MILWAUKEE — In the major leagues, 60 games is still a relatively unreliable sample size.
Great players have had unspectacular 60-game stretches, and bad ones have put up stellar stats across that sample. Just a few years ago, however, 60 games was all there was.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball held a 60-game season, in which the rebuilding Orioles went 25-35 before losing 110 games in 2021. For the Orioles in 2020, José Iglesias hit .373, Renato Núñez was on a full-season pace to hit 32 home runs and Chance Sisco had a better OPS than Austin Hays.
Given those examples, it’s safe to assume the numbers the Orioles have put up thus far — whether good or bad — are far from set in stone. Through 60 games this year, Baltimore is 37-23 — 12 games better than its start in 2022 and its first time above .500 at this point since 2017.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing can be gleaned from the first two-plus months of the season. Here’s a look at some of what we learned about the Orioles through 60 games.
Kyle Gibson is who the Orioles thought he was.
Gibson isn’t the ace fans wanted, but he’s the No. 1 pitcher the Orioles sought this offseason.
With a young rotation, Baltimore signed the 35-year-old veteran to a $10 million contract to stabilize its pitching staff. He’s done just that.
His 76 2/3 innings lead the team and puts him on pace for 189 this season — a number that would be the most by an Orioles starter since Wei-Yin Chen in 2015 (191 1/3). Gibson has pitched five or more innings in all but one of his 13 starts, including seven innings a team-high three times.
His underlying numbers aren’t sparkling, but that was to be expected for a pitch-to-contact innings-eater. Entering Tuesday, his 15.9% strikeout rate was more than six percentage points worse than league average and ranked 65th out of 69 qualified starting pitchers.
But Gibson has either earned the win or allowed three or fewer runs in 10 of his 13 starts, and he’s induced more than twice as many double plays (14) as he’s surrendered home runs (six).
Prospects rarely come up and dominate right away …
The start to the season is chock-full of positives. Grayson Rodriguez’s overall performance isn’t one of them.
The top pitching prospect in baseball struggled in his 10 starts with the Orioles before he was optioned to Triple-A in late May. He showed glimpses of the stuff that garnered him praise throughout his minor league career, but he wasn’t able to string together positive outings. He posted a 7.35 ERA and 1.74 WHIP with the Orioles before the demotion.
But the fact that Rodriguez struggled in his first stint in the big leagues isn’t a surprise. Many star pitchers had similar stumbles out the gate, and most of the Orioles’ rotation did, too. Other top prospects who made their debuts this season also didn’t have it easy; New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe is hitting .191, and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jordan Walker was demoted in late April before just recently being recalled.
… but giving Gunnar Henderson time has paid off.
Sometimes, though, patience is rewarded when dealing with a struggling young player, and it seems as if that’s been the case with the Orioles’ strategy with Henderson.
The 21-year-old rookie has spent most of the season hitting below .200, but he’s rewarded the organization for sticking with him as he dealt with difficulties through the first six weeks of the year.
Henderson, who entered the season as the consensus No. 1 prospect in the sport and the favorite for American League Rookie of the Year, was hitting .170 with a .651 OPS through May 12. But in his 19 games since, Henderson has hit .254 with eight extra-base hits and an .810 OPS, including one of his biggest hits as a big leaguer, a go-ahead solo home run in the seventh inning of Baltimore’s 3-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Friday.
The Orioles’ bullpen (mostly) isn’t regressing.
Few contenders have used their relievers more than the Orioles, and for good reason.
Baltimore’s bullpen ERA ranks fifth in the majors at 3.38. The only team with a better mark and more relief innings than the Orioles’ 229 1/3 are the Yankees, who own the sport’s best bullpen ERA at 2.82 in 236 innings.
Last season, Baltimore’s relievers played a vital part in its turnaround, finishing ninth in bullpen ERA. With most of the club’s relievers being outcasts or inexperienced arms, the unit was expected by some to regress in 2023. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case.
Closer Félix Bautista has been even better with a sparkling 1.24 ERA and a whopping 50.4% strikeout rate. Bryan Baker has struggled lately, but his 3.81 ERA is only narrowly higher than his 2022 average and his 30.3% strikeout rate is up about four percentage points. Newcomer Danny Coulombe has been a pleasant surprise after an under-the-radar trade at the end of spring training, as the left-hander has posted a 2.01 ERA and career-high 34.7% strikeout rate. And who could forget about Yennier Cano, who burst onto the scene in mid-April and has been one of the best relievers in the major leagues.
The one reliever who has struggled for the majority of the season is the one whom regression was most expected. Cionel Pérez has allowed 32 hits in 21 innings with a 4.71 ERA after being one of the most effective left-handers in the majors last season with a 1.40 ERA and 7.2 hits-per-nine-innings.
With a rotation that ranks in the bottom 10 in innings, steady performance from the Orioles’ bullpen is required if they’re going to make a playoff push.
Tyler Wells deserved his spot in the rotation.
Entering spring training, it was assumed that Rodriguez would make the opening day rotation, leaving Wells as the odd-man out and pushing him back into the bullpen.
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But after Rodriguez struggled and was sent to Triple-A (before shortly being promoted because of an injury to Kyle Bradish), Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Wells earned the job. He’s proved so far that he deserved his spot in this rotation all along.
Wells has been Baltimore’s best starting pitcher this year with a staff-best 3.29 ERA as well as the most effective starter in the majors at preventing batters from reaching base. His 0.849 WHIP leads all qualified starting pitchers and is significantly lower than his 1.138 WHIP last season. He’s gone five or more innings in all of his 11 starts and surrendered more than four runs just once.
Recently, the most impressive part of Wells’ performance are his strikeout numbers. After striking out just 18% of batters last year, Wells has improved that to an above-average 26.6%. On Sunday, he struck out nine batters for his fifth straight start with seven or more punchouts, joining Erik Bedard as the only Orioles pitchers to achieve the feat since 1957.
The Orioles are playoff contenders.
Making the playoffs is the team’s stated goal.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, although owning the third-best record in the major leagues certainly has the arrow pointing in the right direction. But at 14 games over .500 and in second place in the AL East, it’s hard to imagine this team not, at the very least, contending for a playoff spot in September.
Despite the success, the season has been hardly perfect. The starters rarely go deep into games, the offense simmered significantly after a torrid April and players such as Jorge Mateo, Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías are in the middle of slumps. And the run differential — plus-29 — has an expected record of four games worse than the Orioles’ current mark, suggesting perhaps Baltimore has been fortunate thus far.
But, if the season ended after 60 games as it did three years ago, the Orioles would be in the playoffs. Whether that’s the case after 162 remains to be seen.