How the Orioles turned their franchise around
Baltimore has best record in AL since July 2
If that was a stunning turnaround in itself, it might pale in comparison to what’s happening in Charm City right now. The Orioles, universally picked to finish at the bottom of the AL East yet again, considered in March to be a 99-loss team with a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs (per FanGraphs), who lost their ace pitcher to season-ending injury after just two starts, the Orioles … are five games over .500 and just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.
To cherry-pick a pair of dates: Since June 11, they have the second-best record in the American League. Since July 2, they have the best record in the American League. Whether or not they actually get into the newly expanded playoffs in 2022 seems almost secondary to the bigger-picture questions here, which are these:
Is this really the start of the next good Orioles team? And how did this team start winning right now?
How they got here
If the last-place 75-87 O’s of 2017 were bad, then the 2018 Orioles were one of the worst teams of all time, somewhat predictably. This is not hyperbole. At 47-115, their .290 winning percentage was fourth-worst in the entire post-war era. The team was still trying to contend that year, though – note the four-year deal they gave to pitcher Alex Cobb in March – and so at the end of the season, president of baseball ops Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter were relieved of their duties.
Left, then, for new general manager Mike Elias, hired on Nov. 14, 2018, was essentially an expansion franchise.
The previous administration had largely ignored international scouting, and ESPN rated their farm system as baseball’s weakest entering 2019, though it did have Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and Ryan Mountcastle within. Their analytics department consisted of one lone developer. The core of the last good team – names like Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop, and Chris Tillman – was either never moved or dealt at low points for extremely modest returns. They were stuck with four more years of Chris Davis’ massive contract, after a 2018 when he’d hit just .168/.243/.296 with 192 strikeouts.
With that as a background, it was going to be almost impossible to make the 2019-’20 O’s any good, and at 79-143 across those years, they were not. Not, it should be noted, that the front office put much or even any effort into attempting to change this fact. They did not sign a single Major League free agent for 2019, and made just a pair of one-year deals for infielders Jose Iglesias and Freddy Galvis totaling $4.5 million, across 2020 and ‘21. (They still haven’t added a free agent on a multi-year deal since the ill-fated Cobb contract.) Fans noticed; 2021’s 110-loss season was the first time since 1974 they didn’t draw at least 1 million fans, and while part of that is certainly owed to pandemic-related capacity limitations, the play of the team on the field wasn’t unrelated.
But behind the scenes, changes were happening. Elias brought Sig Mejdal with him from Houston to rebuild the analytics group, which now has 11 listed members. Their first hire was Chris Holt from Houston as Director of Pitching; he added pitching coach to his responsibilities after two seasons. After 2019, Matt Blood came in from Texas as Director of Player Development, and Eve Rosenbaum joined from Houston as Director of Baseball Development. Entering this year, MLB Pipeline ranked their farm system as the best in baseball, a stunning turnaround.
But farm system rankings don't win Major League games, and this is all a long way of saying that while the franchise as a whole was far healthier, the 2022 team still wasn’t expected to be any good – FanGraphs said 99 losses, Baseball Prospectus 101 – and yet here we are. How?
How to outperform 2022 expectations
It should be pointed out that the 2022 team, which was not expected to be good, was mostly not good for the first two months of the season. They had the most losses in the AL in April, and they got swept by the Tigers in mid-May, and after a loss in Kansas City on June 10, they were 11 games under .500, on pace to lose 96 games.
Since then, they’ve been great. So what’s causing this?
If you just compared last year's lineup to this, you'd say it's not about the bats. Last year’s offense had a .239 average and a .705 OPS; this year’s has a .238 BA and a .698 OPS. This year’s group is actually comparatively slightly better, given that offense is down in general this year, but it’s not a huge difference. The gains realized by the progression of Anthony Santander and Jorge Mateo, and the ascension of Adley Rutschman are somewhat muted by Cedric Mullins’ big step back and all the plate appearances given to Rougned Odor, Robinson Chirinos, and Tyler Nevin.
On the other hand: The in-season trends are strong.
It is, instead, mostly because of four things.
1. The rotation is less terrible. This is not the same thing as good, necessarily, but going from a 5.99 ERA (one of the worst in history) to a 4.61 ERA (merely the sixth-worst this season) is not nothing. Interestingly, this year’s group isn’t really missing more bats or limiting walks much better. They are definitely seeing fewer fly balls land in seats, which is not an accident.
