At the quarter mark, 4 things that stand out

May 13th, 2019

BALTIMORE -- Donning pink gear under gray skies, the Orioles waited through a two-hour 42-minute delay on Mother’s Day to finish off a soggy weekend at Camden Yards. By the time they did with a 5-1 win over the Angels, they’d snapped a four-game losing streak and reached a significant milestone: Four different Orioles went deep, including Chris Davis, John Means earned his fifth win, and the season’s quarter pole came and went.

Now 40 games into the Mike Elias/Brandon Hyde era, the Orioles’ retooling process has begun to play out in real time. Here is a look at four big things we’ve learned about the club up to this point:

1. Mancini may be playing his way onto a contender
Now in his third full big league season, Trey Mancini spent the first six weeks of 2019 emerging as one of the American League’s most productive hitters. He ranks seventh in the AL in hits, seventh in batting, eighth in OPS, ninth in slugging and weighted runs created plus, all against the backdrop of an increased walk-to-strikeout rate and improved defensive play in right field. Simply put, the former Rookie of the Year finalist is blossoming into Baltimore’s probable All-Star, and likely the club’s most valuable asset come late July.

All of which poses the Orioles with an interesting question. The new regime has made it their primary focus to infuse the organization with talent, an objective they’ve preached for months. Do they see their competitive window opening soon enough to build around Mancini, who is just 27 and under team control through 2022? Or does it make more sense to sell high on Mancini, say at this year’s Trade Deadline, for multiple pieces that could perhaps accelerate that timetable?

2. The kids are coming
That Hyde spent part of Sunday morning on the phone with Triple-A manager Gary Kendall was no coincidence: Several of the organization’s top blue-chippers are raking down at Norfolk, and appear primed to join the Major League club sometime in the near future.

After a slow start, Chance Sisco is hitting .460 with six home runs over his past 10 games, while making the strides defensively the Orioles hoped he would when they opted to break camp without the backstop in the fold. Cedric Mullins has seemingly refound his stroke after slumping mightily at the big league level in April. With Austin Hays nearly recovering from a left thumb injury, Mullins should be back soon to plug the club’s considerable hole in center field. DJ Stewart is showing advanced plate discipline, and the Orioles remain intrigued with Anthony Santander’s power.

But the player making the most noise is Ryan Mountcastle, the club’s No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline. The 22-year-old is tearing up the International League in his first taste of the level, pacing the circuit with 44 hits and slashing .319/.347/.500 through Sunday. Odds are the Orioles would want to provide Mountcastle the longest leash of all, given he’s playing a new position in first base everyday for the first time. If the bat continues to play, though, he won’t be stuck on the farm too long.

3. This is a different kind of team
Throw away the record for a minute, as the Orioles entered the year largely knowing they wouldn’t be vying for a division title. Changes to their style of play under Hyde and the club’s new analytically inclined front office have been plain to see, wins and losses aside. Sunday’s four-homer binge aside, this new group is a departure from the station-to-station slugging teams the Orioles were for much of the past decade. Development is the theme now, with Hyde and his new staff putting an onus on baserunning and defense from Day 1.

How are they performing in those areas? The intent is obvious, the results telling.

The Orioles are on pace to steal almost exactly as many bases as they did a year ago, though that output has been suppressed by Mullins and fleet-footed rookie shortstop Richie Martin’s struggles to reach base. That the club’s stolen-base success rate of 83 percent ranks second in the AL is much more telling. FanGraphs’ baserunning metric (BsR) which converts all baserunning plays into runs above and below average, ranks the Orioles as AL’s sixth best baserunning team this season. They ranked 14th in the AL and 27th in baseball in that category last summer.

They’ve also seen wholesale improvement on the defensive side of things, in large part due to a considerable change in approach. The Orioles are shifting more than ever before in franchise history, and more frequently compared to last season than any other team in baseball. They also lead the Majors in team caught-stealing percentage. It’s all translated to an above-league average rating via FanGraphs’ catch-all defensive value metric, where they ranked 29th in 2018.

4. More challenges coming for Hyde
Since taking the job in December, Hyde has stressed the challenge the Orioles face with regard to developing so many inexperienced players at the big league level. The same concept applies to the rookie skipper, who has found little opportunity to flex his strategic muscles during his first few months at the helm. The Orioles simply haven’t played enough close games for many in-game patterns or philosophies of Hyde’s to emerge; he’s had his hands full navigating significant roster turnover and searching for ways to stabilize his ultra-combustible relief corps.

Such is the reality with a rebuilding club, where a young manager’s impact is gauged more via soft factors rather than on wins and losses. This year for Hyde, success figures to hinge on how well his positive messaging still resonates by the end of what could to be a series of difficult summer months.