One of the unofficial slogans of this MLB season so far has been “Let’s Get Weird.” Runner on second to start extra innings? Let’s Get Weird. Seven-inning doubleheaders? Let’s Get Weird! More than half the teams making the playoffs? Let’s Get Weird! The games still count and the World Series winner will still be the World Series winner, but it is also true that this is a season of experimentation, some test cases and studies to take advantage of an entirely new landscape of a schedule, a format and a collective competition. It’s weird! Let’s Get Weird!
But of all the weird things that could happen this season, I have one that would actually be the weirdest: The Baltimore Orioles could reach the playoffs.
It is difficult to overstate how absurd a notion this is. The Orioles dropped 108 games last year and are without two of their two best hitters from 2019, Trey Mancini and Jonathan Villar. They are still in the earliest stages of a franchise-wide overhaul with an indeterminate end date. Their big-hitting free agent acquisition, José Iglesias, hasn’t had an above-average season at the plate since 2013. They just traded their best reliever (Richard Bleier), and four-fifths of their rotation is made up of castoffs over the age of 30. The question coming into the year was not whether the Orioles would finish last in the American League East. It’s whether they would make it into double digits in wins.
And yet! The Orioles are 5-3 -- one of the 10 best records in baseball. It’s not unusual that a bad team would have a stretch where it goes 5-3, but it is unusual that a team would do so in a season where there are only 60 games played. The Orioles are in this thing.
Is it … OK to dream?
All right, so it probably isn’t. Fangraphs’ Playoff Odds Report has the Orioles at 9.3 percent to make the playoffs, which is still awfully low -- albeit much higher than the 1 percent they started the season with. But there are now three teams -- the Mariners, Pirates and Royals -- with worse odds of making the playoffs than the Orioles. (That’s three more than there were before the season started.)
And, all told, if you were attempting to construct a perfect case scenario for this Orioles team to make the playoffs, wouldn’t it look like this?
• A short 60-game (at most) season.
• An early-season sweep of the Rays, widely considered the second-best team in the division, a sweep that could come into all sort of playoff tiebreak scenarios.
• An immediate next series against a team, the Marlins, that hasn’t played in more than a week and is missing nearly half its original roster.
• A playoff format that lets more than half the teams in baseball in.
• Another division rival (the Blue Jays) playing outside its home country, in a cramped home clubhouse in a city that the players thought they were done with after being promoted to the Majors.
• Another division rival (the Red Sox) somehow having worse pitching than they do.
I mean … it’s probably not going to happen. But if it were to happen, this is how it would happen, right?
More to the point: The Orioles right now are incredibly fun to watch. If they start losing … hey, no one expected them to do anything, anyway. And if they keep winning … you’re part of the biggest story in baseball. Win-win!
How are the Orioles doing this? What’s going well?
1) They are hitting the ball like crazy
That Rays pitching staff that was supposed to be so amazing? The Orioles knocked them around in their series sweep, scoring 16 runs in three games. Baltimore battered around the Red Sox, too, and even scored some runs against the Yankees. The O’s have the sixth-highest OPS in baseball, and the fourth-highest slugging percentage. This has been driven by the least like Slugger’s Row in recent memory: Iglesias, Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz, all of whom have OPS above 1.112. There’s a lot of slack in those numbers -- they only have four walks between them -- but remember, they don’t have to stay hot for a full season. They only have to stay hot for a few more weeks. And there’s upside, too: There’s probably more in the bats of, say, Anthony Santander and Austin Hays than we’ve seen so far.
2) The pitching has been … more stable than you might have thought
Alex Cobb has been legit good in both his starts, Tommy Milone recovered from a wretched Opening Day start and Wade LeBlanc, of all people, has given the Orioles a win in both his starts. The worst starter has been John Means, their lone All-Star last year. And Cole Sulser, Travis Lakins and Miguel Castro all looking good in the ‘pen allowed them to trade Bleier with sweating it too much. It’s rickety, sure, this collection of pitchers … but what isn’t rickety right now?
On Saturday night, the Orioles won an absolutely wild 5-4 game over the Rays that featured crazy double plays in both the 10th and 11th innings -- oh, and some inspired, Wild Thing-esque hijinks from reliever Tanner Scott, who could quickly become your kid’s favorite player -- and a walk-off hit from Pat Valaika. You may have seen highlights of this game because of the Orioles’ socially distanced, no-touching celebration afterward, but if this were a normal season and there were fans in the stands, Camden Yards would have gone nuts. Some teams just have good vibes, you know? The Orioles have good vibes so far.
4) The rest of the division is in trouble
I hinted at this above, but the AL East is looking a little wobbly. The Yankees are terrific, but the Red Sox might be a disaster, the Blue Jays are disjointed and still haven’t played a game in their home clubhouse (and depending on how soon they adjust to Buffalo, might never play one) and the Rays, well, the Orioles just swept the Rays. For what it’s worth, by the way, the NL East, the crossover opponents for the AL East, is looking less ominous now, too: The Braves are without their ace, the Mets are in turmoil again, the Phillies have barely played and the Marlins are recovering from a COVID-19 outbreak. Simply by avoiding major incident, the Orioles have succeeded.
5) The world is crazy
It all comes down to this, doesn’t it? The Orioles aren’t putting anything on the line to play this year: They were predicted to finish last, the front office isn’t rushing any prospects to the Majors, they’re barely spending any money. This is entirely bonus time. Look, I know I’m stretching here: Eight games doesn’t tell us anything. Except this year -- this year it can. It’s a year unlike any other. All the Orioles have to do is put together another week like this one -- not even a great week, just a slightly better than average one -- and they will be close to being an odds-on favorite to make the playoffs. Three games against the depleted Marlins, then three against the Interleague rival Nationals. Can the O’s go 4-2 in those games? Crazier things have happened! Crazier things are happening!
I know it’s surreal and impossible. But what isn’t surreal and impossible right now? Orioles fever, catch it! Or, in the words of Orioles fans throughout their history … why not?