Cy Young Award-winning seasons and many other notable campaigns, but Palmer’s 1975 stands out in a crowded field. But it does so with merit: His second of what would become three Cy Young seasons in a four-year stretch all but cemented his Hall of Fame legacy. This was Palmer at his peak: He won his first of three consecutive AL wins titles, and led all hurlers in ERA and shutouts while logging an O's-record 323 innings. The numbers were elite then; they are eye-popping today.
Relief pitcher: Zack Britton, 2016
Key stats: 47 saves in 47 chances, 0.54 ERA, 1.94 FIP, 0.836 WHIP, 29.1 percent K rate, 7.1 percent BB rate
That the Orioles’ 2016 season is remembered most for the way it ended -- with Britton standing, unused, in the bullpen while they watched the AL Wild Card game slip away in extra innings -- speaks to how historically dominant Britton was that season. The phrase “automatic” gets thrown around as hyperbole; Britton literally was in 2016, going 47-for-47 in save chances. (He’d eventually convert an AL-record 60 straight between '15-17.) Britton allowed just four earned runs in 67 innings for a 0.54 ERA, the lowest for a pitcher in at least 50 innings pitched. The result was not just the best season by an Orioles reliever, but one of the best from any one-inning reliever.