Are the Baltimore Orioles for real? Breaking down MLB’s most surprising season

Are the Baltimore Orioles for real? Breaking down MLB’s most surprising season post thumbnail image

The Baltimore Orioles were not supposed to be good this year. They definitely were not supposed to contend this deep into the season for a playoff spot. Heck, they weren’t even supposed to be competitive once we got past April. It looked like it would be another miserable, soul-sucking, 100-loss season in Baltimore, the kind of year that makes baseball fans question its commitment to a sport that plays almost every day for six months — especially since the Orioles had such seasons in 2018 and 2019 and 2021.

Before the season, ESPN ranked the Orioles 30th (last) in its preseason power rankings, predicting a record of 58-104. The Athletic ranked the Orioles last in its own edition. FanGraphs’ preseason projections had the Orioles as the worst team in the majors.

The most interesting move the team made in the offseason: Moving back the left-field fence.

“In truth, the Orioles still have too many shortcomings to isolate just one of them,” wrote Brad Doolittle in our preseason preview. “Since the Orioles lost the 2016 AL wild-card game, they’ve dropped 104 of every 162 games they’ve played. With a rebuild that long — more than a half-decade — the bad news is that the 2022 season just looks like more of the same.”

Oh, I’m not exonerating myself. I was on the “Orioles will be awful” bandwagon as well. The best-case scenario, I suggested, would be 70 wins.

I was wrong. We were wrong. Everybody has been wrong.

To our credit, even general manager Mike Elias didn’t necessarily believe in his team, trading away closer Jorge Lopez and designated hitter Trey Mancini at the trade deadline and citing the long odds it would take the Orioles to beat to make the playoffs. The focus remained on the future, not the present. “This is a decade-long window that I think is opening up, and I couldn’t be more excited about it for Baltimore, for the Orioles, for these guys,” Elias said at the time. “And it was the most important thing to us that we prioritize this long window that we feel is ahead of us, among all other considerations.”

Yet here are the Orioles, still competing for a wild card — even while playing in the majors’ toughest division — as we head into the latter stages of August, trying to become one of the biggest surprise teams in recent history. In the wild-card era (since 1995), the best year-to-year improvement came from the 1999 Diamondbacks, who went from 65 wins as an expansion team to 100 wins — a 35-win increase. If the Orioles can get to 88 wins, they’ll be 36 wins better than last season.

But those Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson as a free agent, and he won the Cy Young Award. They acquired outfielders Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, who combined for 60 home runs and 214 RBIs. The Orioles signed Jordan Lyles and Rougned Odor.

So how in the name of Spenser Watkins and Terrin Vavra and Joey Krehbiel are they doing this?

Let’s dig into this. As a point of reference, I’ll compare the Orioles to 10 of the surprise playoffs teams of the wild-card era. Those teams improved an average of 26.9 wins. For the record: 1999 Diamondbacks (+35 wins); 2006 Tigers (+24); 2008 Rays (+31); 2011 Diamondbacks (+29); 2012 Orioles (+24); 2013 Indians (+24); 2015 Cubs (+24); 2017 Twins (+26); 2018 A’s (+22); and 2021 Giants (+30 from 2019).

OFFENSE

Previous surprise teams: 80 runs better
Average age (weighted for playing time): 28.4

Orioles: on pace for +26 runs
Average age: 27.3

Our 10 previous surprise teams improved by an average of 80 runs, although that total is inflated by those 1999 Diamondbacks, who scored a whopping 243 more runs. The 2008 Rays actually scored eight fewer.

Of course, that number is a little misleading because the offensive environment the Orioles play in has changed dramatically from last season. Most obviously, the left-field fence was moved back 26½ feet and raised from 7 feet, 4 inches to 13 feet. This has created a huge difference in not just the home run factor at Camden Yards, but the overall run factor. Check the changes:

Home run factor 2021: 1.57
2022: .79

Run factor 2021: 1.17
2022: .925

Last season, Camden Yards ranked as the best home run park in the majors; this year, it ranks 26th. Runs are also down compared to the league average, although not as dramatically.

On top of that, run scoring across the league is down. In 2021, the AL averaged 4.60 runs per game; in 2022, it’s down to 4.20 per game. So let’s go to the advanced metrics here. Baseball-Reference gives the Orioles an adjusted batting runs index of 100 — a league-average offense. FanGraphs has their weighted runs created (wRC+) at 97, slightly worse than average. But those are both better than last year’s figures of 90 and 91.

So the Orioles’ offense is a little better, middle of the pack in the American League. It’s still hardly a powerhouse lineup, but that’s better than being near the bottom, as it was last year — even with a fairly stable lineup over the past two seasons.

Eleven position players have appeared in both seasons, accounting for 67.9% of the team’s non-pitcher plate appearances in 2021 and 75.5% this season.

The biggest addition, of course, has been rookie catcher Adley Rutschman, who came up in May and has hit a solid .250/.358/.442, even after a sluggish start in his first weeks as he adjusted to big league pitching. Backup catcher Robinson Chirinos hasn’t hit much, but overall Orioles’ catchers rank 14th in the majors in OPS (and even higher in park-adjusted OPS) compared to 22nd in 2021.

Third base has also seen a slight improvement. With Maikel Franco receiving most of the action at the hot corner last season, the Orioles ranked 28th in the majors in OPS. Ramon Urias has started about two-thirds of the games there in 2022, and while he’s only been a league-average hitter, that’s better than Franco. While Tyler Nevin‘s numbers drag down the overall numbers, the Orioles are 23rd in OPS. They have 13 home runs and 53 RBIs already from their third basemen, compared to 15 and 67 in all of last season.

Finally, there’s second base — an absolute nightmare for the Orioles in 2021, when seven different players combined to hit .192/.245/.282, worst in the majors by a mile. Odor, the primary starter in 2022, is hardly the kind of hitter you want on a playoff team, not with a .207 average and .267 OBP. But even hitting a collective .198, Orioles’ second basemen have an OPS that is 100 points higher than last season. Basically, the second basemen were so awful last season that even a bad hitter like Odor has been an improvement.

Meanwhile, the outfield trio of Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander have all been above average, as was Mancini before his trade. The outfielders, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and Rutschman form a solid group to build around, with Rutschman projecting as the team’s best hitter in the future.

PITCHING

Previous surprise teams: 156 fewer runs allowed
Average age: 28.7

Orioles: On pace to allow 279 fewer runs
Average age: 27.7

As you might have already guessed, most of the Orioles’ improvement has come on the pitching side of things (which includes defense, of course). This is also true for our other 10 surprise teams. All of those teams allowed at least 99 fewer runs than the season before, with the 2008 Rays topping the list at 273 fewer runs allowed. That team made substantial defensive changes, improving from minus-82 defensive runs saved (last in the majors) to plus-15 DRS.

The Orioles, at least according to DRS, have also improved on defense, from minus-30 runs in 2021 to plus-23 so far in 2022. Still, the bulk of the improved run prevention has come from the pitchers — of course, there was really nowhere to go but up considering the 2021 staff was one of the worst of all time, with a 5.84 ERA. Indeed, according to the park-adjusted ERA+, the Orioles’ mark of 77 was the lowest of the expansion era (since 1961).

Not surprisingly, Elias and the front office overhauled much of the pitching staff. Fifteen pitchers have appeared in both seasons, but while those 15 accounted for 62.1% of the team’s innings last season, they’ve pitched just 54.6% of the innings in 2022. But even that figure is a little misleading. John Means and Lopez pitched both seasons, but while they combined for 268⅓ innings in 2021, that total will be just 56⅓ this season — Lopez moved first to the bullpen and then to the Twins; Means, the team’s only decent starter last season, pitched just eight innings before needing Tommy John surgery.

The rotation has been obviously better, improving from a 5.99 ERA to 4.57, but that’s still just 25th in the majors. It’s largely cobbled together, too, as only Lyles and Tyler Wells have made 20 starts — and Wells is currently on the injured list. Throughout the league, 86 pitchers have thrown 100 innings so far in 2022 — Lyles is the only one to do so for Baltimore. Many of the previous surprise teams relied on good health in the rotation (the 2015 Cubs had four starters with 30-plus starts), a big acquisition (such as Johnson) or a hotshot rookie (such as Justin Verlander for the 2006 Tigers). That hasn’t been the case with the Orioles.

Instead, much of the improvement has come down to the bullpen, which has been outstanding. In some regards, it will remind Orioles fans of the bullpen on that 2012 surprise team, a squad that went 16-2 in extra-inning games and 29-9 in one-run games. That year, the Orioles’ pen was 32-11 with a 3.00 ERA . This year, it is 30-23 with an ERA of 3.15, fourth in the majors.

