The longer the Orioles’ surprising start carries on, the greater the odds that it might stick.
And however improbable that might be, it won’t be all be because of the dumb luck and 2020 oddities that allow them to be one of baseball’s most unexpected success stories. Some of it will come down to real baseball improvement.
From their reliance on and off the field on veteran shortstop José Iglesias to their more consistent bullpen and some returning players such as Rio Ruiz and Renato Núñez continuing to improve, many of the reasons behind their winning ways are no secret.
Here, though, are five stats that stand out and explain just how different things have been in some corners of the Orioles’ physically distanced clubhouse in 2020:
With all due respect to Adley Rutschman, the Orioles’ catchers of the present aren’t doing a bad job. Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco entered Tuesday’s game batting a combined .327 with a 1.054 OPS and four home runs. Only the Philadelphia Phillies, paced by the league’s top catcher J.T. Realmuto, and the Atlanta Braves are getting better production from that spot. The Orioles ranked 21st in baseball in catcher OPS in 2019.
The duo of Sisco and Severino, plus veteran third catcher Bryan Holaday, has also overseen quite a turnaround for the Orioles’ pitching staff, and their presence in helping execute the team’s game plans can’t be overlooked. Still, this is a team that doesn’t have a lot of power hitters at traditional spots like first base. Getting the kind of production on the cheap from their catching platoon the way the Orioles have is a tremendous advantage and shows that this coaching staff can work with players trying to solidify themselves in the big leagues.
No one is going to throw a parade for a team whose starters have a 4.54 ERA just 15 games into the season. That said, when the rotation ERA the past three years were 5.57, 5.48 and 5.70, it’s a pretty stark improvement. It’s a compliment to that group to say that it honestly still feels a little high. They aren’t pitching deep into games, and it’s been rather boom-or-bust for veteran left-handers Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc. But overall, this certainly is a group that deserves credit.
When All-Star John Means gets back from his absence and is able to try and harness his new velocity, this group could be even better. What’s made it truly good so far, though is Alex Cobb.
Baseball Prospectus has a stat called Deserved Run Average (DRA), which separates what a pitcher can control and adjusts for park conditions and other external factors to spit out an alternative to ERA. Cobb entered Tuesday’s start with a DRA of 1.96, which was best in the American League and fourth best in all of baseball.
A few factors contribute to that. For starters, Cobb pitched in hitters parks in Boston and Baltimore and still has had success. Before Tuesday, he had struck out 15 batters in 14⅓ innings while allowing 16 base runners. Sixty-five percent of his contact allowed were ground balls, and even though he’s allowed two home runs, there hasn’t been a ton of damage against him.
This is all, truthfully, what the Orioles signed up for three springs ago when they signed Cobb for a club-record deal for a pitcher. He was this good at the end of 2018, but hasn’t been since. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
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There are plenty of ways to illustrate how different things are when the Orioles bullpen enters the group chat this summer compared to last, but after allowing 126 home runs in relief in 2019, they’ve allowed just six through the first 15 games this summer. That has certainly swung a few games in the Orioles’ direction.
Entering Tuesday, they’ve also cut their relief corps’ walk rate from 10.1% to 8.8%, raised the strikeout rate from 21.3% to 24.8%, and lowered their WHIP from 1.51 to 1.26. It’s all incremental improvement, but the big leaps taken by Miguel Castro, Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong and Evan Phillips, plus the discovery of Cole Sulser, have this group pitching in a much more reliable fashion than a year ago.
It’s basic, but plenty noteworthy that the Orioles’ .770 OPS through the first quarter of the season was second best in the American League and fourth best in baseball. As a team, they’re getting on base at a higher clip and slugging better than in 2019. They also seem to be getting timely hitting, though none of the relevant numbers on that front are too high on the league leaderboard.
They simply seem to be getting their money’s worth every at-bat. And when those get bunched together in the late innings as they have recently, it’s the difference between a one-run inning and a three-run inning. There have been plenty of the latter.
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.
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