Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
As of today, the Orioles are 22-28. And as of today, according to FanGraphs, they have a less than 2 percent chance of making the playoffs. They gained some momentum by taking 2 of 3 from the Braves, but that steam came to a halt after losing both portions of a doubleheader versus the Rays on Thursday, who subsequently clinched a playoff berth in the process.
But if you saw the Orioles play in 2019, perhaps where they are now is not too surprising. Last year, they were terrible, plain and simple. No team wants, or likes to be, but the Orioles had committed to a rebuild. Throughout 2017 and 2018, key players left via free agency (Zac Britton), trades (Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop), or simply declined (Chris Davis). Those giant shoes have been filled inadequately, as planned, buying time until prospects in the farm develop and begin contributing.
Also as planned, the team made no efforts to improve their standing this offseason. In fact, the teardown continued – they shipped Jonathan Villar, their most valuable hitter by both bWAR and fWAR, to the Marlins. Making matters worse, Trey Mancini, their second-most valuable hitter, hasn’t played this season as he battles Stage 3 colon cancer.
Pre-season projections reflected the team’s bleak outlook. On FanGraphs, ZiPS calculated a win-loss record of 19-41, bestowing them not only the lowest win percentage in baseball, but also the dishonor of being the sole team to fall short of 20 wins. It’s almost as if we are encouraged to look away, to come back after years of promised mediocrity.
But that’s the story of June 24th. As of September 18th, although the Orioles will most likely miss the playoffs, they have quietly been one of the most interesting teams in the East division – it’s just that sports media often refuses to look in its general direction. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that 2020 represents a potential turning point for the Orioles.
Let’s start with the hitting. For the first time in a while, the offense as a whole is roughly average, carrying a 101 wRC+. That isn’t misleading per se, but it does overshadow the stellar performances of a few players. The reason their collective wRC+ averages out like that is because when the Orioles are bad, well, they’re really, really bad. To demonstrate this, I’ve plotted the wRC+ of each Orioles hitter with at least 20 PA:
The line represents 100 wRC+, or league-average. You can easily spot the two clusters below and above it: ‘cover-your-eyes atrocious’ and ‘surprisingly good.’ We’re here to talk about the latter, so let’s do that. The top 3 Orioles hitters – D.J. Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, and José Iglesias – have a wRC+ of 161, 161, and 147 respectively. Great! But relative to other offensive trios, how do they fare?
To find out, I combined the wRC+ of the top 3 players of each East division team and compared those to the Orioles’ totals. Note: I didn’t include Mitch Moreland, who despite having a wRC+ north of 200 in Boston contributed to just 22 games:
Crudely adding up different wRC+ sounds silly, and it is, but it’s to illustrate that the O’s offense, at least its core, is nowhere near the disaster it resembled in 2019. They’re ahead of the Blue Jays, which isn’t too surprising, but they’re also ahead of the Rays in this weird metric I’ve devised.
Of course, here’s where the 60-game caveats apply. José Iglesias does have an xBA of .361, reducing BABIP concerns, but I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to recreate this magic in following seasons. And while Ryan Mountcastle seems extremely talented, his own wRC+ is certainly a notch or two above his projected talent level. Still, both have maintained this production for a few weeks now, and the Orioles can’t ask for more than that.
D.J. Stewart, in contrast, is improving in ways that are more sustainable. He’s essentially quadrupled his barrel rate from last year – 6.9% to 26.3% – and it’s reflected in his stellar .377 ISO. Since the barrel distinction is awarded to batted balls struck at an optimal exit velocity and launch angle, it’s unlikely that he’s lucked into his home runs and extra-base hits. Swinging for the fences has resulted in less zone contact and more whiffs, but that’s a necessary tradeoff. Overall, he’s benefiting from this new approach.
As a result, the Orioles so far have scored 239 runs. But what stands out more is their run prevention – a modest 250 runs allowed for a team with a starting rotation that many declared would be worse than the poorly-projected offense.
So how has the pitching managed to stay afloat? John Means, who entered the season as the projected WAR leader, has a shocking 6.69 FIP and -0.2 fWAR in 32 innings pitched. I haven’t done a thorough analysis yet, but he seems to be suffering from Dylan Cease syndrome: powerful fastball, but a lack of strikeouts and abundance of hard contact caused by subpar command. An Orioles rotation sans-functional Means seems like a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately for Baltimore, they’ve been blessed with two rookie pitchers: Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer. In fact, the Orioles are the only team in baseball to roster two or more rookie pitchers with a sub-3.00 FIP. In addition, the average of their FIP is 2.01 (!), another achievement unique to the Orioles. If you think the Dodgers are close in this regard, what’s below may surprise you:
It can’t be understated how much of a boon Akin and Kremer have been to the Orioles. Not only do they meet some arbitrary metric I’ve devised yet again, but their combined fWAR (1.4) is twice of what the rest of the rotation has accumulated (0.7, including pitchers who’ve accrued negative fWAR). We’re starting to see a common thread here: although the Orioles in the aggregate are average at best, their top players are far above the mean – even when including other teams.
Lastly, let’s examine the bullpen, which is arguably the Orioles’ most under-appreciated strength. To summarize, the Orioles’ pen, objectively, is good. Will there be another table to compare it against the rest of the league? Of course:
Although the pre-season outlook for their bullpen wasn’t the sunniest, this level of reliability and performance is nonetheless surprising. A majority of the relievers have improved in key metrics such as ERA, FIP, and strikeout rate, a list that includes Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens (who was traded to the Rockies prior to the deadline) and Tanner Scott. The Orioles also struck gold with César Valdez, a 35-year old signee from the Mexican League who now has the lowest ERA and FIP amongst their relievers.
With good relief pitching comes from seriously good pitches, which people on Twitter have begun to notice. While drafting this article, Rob Friedman tweeted a GIF of a 94 mph sinker thrown by Dillon Tate, another strong member of the Orioles’ pen. It was a nice break from hours of writing:
Dillon Tate, Unfair 94mph Sinker (with Tail). 😯 pic.twitter.com/sAzUUcOVmu
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 17, 2020
We’ve seen some filthy sinkers recently, but I’m still in awe of how a pitch can travel towards a strike zone, then break away almost immediately. Per Baseball Savant, Tate’s sinker averages 24.8 inches of vertical movement and 16.1 inches of horizontal movement, which is insane. You know whose sinker has less movement? Brusdar Graterol! What a bum.
Combine everything I’ve discussed so far, and there’s the evidence that the Orioles are a much more interesting team than most people think. Of course, I could be wrong, and everyone else is in on the Orioles while I’m now just developing an appreciation. And sure, the Orioles still have many question marks regarding both pitching and hitting, but 2020 offers a glimpse of what the final product will look like. They’re already benefiting from a new group of players, and more (hello, Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Heston Kjerstad) are on their way. It’s only a matter of time.
Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Bob DeChiara and USA Today Sports
All statistics from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs