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Baltimore Orioles

Oriole of the Day: Kelvin Gutiérrez finished strong, but repeating is key for third baseman

Under other circumstances, Tuesday would have marked the day Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, Florida, to begin preparations for the 2022 season.

Instead, with the league’s lockout of the players continuing as the two sides negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, that benchmark passed without the season feeling any closer. Until significant progress is made between the owners and the players’ union, it’s fair to wonder whether the Orioles’ March 31 Opening Day matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays will take place as scheduled.

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What can be assured, though, is the continuation of Oriole of the Day, The Baltimore Sun’s series evaluating each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster.

Kelvin Gutiérrez arrived on a late-season waiver claim, and unless a post-lockout signing dictates otherwise, he’ll enter spring training as the favorite to be the Orioles’ Opening Day third baseman.

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Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 27

2021 stats: .232/.292/.316, .608 OPS, three home runs, 25.8 K%, 6.4 BB%, minus-0.6 fWAR between the Orioles and Kansas City Royals; .248/.327/.336, .663 OPS, two home runs, 29.4 K %, 8.5 BB%, 0.2 fWAR with the Orioles

Under team control through: 2026

2021 in review

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Number to know: 10. Gutiérrez’s offensive improvements in Baltimore weren’t the only reason he was worth one more win above replacement than he was in Kansas City (0.2 with the Orioles, minus-0.8 with the Royals). He took a massive leap defensively, going from one of baseball’s worst third basemen to one of its best. With the Royals, he was worth minus-5 outs above average, according to Statcast, 10 below his OAA value as an Oriole. An OAA of minus-5 for the full season would’ve ranked as the sixth worst among all qualified third basemen, whereas the OAA of 5 he posted with Baltimore would have tied for the seventh best. The cumulative result was an OAA of 0, but there’s signs of value there going forward.

What was good: Gutiérrez was rather unimpressive in his first two months with the Orioles, a stretch that featured a .445 OPS with no extra-base hits and more than a month spent at Triple-A. But he finished the year emphatically, hitting .305/.360/.451 over Baltimore’s final 25 games. His .411 batting average on balls in play and Statcast’s expected metrics suggest there was certainly a good chunk of luck involved, though.

What wasn’t: Even during his strong closing stretch, Gutiérrez continued to do two things that the Orioles are trying to groom out of their young hitters: He struck out frequently, and he hit a ton of groundballs. Among players who had as many plate appearances as he did in 2021, Gutiérrez was in the upper quarter of the league in strikeout rate, ranking 17th of 140 players in that regard from Sept. 1 on. He hit the ball on the ground more than 60% of the time in 2021, the second-highest rate in baseball, and the trend carried through his final 25 games, further suggesting that he had some batted-ball luck during that stretch that could prove difficult to repeat.

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Starting third basemen

What’s projected: Of the Orioles’ infield options, Gutiérrez has the most major league experience at third base, but he also lacks the versatility of the others. A career second baseman, Rougned Odor played solidly at third base when asked to last year with the New York Yankees. The Orioles have deployed Ramón Urías at all three infield spots during his time with the team. Jorge Mateo can serviceably play the middle infield and the outfield. That’s all to say if Gutiérrez isn’t Baltimore’s starting third baseman, it’s doubtful he fits the roster as a utility player. Neither ZiPS nor Steamer project an offensive breakout for Gutiérrez in 2022, though both suggest his defensive improvements with Baltimore could carry over.

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A step forward: Most of Gutiérrez’s struggles derived from breaking balls. For every nine sliders he swung at, he missed four of those attempts, a whiff rate among the highest 10% in the league. In at-bats ending on curveballs, he went 1-for-25, the third-lowest average in baseball (ahead of only fellow Orioles Pat Valaika and DJ Stewart). He had some success against fastballs, particularly four-seamers, but improving his performance against breaking balls could give Gutiérrez better odds of sticking as a major league starter.

Three up, three down

This series is ordered based on the WAR, as measured by FanGraphs, each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster produced in 2021. The past three players featured in the series were Dean Kremer, Ryan McKenna and Cionel Pérez. The Orioles due up next are Jahmai Jones, Yusniel Diaz and Rylan Bannon.


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