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Breakout outfielder Anthony Santander named 2020 Most Valuable Oriole

An oblique injury that prematurely ended Anthony Santander’s breakout 2020 season was not enough to deny him the honor of being selected as the Louis M. Hatter Most Valuable Oriole.

The award, voted on by media, annually recognizes the team’s best player, and Santander appeared to be running away with that distinction before he suffered a right oblique strain while batting in the first game of a Sept. 4 doubleheader with the New York Yankees. At the time of the injury, Santander was leading the American League in extra-base hits with 25 and tied for second in the AL with 13 doubles, tied for third with 32 RBIs, and tied for sixth with 11 home runs and a .575 slugging percentage.

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Despite having not played for the past three weeks, Santander entered Friday as Baltimore’s leader in RBIs and extra-base hits while also ranking in the team’s top three in doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (. 890). In a crowded outfield picture, Santander, 25, has established himself as a potential key piece in the Orioles' future.

“It’s such an honor to receive this award," Santander said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. "I’m very thankful for those who voted for me, that took me into consideration. I think it’s all part of a big competition among everybody, but very thankful for this opportunity.”

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After a late start to the team’s summer training camp due to testing positive for the coronavirus, Santander was in manager Brandon Hyde’s lineup for all 37 games for which he was healthy, batting primarily second and never lower than fourth. From Aug. 2 to Aug. 23, he had an 18-game hitting streak during which he hit eight homers, drove in 20 while posting an eight-game RBI streak and batted .329/.378/.776.

“Big void him not being in the lineup these last 20-plus games just because of what he was for us offensively," Hyde said. "Well deserved of the award just because he was having a Silver Slugger-, All-Star-type of season. Looking forward to him getting healthy and being with us next spring.”

A 2016 Rule 5 draft selection from the Cleveland Indians, Santander dealt with injuries in his first two years with the organization before becoming a fixture in Hyde’s 2019 lineup after a June 7 promotion from Triple-A Norfolk. Three months to the day later, he had 20 home runs and was batting .288/.323/.518 while on a 12-game hitting streak. But a shoulder injury wore on him and eventually ended his season.

From last season to this one, Santander decreased his strikeout rate by 6.1%, the fourth-largest improvement among players who had as many plate appearances as he did in each of the past two years.

“I think it’s part of the hard work that you put in," he said. "Usually, power hitters tend to strike out a lot, so whenever I’m behind in the count or I have two strikes, I tried to simplify my approach and not really try to do too much with it. Just take advantage of what’s given to me and just go with the pitch. I think it’s part of the hard work that you put in.”

Unable to return to his native Venezuela, Santander said he will instead spend at least the start of the offseason to prepare for what he hopes will be an injury-free 2021 season. His performance when healthy was undoubtedly worthy of MVO honors, but his absence left the pool of candidates muddled. Last season’s MVO Trey Mancini has spent the season on the injured list recovering from a colon cancer diagnosis, while infielder Jonathan Villar — another contender for last year’s honors — was traded in December to the Miami Marlins.

Veteran shortstop José Iglesias, signed this offseason to anchor the Orioles' infield after the Villar trade, was also immensely productive when in the lineup, leading Baltimore with 15 doubles, a .373 average and a .931 OPS. But he has also battled his share of ailments, notably a left quadriceps issue that caused an IL stint. He enters Friday having played as many games as Santander with 23 fewer plate appearances. Likewise, rookie Ryan Mountcastle has hit .325/.378/.500 since his late August promotion, but he will end the year with no more than 35 games played.

Iglesias and Mountcastle, as well as streaky regulars Hanser Alberto, Cedric Mullins, Renato Núñez, Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino and relief pitchers Tanner Scott and César Valdez, appeared on at least one MVO ballot, which features each voter’s top three choices.

In addition to Mancini, Santander joins a recent group of winners that includes Adam Jones (2018), Jonathan Schoop (2017), Manny Machado (2016) and Chris Davis (2013 and 2015).

“It’s definitely been a long road,” Santander said. “It’s been a long journey. I’m very thankful for this opportunity. I’m very happy for this award. It’s amazing to be here and to really know the results that I’ve been getting after so much work, after so many sacrifices, it’s been all worth it. It’s all thanks to the opportunity and hard work.”

Around the horn

Left-handers John Means and Keegan Akin will start the final two games of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays. ... Renato Núñez was out of the lineup for a second straight game because of knee soreness Friday, but Hyde said he was available off the bench. ... Hyde said none of the Orioles' relievers are shut down for the final series.

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