These Birds Are For Real
As of September 14th, 2022, the Baltimore Orioles--who in the past three full seasons have won 47, 54, and 52 games, sit 4.5 games out of the final AL Wild Card spot. Despite losing their ace John Means to Tommy John in the first month of the season, and trading franchise icon Trey Mancini and all-star closer Jorge Lopez at the trade deadline, the Birds are on pace to have the biggest jump in wins MLB has seen in the last twenty years.
But you already knew all that.
Moving the left field fence back, finally calling up Adley Rutschman, the improved bullpen, and defense --it's all a part of the narrative that has made Baltimore the underdog story of the season. Yeah the Mariners are cute, and we gave them plenty of love (J-Rod, Gilbert), but they won ninety games last year. We saw them coming. The Orioles? Vegas set their preseason win total projection at 62.5 per Caesar's, which they went over on August 21 with their 63rd win at the Little League World Series. The oddsmakers thought that best case, the O's would improve by ten games and not lose 100 games. So to say the Orioles having a winning record is a surprise is the understatement of the century.
So what changed?
David Schoenfield from ESPN focused on improved relief pitching as a huge factor. They converted Lopez into a closer, a role in which he excelled at before being traded to Minnesota for four prospects. Lopez was the poster boy for the island of misfit toys in Baltimore, with Felix Bautista, Cionel Perez, Joey Krehbiel, Dillon Tate, Bryan Baker, and Keegan Akin. A career minor league journeyman, the big righthander Bautista has thrived since taking over for Lopez in the closer role, with his nasty splitter and triple-digit fastball.
However, the Orioles bullpen had been so bad in previous years that it was low-hanging fruit if some improvement were to show. Since 2018, the Orioles respective bullpen ERAs have been: 4.78, 5.79 (worst in the league), 3.90 in the COVID year, 5.71 (again worst in the league, by 0.63 behind Washington, and 3.22 this year (fourth best in the league). Schoenfield claims part of the O's success is due to their offense going from bad to less bad, but for the bullpen, they have gone from very bad to very good.
In seasons past? I remember a specific game from last year when John Means threw 5 good innings of work against the Rays, only to immediately be given away by the bullpen, who turned it into a blowout as soon as he left the game. And who can forget this 2019 late inning debacle against the Tigers?
Now in 2022, opponents have to deal with this:
Mike Pietrello from MLB.com also investigated how the Orioles breakout has occured. He too addressed the bullpen, and also touched on the collective improvement of the rotation, lineup, and defense. However, he focused more on team construction, and how similar to the models of the Cubs and Astros the Orioles have drafted well (Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Gunnar Henderson), got unexpected breakouts (Means, Santander, Cedric Mullins), and found undervalued players from outside the organization (Bautista, Ramon Urias, Jorge Mateo). The one area lacking from Baltimore has been player spending. Unsurprisingly, the Orioles have the lowest payroll in baseball at $43.8M.
I spent the better part of my final semester in undergrad looking at the problem that there are few incentives for small market franchises to win. For each season individually, how much a team spends on players does not make a difference, so for the small market team, why not just throw a bunch of cheap no-namers out there and save money, or constantly turn over your roster like the Rays? But eventually, spending more over time raises a team's floor, which is why the Dodgers and Yankees rarely fall below .500. With four 90-win teams ahead of them in the AL East, they had every reason to mail it in and extend the rebuild to try and come up when a window opened in the future. Based on their roster construction in the offseason and by trading two key contributors at the all-star break, it does look like they don't care to win games. The Rangers and Tigers injected a lot of money into player spending, while the Orioles signed...Rougned Odor and Jordan Lyles (more evidence that spending big on one year does not make a difference).
Yet despite all of the efforts to prolong the tanking period, the team on the field has not quit, in fact doing the opposite of when Seattle traded its best reliever Kendall Graveman, upsetting most of the players, they still won 90 games! And in Graveman's absence, the Mariners got elite production from a bunch of no-namers in the pen: Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, and Casey Sadler. A year later, the Orioles are in the same position after the same action. As the Major League Indians rallied against their owner trying to assemble the worst team possible, these Orioles have finally drawn the line in the sand on the empty box seats at Camden Yards and embarrassing defeats to division rivals. If there is any consolation, after the trade deadline, GM Mike Elias made the "liftoff from here" comment to rationalize trading Mancini and Lopez, as 2023 is when he sees the window opening and will thus spend accordingly. As Jerome Powell is learning with his inflation announcement, institutional credibility goes a long way for the people reacting to headlines. When their best team in five years is depleted of its cancer-surviving icon, how credible is the GM?
Adley Rutschman made two College World Series while at Oregon State; the recent standard for Baltimore wasn't going to cut it, and the splits after his call-up maybe aren't causation, but I challenge you to find me a better stat to represent the Orioles success. For a group of players that dealt with multiple hundred loss seasons, the trade deadline was just another bump on a very bumpy road. With Mancini gone, Anthony Santander is the only player who has been on the roster since Opening Day of 2018. None of these players have experienced success at the major league level, and many of them might not get another opportunity to do so. The 2016 Cubs World Series 25-man playoff roster only had 13 players who were on the 2015 Opening Day roster when they "arrived ahead of schedule." If the Orioles believe their ceiling is that high next year and beyond, turnover is inevitable. This 2022 team is not thinking about next year, because for many, there may not be the next year. All those breakout pitchers we are just now learning names of; this season is probably the peak for most of them.
So my advice on how the Orioles' breakthrough should be viewed: Let's give them this September to see how much they want to disrupt the league. Maybe they improbably claw their way into the playoffs, or maybe they don't. Maybe Elias keeps his word next season and tries to woo #99 for about the $43.8M the Orioles committed to this team. Or maybe it's a quiet off-season. We can have those discussions after the season. But one thing is clear: the Orioles have earned respect from the league, and might have even made up for the embarrassment they have been for the past five years. And the mentality in the locker room is obvious: the Orioles are done being the joke of the MLB, if only management/ownership could get out of the way.