It’s Time To Talk About the Orioleson August 18, 2020 at 5:10 pm

It’s Time To Talk About the Orioles

I’m going to show you all something. It’s grotesque and upsetting, but I need us to be up to speed on this before we move forward. I promise it will be worth it. My apologies if you’re recovering from a long night or are in the middle of eating.


This isn’t the full list of hitters who played for the 2019 Orioles. Jonathan Villar was the team’s second baseman, and he accumulated 4.0 WAR while holding a 107 wRC+, but Baltimore dumped him in a cost-cutting move. Then there was Trey Mancini, owner of a 132 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR last year, but he is missing this season while undergoing chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer (he’s reportedly progressing well). With those two in the fold, the 2019 Orioles were still the third-worst position player group in baseball. Without them, these were the players who remained. This is a very bad group of hitters.

Now, let me show you a very good group of hitters:

Unbelievably, it’s the same group with only a couple of exceptions. Free-agent signing Jose Iglesias is here, coming off a whopping 84 wRC+ in Cincinnati in 2019, as is waiver claim Pat Valaika and prospect Austin Hays. The rest of these guys are players who helped drag the Orioles to a 54-108 record last year and were set to be the core of a team projected for the lowest win total and worst playoff odds of anyone in baseball this year.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing Major League Baseball to punt on 63% of its scheduled regular season, we knew there would be a greater chance of someone catching lightning in a bottle and surging forward in the playoff hunt beyond where anyone could have expected. The most extreme example of this was always the idea of the Orioles — baseball’s worst team, forced to play its entire schedule against arguably the two best divisions in the sport — somehow sneaking into the race.

Every day we inch closer to that becoming reality. We projected them to finish 21-39; after winning seven of their last nine games against the Phillies and the defending champion Nationals, they have started the season 12-9, third place in the AL East and three games behind the Yankees. They’ve increased their playoff odds from 1.4% before the season to 21.8% today.

How we got to this point — where a season is more than one-third completed and the Baltimore freaking Orioles are a more realistic playoff team than the one that has Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Shohei Ohtani — has required a lot of things happening that, respectfully, have nothing to do with the Orioles. It takes a global crisis shortening the season to 60 games. It takes a division rival choosing to ship its star player across the country instead of trying to contend. It takes a bunch of the other teams on your schedule getting a slow start out of the gate and playing below expectations.

That said, it also does have a lot to do with the Orioles. A year after they had baseball’s worst pitching staff by any definition you could come up with, they stand a more-respectable 20th in team ERA and downright-decent 12th in team FIP. Tommy Milone and Alex Cobb have looked mostly solid in the rotation, and Travis Lakins, Tanner Scott, Mychal Givens, and Shawn Armstrong have been exceptional out of the ‘pen.

The real push behind Baltimore’s hot start to the season, however, has been the offense. They have a 110 wRC+ as a team despite carrying just one hitter who was projected by ZiPS to be a league-average bat this year. That number has them ahead of the Cubs, Angels, Astros, and, well, a long list of other teams. They are fourth in the majors in slugging percentage. They are 11th in position player WAR.

It’s at this point that I would love to say that this offensive breakout was the product of a bunch of prospects getting the call to the big leagues and injecting a spark into the lineup, or write the feel-good story of the wily, loyal veteran who is experiencing a career renaissance that the rest of the team is rallying around. But in this case, neither is true. The Orioles have yet to call up defending International League MVP Ryan Mountcastle or 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, and the prospects who are on the team — Hays and DJ Stewart — have hardly stolen the show. Chris Davis, meanwhile — the oldest everyday player on the team by four years — is on his way to a third straight season of well-below-replacement-level performance.

Instead, the Orioles are a team fueled by hitters who were cast off from other organizations but are now catching fire all at once. The most valuable has been Pedro Severino, a 27-year-old former Nationals part-timer who joined Baltimore as a waiver claim before the 2019 season, which he finished as a near-league-average bat as a catcher. This year, when he isn’t busy letting Yankees hitters hack at his fingers like he’s an informant captured by the mob, he’s been on a tear at the plate, smacking five homers in 19 games one year after he hit just 13 in 96.

Then there’s Hanser Alberto, who was claimed by the Orioles off waivers twice before the 2019 season. The 27-year-old infielder distinguished himself in his first extended big-league trial last year by finishing with the lowest strikeout rate in the majors (9.1%). He’s currently on pace to hit .300 for a second straight season, but this time he’s doing it with a bit more doubles power. After hitting 12 homers and 21 doubles in 524 plate appearances last season, he has two homers and 11 doubles already in 2020, adding 61 points to his isolated power and 25 points to his wRC+.

Speaking of power, we should also definitely talk about Anthony Santander. Baltimore snatched him when Cleveland left him vulnerable to the Rule 5 Draft in 2016 and have had him in the big leagues for parts of four seasons now. He got his longest run at the majors in 2019 and did a decent job of settling in, hitting 20 homers in 93 games while posting a 97 wRC+. No one has contributed more to the Orioles’ team-wide power surge in 2020 — Santander leads the club in homers (7), slugging (.629), and ISO (.348), all while striking out less than any of his teammates, including Alberto.

The pattern continues. Renato Nunez was claimed off waivers from the Rangers in 2018 and had his best season a year ago, hitting 31 homers and holding a 99 wRC+ as a corner infielder and DH; he’s now hitting .304/.382/.570 for a 156 wRC+. Rio Ruiz was claimed off waivers from the Braves after the 2018 season and did little to justify the move in his first season in Baltimore; he’s now hitting .233/.319/.550 for a 124 wRC+. Iglesias was quietly surrendered to free agency by the Reds after the 2019 season, and he’s hitting .400 over his first 16 games as an Oriole.

A story about a band of misfits and castaways all turning into spectacular players in an effort to lead their sport’s biggest underdog team to the playoffs would be too cheesy for even a straight-to-Disney+ movie script, yet it’s happening in real life in Baltimore. Alas, they don’t make movies based on the first 22 games of a team’s season, and the Orioles have a long way to go. Baseball Savant’s expected statistics place the Orioles much closer to the middle of the pack offensively than their actual numbers have them — not quite willing to bite on, say, Chance Sisco sustaining a .586 slugging percentage while striking out 42% of the time. There is also, as you might expect from the 2020 Baltimore Orioles, not a lot of depth here. When one of these surprisingly hot batters inevitably begin to slump, it’s hard to say who might pick up their slack. And their schedule is still an unfriendly one, even if a couple of teams aren’t quite as good as we thought they’d be.

Listen to me trying to talk you out of the Orioles being contenders. That’s not why you clicked on this link, and that’s not what I set out to accomplish with my day. We’re here because the Orioles have been good. And yes, some of you may be annoyed that the people in charge of this team intentionally tried to make it as non-competitive as possible, balking at the idea of bringing back a four-win player at even $8 million this year, and are reaping the feel-good rewards of a surprise contender anyway. “There is no such thing as ethical cheering under capitalism,” and all that. But baseball is more interesting when teams like the Orioles are capable of a run like this. It’s fun to see so many players on one team breaking out for the first time ever. It’s neat to see fans who wondered if they would see their team win 15 games this year get to celebrate seven in the span of a week and a half. A contending Orioles team makes the 2020 season better, however long either one lasts.

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