Every year there is at least one team in Major League Baseball that surprises everyone. Last season, the Braves were a big surprise down the stretch and eventually won the World Series. The Mariners were also a surprise, as they just missed out on making the playoffs. This season, the Baltimore Orioles are the biggest surprise in baseball.
The American League East was expected to be one of the best, if not the best, divisions in baseball going into 2022. Last year, the A.L. East had four teams win 91 or more games, while three teams made the playoffs from the division. The only team that didn’t win 91 or more games was the Baltimore Orioles, who finished the season with the worst record in baseball, 52-110.
This season, the A.L. East is likely to have three teams in the playoffs once again. The Yankees lead the division, and the Rays and Blue Jays currently hold Wild Card spots. Don’t count out the Orioles, though.
Baltimore is currently five games behind the Rays for the third spot in the A.L. Wild Card standings. They also trail the Blue Jays by 5.5 games. The Orioles play Toronto six more times before the season concludes.
Making the postseason a year after losing more than 100 games would be an astounding turnaround. Last season was not an outlier for the Orioles, either. In the last three full 162-game seasons prior to this one – 2018, 2019, and 2021 – the Orioles lost more than 100 games each season.
What has been different for the Orioles this year, and who is helping them make a push for October? Let’s find out.
Offensively, the Orioles are 21st in runs per game, 4.16, and 22nd in OPS+, 95, in 2022. How do these statistics compare to their last three full seasons? Let’s look:
|Year||Runs per game (MLB Rank)||OPS+ (MLB Rank)|
|2018||3.84 (27th)||89 (25th)|
|2019||4.50 (22nd)||90 (22nd)|
|2021||4.07 (26th)||91 (24th)|
While the Orioles’ offense has slightly improved compared to the last few seasons, it is not the main reason behind their turnaround.
Pitching and defense have been strengths for Baltimore this year. They are one of the better teams in both categories. They rank 10th in runs allowed per game, 4.15, and 10th in ERA+, 105. Those are major improvements compared to previous seasons:
|Year||Runs allowed per game (MLB Rank)||ERA+ (MLB Rank)|
|2018||5.51 (30th)||83 (29th)|
|2019||6.06 (30th)||84 (30th)|
|2021||5.90 (30th)||78 (30th)|
The team ranks 10th in DRS, 33, and 19th in OAA, 1. Baltimore was one of the worst defensive teams in baseball over the last few years:
|Year||DRS (MLB Rank)||OAA (MLB Rank)|
|2018||-45 (28th)||-42 (30th)|
|2019||-53 (27th)||-34 (30th)|
|2021||-30 (24th)||-30 (28th)|
With a slightly improved offense and a much-improved pitching staff and defense, the Orioles’ run differential is currently +2. That is drastically different in comparison to 2018-2021:
|Year||Run Differential (MLB Rank)|
It is clear that the Orioles have gone from being one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the better teams in the league this year. They aren’t on the same level as the Dodgers, Mets, or Astros, but they are a good baseball team.
The Orioles spent less than $10 million on free agent big league contracts during the winter. They have turned around their performance by using mostly homegrown talent. Some of the Orioles’ top performers this season include Adley Rutschman, Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, Dean Kremer, and Felix Bautista.
Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini were also important to the Orioles this season, but both players were moved prior to the trade deadline. Despite being sellers, the Orioles have still been able to win games and remain in playoff contention.
Let’s look at the players who are still with the team that have helped Baltimore get to this point.
Adley Rutschman was the 1st overall pick by Baltimore in 2019 and was one of the game’s best prospects the second he was drafted. Since being called up on May 21, Rutschman has been one of the best, if not the best, players for the Orioles.
He has played in 93 games and in 382 plate appearances is slashing .254/.361/.446 with a 128 OPS+, 10 home runs, and 30 doubles.
Rutschman has also been good behind the plate. In 19 attempts to second base, his average pop time, where the average is 2 seconds, is 1.93 seconds, according to MLB’s Statcast. Rutschman has also been good at framing pitches this season. He has had 49.6% of non-swing pitches in the shadow zone called strikes this year.
Rutschman has been nothing less than impressive and productive for the Orioles this year at the age of 24. He will surely be an A.L. Rookie of the Year finalist this fall.
Santander was a Rule 5 Draft selection by the Orioles in 2016. He’s in his age-27 season and is having the best year of his career. Santander is hitting .251/.329/.456 with a 120 OPS+ and leads Baltimore with 27 home runs.
Santander is a switch hitter who has more pop from the left side of the plate than the right. He has 18 home runs as a left-handed hitter this year. Santander is a much better hitter overall as a right-handed hitter, though. He’s hitting .299/.368/.547 in 155 plate appearances as a righty.
Mullins was a 13th-round selection in the 2015 draft by Baltimore. He had a breakout season in 2021, was named an All-Star, and was one of the game’s better players. While he has not been the same player this season, he has still been important to Baltimore’s success.
In 592 plate appearances, Mullins is hitting .263/.324/.405 with a 106 OPS+. He has 14 home runs, 30 doubles, and 31 stolen bases. Mullins has played good defense in center field this season, where he has 3 DRS and 6 OAA.
Kremer was acquired as a part of the Manny Machado trade during the 2018 season. He was hurt earlier in the year but has been one of Baltimore’s better pitchers since coming back. He has made 17 starts and has pitched 99.2 innings with a 3.34 ERA. While Baltimore’s starting pitching has not been their strength this year, the 26-year-old Kremer has been a bright spot in their rotation.
Felix Bautista was signed to a minor league contract by the Orioles in August of 2016. He has been one of the game’s best relievers this year. Bautista’s fastball averages 99.1 MPH, and he gets a lot of swings and misses on his splitter, as he has a 55.6 whiff percentage on that pitch. Bautista has 82 strikeouts in 62 innings this year, with a 1.60 ERA and 13 saves.
Mountcastle is 2nd on the team in home runs with 22 and is in the 96th percentile in xSLG this season. Mateo and Urias have both played great defense this year and have been major contributors to the defensive turnaround in Baltimore.
Voth, who was claimed off of waivers on June 7th from the Nationals, has performed well in his 18 appearances (14 starts) with Baltimore. Tate, Akin, and Perez are all relievers who have helped turn the Orioles’ bullpen into their strength in 2022.
The Orioles have been quite the surprise this season. Playing in arguably the best division in baseball, while coming off of a 100-loss season, did not seem like a recipe for success in 2022.
Their offense has slightly improved, while their defense and pitching have been some of the best in Major League Baseball this year. The team’s strength is clearly their bullpen, where they have a myriad of weapons. Baltimore’s bullpen has pitched the 6th-most innings (555.1) this year and has the 6th-best bullpen ERA at 3.26.
Things should only get better from here as the Orioles have the top farm system in all of baseball. Their system is headlined by top prospects INF Gunnar Henderson, who is currently on the big league club and playing well, RHP Grayson Rodriguez, and the first overall pick in this year’s draft, SS Jackson Holliday.
The Orioles are a team to keep an eye on over the next few weeks, and they could make things interesting down the stretch. This season has been an important year for the Orioles and could be looked back on in a few years as the season things began to turn around in Baltimore.