2. The bullpen is spectacular. The best in baseball, according to one measure, a year after having one of the worst full-season ERAs in recent history. It’s mostly about what looks like a Dodgers/Rays-esque ability to get the best out of pitchers who hadn’t found success before. Félix Bautista looks like one of the game’s most dominant relievers; despite being in the system for parts of six years, it was only this year he was able to throw enough strikes to dominate.
Cionel Pérez (1.11 ERA) had a 6.38 ERA for the Reds last year; he was picked up off waivers in November. So was Bryan Baker, from Toronto, who is now striking out 10 per 9. Jorge López, who had a 6.07 ERA for these same Orioles last year, became an All-Star closer before he was traded to Minnesota; they’ve even managed to get something out of Austin Voth (2.81 ERA), who was cut free by baseball’s worst team, Washington, in June.
"I was kind of blown away by all the data that they have here," Voth told ESPN in June. "The video guys and how they can break down stats and pitches. And individually things for each pitcher. That was big for me."
3. The infield defense is improved. We dug into this in more detail earlier this month, noting how Mateo has become an excellent shortstop, and how Ryan Mountcastle has benefited from playing exclusively first base.
4. Adley Rutschman is a star. Obviously. It’s not just that he’s a top 5 player in the Majors since that June 11 low point – though he is – it’s that he’s improving upon what was a worst-in-baseball catching situation through that point, thanks to Chirinos’ inability to hit or frame. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Rutschman not being up earlier, either due to a spring injury or the team’s hesitancy to start his clock, has cost them two wins. (He’ll likely receive a full year of service time anyway.)
“We’re having fun right now,” said starter Dean Kremer, the only meaningful return of the Machado trade. “Standings or not, we’re having a blast."
But the point of all of this isn’t about 2022; that was made clear enough when the team traded López and impending free agent Trey Mancini at the Deadline. What about the bigger picture?
What does this mean for the future?
The Orioles would like to think they’re the 2014-’15 or so Astros and Cubs, teams who similarly tore it down, suffered through multiple unwatchable seasons, then turned that into greatness. The risk here is that this strategy comes with a lot of pain and doesn’t always work; look no further than how badly it’s going in Detroit.
Those Astros and Cubs had a few things in common.
1. They hit on high Draft picks. When the Cubs won it all, they had first-round picks Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber playing big parts. The Astros had some whiffs – Brady Aiken and Mark Appel – but they also had George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Lance McCullers, Jr. Rutschman surely looks like he’ll count here, as does Mountcastle. The progress of Rodriguez, Hall, and 2019 second-rounder Gunnar Henderson will help define how far these Orioles go.
2. They got unexpected internal star turns. In Houston, Dallas Keuchel struggled badly in his first two years (5.20 ERA), before breaking out in 2014. Jose Altuve had a mere .700 OPS across 2011-’13, before becoming a star in 2014. The Cubs didn’t actually do much of this outside of maybe reliever Héctor Rondón. The Orioles looked like they’d found their Keuchel and Altuve in Means and Mullins; maybe now, that’s Bautista and Santander.
3. They found undervalued parts from outside. The Astros were strong at this, if you look at Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, and Chris Devenski, not to mention trading for Gerrit Cole out of Pittsburgh. The Cubs swiped Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop from these very Orioles, and Kyle Hendricks from Texas. This year’s Orioles have clearly done this with most of their bullpen, plus Mateo and Ramón Urías.
4. They spent big on stars. This is where the Orioles literally have to put their money where their mouths are. The 2016 Cubs signed Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million deal and Ben Zobrist for $56 million more, one year after they’d given $155 million to Jon Lester in anticipation of the window opening.
Those Astros gave 32-year-old Cuban star Yuli Gurriel $47.5 million over five years in 2016, and $52 million to Josh Reddick months later. The next season, they traded for Justin Verlander and the $56 million remaining on his deal, later giving him a three year, $94 million extension.
For Baltimore, looking at the market, that almost certainly means a starting pitcher like Carlos Rodón or Jacob deGrom, or perhaps a shortstop like Dansby Swanson or Trea Turner. Maybe it’s more than one. The time is now.
“We're going to sign players this winter. I'm very excited about it,” Elias said on Aug 3. “I think that it's liftoff from here for this team.” On Aug. 14, he reiterated that, saying “our plan for this offseason has always been to significantly escalate the payroll,” also saying “we plan to explore free agency much more aggressively.”
It’s the right thing to say. It will only matter if it actually happens, of course. The only thing worse than going through a half-decade of baseball this painful is not having it end in success. All the arrows are pointing up for the Orioles, at least. It’s on the front office to keep pushing the roster where it needs to get. After how rough things have been for so long, it all but has to work.