Two weeks ago, I chronicled how the Orioles have started to make the leap to contention and relevance and how their pitching was a huge factor in that success. The Orioles made it back to the national stage for the first time in years last Sunday night and were playing under the bright lights of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. This week I look at that game and another driver in their success. Also on the docket this week:
- A Little League Recap
- The Brewers’ Slide
- Albert Pujols’ power surge
- The kids are getting paid
- Player Spotlight: Adley Rutschman
- Bonus Player Spotlight: Josh Hader
- New schedule on the horizon
The Little League Classic and the Orioles’ return to national television
The last time the Baltimore Orioles were on national television, they were in the midst of the 2018 season when John Means had a career ERA over 13, Cedric Mullins was still a switch hitter in the minor leagues, and Adley Rutschman was a sophomore in college. They returned to the spotlight last Sunday when they faced the Boston Red Sox. Immediately, they made an impact, as they scored 2 in the bottom of the first. Boston would eventually tie the game at two runs a piece, and that’s when the world got to see what makes this Orioles team run.
The bottom of the eighth inning rolled around, and the middle of the Baltimore lineup was up to bat. Facing Matt Barnes, Kyle Stowers struck out and Ramon Urias drew a walk before being pinch ran for. Alex Cora replaced Barnes with John Schreiber, a reliever who had been excellent for the Red Sox all season. The first pitch he threw to Austin Hays hit the batter, and suddenly the Orioles had a runner in scoring position with one out. Rougned Odor was next to hit and was walked on four pitches. The bases were loaded for Jorge Mateo, in the midst of a breakout year. The spotlight was shining at its brightest for the young club, and boy did they respond. Mateo hit a double to left field, and cleared the bases, giving the Orioles a 5-2 lead that they would not relinquish. New closer Felix Bautista shut down the ninth inning and the Orioles rose to the occasion when needed.
If it was not clear before, it is now: the Baltimore Orioles have arrived.
The Brewers’ Slide
On August 1, the Brewers traded away their long-time closer Josh Hader for Dinelson Lamet (who was DFA’d), Taylor Rogers (who is a pending free agent), Esteury Ruiz (prospect), and Robert Gasser (prospect). It was understood at the time that this is how the Brewers have to keep winning, and the return for Hader seemed fair for the star pitcher. Entering that day, the Brew Crew was in first in the NL Central, three games ahead of the Cardinals and firmly in the playoff picture.
Since then, it has been catastrophic in Milwaukee. Seeing the club trade away a popular figure like Hader while not buying at the deadline had a real impact on the clubhouse chemistry, and the Brewers started to spiral. In the month of August, they have gone 10-14 and fallen from the top of the division to out of the playoff picture. The offense has struggled, posting a collective 96 wRC+ (17th in the majors for August), the starters have been incredibly homer prone (1.45 HR/9, 6th worst in the majors), and the bullpen has imploded, giving up homers at the same clip as the starters (second worst in the majors). With this fall, the Brewers’ playoff chances have taken a huge hit and may need a September surge just to be a wild card team.
The Kids are Getting Paid
Last week, Michael Harris II got an extension from the Atlanta Braves after 268 career plate appearances in the majors. Harris got an eight-year, $72 million extension from his hometown team. This week, Julio Rodriguez got his contract, for 12 years and $210 million, with the ability for the deal to be worth up to 18 years and $470 million after 458 career plate appearances.
The commonly accepted value of one win above replacement (fWAR) is $8 million. I love the Harris deal for Atlanta because using that win to dollar value, Harris would have to be worth only 9 fWAR over the life of the contract for it to be a team-friendly deal. In his rookie year alone, Harris has been over a three-win player, so it is easy to envision how this contract only improves in value in a few years.
The variance of the payout for Julio Rodriguez is massive. At the very least, the Mariners will pay J-Rod $210 million (slightly over 26 fWAR of value), and at most, Rodriguez could earn $470 million in that same time span (slightly under 59 fWAR in value). While the J-Rod deal is not as team-friendly as Harris’s, his upside as a player alongside his present skills makes this a good move from the M’s. Rodriguez has been one of the most exciting players in the majors this year and will stay in Seattle on a deal that will pay him handsomely.
Albert Pujols’ Power Surge
When Albert Pujols returned to the Cardinals last spring, many did not think that he would be a key contributor for them but rather a feel-good story about the former superstar returning to the club he dominated with for a decade. Entering the season, Pujols had hit 679 career home runs, and 700 seemed out of reach for his final season. He was chosen to participate in the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby, which may have unlocked the last bit of power Pujols had.
Over the first half of the season, Pujols had a slugging percentage of .376 and 6 home runs. Since the All-Star break, he has played like a man on a mission, hitting 8 home runs and slugging .836. What is crazy is that among players 42 or older, only Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds have had stretches with a higher slugging percentage than Pujols this year.
While he may not get to 700, this has been a season to remember for Pujols, and seeing him play well in his final year has been a treat for baseball fans.
Player Spotlight: Adley Rutschman
When Adley Rutschman was drafted first overall by the Orioles, he was portrayed to be a complete player, a catcher who could hit for power, have plus defense, and decent speed. As a major leaguer thus far, Rutschman has been that same player. Since his debut this year, he has been one of the best catchers in baseball, posting an fWAR of 3.6 thus far, higher than players like Will Smith, Alejandro Kirk, and William Contreras.
What makes Rutschman so valuable to a team on the ascent like the Orioles? First off, the pitching staff has been better since Rutschman made his debut this season, and has been a catalyst for the O’s contending this year. Another crucial part of Rutschman’s value is his ability to control the strike zone as a hitter. So far this year, his strikeout rate is 17.1% (73rd percentile), and his walk rate is 13.7% (96th percentile), well above where many rookies are in terms of plate discipline. His lack of power from the right side has not developed to a major league level, but given the level of player he is now, I wouldn’t bet against Rutschman growing even more as a hitter in the coming years.
Bonus Player Spotlight: Josh Hader
Earlier I documented how since the Brewers traded away Hader they have been struggling, and the same is true for Josh Hader himself (to put it lightly). Since joining the Padres, Haders has been removed as the closer, posting a 23.14 ERA, 8.27 FIP, and 13.50 BB/9. What happened to the star reliever, and is he due for regression?
Hader was in a slump before joining the Padres, but once he joined the Friars, he stopped throwing strikes as consistently. His walk percentage has jumped from 8.5% in Milwaukee to 20.0% in San Diego, and his strikeout rate has fallen from 41.8% to 22.9% in his two stops. When Hader does throw strikes, the hitters can get to it, posting a BABIP of .647 in August (compared to a .306 before) and an opponent OPS over 1.300 (.698 with the Brewers). The hope for the Padres is that Hader starts locating his sinker and slider again so he stops walking hitters and strikes them out more. The batted ball numbers should regress (he has somehow only pitched 4.2 innings with the Padres), but if Hader isn’t locating his pitches, he will be watching crucial innings of October baseball from the bullpen instead being on the mound.
The New Schedule for Major League Baseball
A part of the new collective bargaining agreement was a balanced schedule, and for the first time ever, all 30 teams will play each other. The schedule was released this week, and I personally have mixed feelings about it. I like that fans will be able to see players like Mike Trout or Ronald Acuna Jr. every year, and it will help grow the game. However, I also enjoy watching classic rivals like the Dodgers and Giants or the Yankees and Red Sox play and those games are important to those fan bases. I think that I need to see a full season with the new scheduling format to decide one way or the other, but hey, at least we get more games like Dodgers-Astros or Yankees-Braves.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and BaseballSavant, and are updated entering play on 8/29/2022
Image courtesy of MASN Sports