What’s remarkable is that it’s a bullpen created almost entirely from the scrap heap of baseball rejects. Consider:

  • Before making the All-Star team and then getting trading to the Twins, Lopez had been claimed on waivers in 2018 after he struggled as a starter.

  • Felix Bautista has taken his place as the closer, as a 27-year-old rookie with a 99-mph fastball, 66 strikeouts in 50 innings and a 1.99 ERA. Originally signed by the Marlins way back in 2012, the Orioles signed him as a free agent in 2016. He didn’t even get out of rookie ball until 2019, when he was 24 years old. He started putting it together last season, his control has continued to improve and he’s a reason Elias felt he could trade Lopez.

  • Cionel Perez finally got tagged for some runs on Wednesday, but he’s 6-1 with a 1.77 ERA. The Orioles got him on waivers from the Reds last November, apparently because the Reds couldn’t figure out what to do with a lefty with a 96-mph fastball. OK, his control has been shaky at times, which is why he’s never been able to establish himself in the majors, but he’s throwing strikes in 2022.

  • Krehbiel is a 29-year-old rookie, drafted by the Angels in 2011, who reached the majors for a few games with the Diamondbacks in 2018 and the Rays and Orioles last year. The Orioles picked him up on waivers from the Rays last September, but he’s 4-4 with a 2.88 ERA. Maybe the burly righty is having the best 50 innings of his life, but he’s cut down on his walks and a good changeup makes him effective against left-handed batters.

  • Dillon Tate is the one former top prospect in the group — years ago, when the Rangers drafted him fourth overall in 2015. He’s also the one holdover from last year’s bullpen. The Orioles got him in 2018 from the Yankees in the Zack Britton trade.

  • Keegan Akin is the long man, with 65 innings in 33 appearances (he leads the majors in relief innings). A second-round pick in 2016, he went 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA as a starter last season, but his fastball is up nearly 2 mph in relief and he’s sharpened his slider, holding batters to a .147 average against it compared to .347 in 2021.

  • Bryan Baker has had his moments in middle relief. They got him off waivers from the Blue Jays in the offseason. He had a 1.31 ERA in Triple-A, but the Blue Jays couldn’t find room for him on their 40-man roster.

So there you go — one of the best bullpens in the majors, and three of its top relievers were claimed on waivers just this past offseason (and Lopez was also a waiver claim back in 2018 from the Royals). Bullpens really can come from nowhere.

Whether the pen can remain this effective is the big question down the stretch. The offense appears relatively stable, although hardly explosive. The rotation is basically five-and-dive at this point, averaging 5⅔ innings per start since the All-Star break. So the bullpen will have to carry the load and good luck predicting how this group will fare in the club’s final 44 games.

The schedule is tough. Only eight of those 44 games are against teams currently below .500 — three against the A’s, two against the Nationals and three against the Tigers. They’re done with the Rays, but have 11 against the Blue Jays, 10 against the Red Sox and three against the Yankees (plus seven against the Astros).

On the other hand, Rutschman played his first game on May 21. The Orioles were 16-24 at that point. Then the wins started coming. A walk-off win in 11 innings over the Rays on May 22. Three of four against the White Sox in June, maybe the first series Orioles fans realized this team might not lose 100 games. The 10-game winning streak in early July, including a walk-off against the Angels, when they scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth (capped by Mancini’s game-winning single). Since Rutschman showed up, they’ve gone 45-32, the fourth-best record in the American League — even better than the Yankees (45-35). They have a chance.

Will this club end up like those 2012 Orioles, who finished 93-69 and beat the Rangers in the wild-card game before losing to the Yankees in the division series? Or will they end up like another miracle Orioles team — the 1989 club? That was the year after the infamous 1988 club that began the season with 21 consecutive losses and ended up 54-107. The ’89 Orioles somehow remained in the race until the final weekend of the season, falling heart-achingly short when the Blue Jays beat them by one run on Friday and Saturday to clinch the division.

Just like 1989, this year’s final playoff spot could come down to the Orioles and Blue Jays for a wild card.

Good news for those who root for chaos: The regular season concludes with three games between the Jays and Orioles in Baltimore.



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