In recent years, the Baltimore Orioles have generally been synonymous with historically bad baseball. The team had a nice five-season run from 2012 to 2016, averaging 89 wins a year and making three playoff appearances, but things fell off quickly as stars aged and franchise cornerstone Manny Machado was traded before he could hit free agency. As has been the case with too many MLB organizations lately, the Orioles’ response to this was to pivot toward a full tear-down.
After a 52-win campaign in 2021, the outlook for this season remained bleak. Our preseason Elo forecast system, which bakes in some regression to the mean, pegged the 2022 Orioles for a meager 62 wins. But Baltimore has exceeded expectations more and more as the season has progressed. While the team was well below .500 (35-44) on July 2, that 72-win pace was itself a vast improvement over both the projections and last year’s record. And then the team proceeded to go on a spectacular run, winning 10 games in a row. When the dust settled, their record was 45-44, the first time since September 2017 that they were above .500 this late in the season.
It’s clear that the current brand of Orioles baseball represents a team on the rise, though it is also reasonable to write off their winning streak as a fluke. After all, only one of the 10 games in Baltimore’s streak was played against a winning team. But fluke or not, the O’s are, through games of July 25, just 3½ games back in the American League wild card race, thanks to an expanded playoff format which allows an extra team in each league to enter the postseason. All of which begs the question: Are the Orioles a legitimate playoff contender? While the answer may not be a clear-cut yes, it is closer than one might think.
Let’s first address the elephant in the room. In order for the Orioles to make the playoffs, they will need to hurdle three teams, one of which is in their own division — the ultra-competitive AL East. Making matters worse, Baltimore doesn’t have the same star power as the teams ahead of them. But the O’s have earned their spot in this race all the same, and not just on the basis of a few hot weeks. In fact, looking at their record by month, their turnaround began long before their recent win streak.
In the nearly three months of baseball since May 1, they have had the third-best record in the AL. If it weren’t for their one bad month at the season’s outset, the O’s would be solidly in the playoff picture, rather than at its periphery. Their schedule has been far from a walk in the park, either: Thus far, they have faced MLB’s most difficult set of opponents this season according to Elo. Their solid stretch since the beginning of May includes series wins over strong teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox, as well as series splits against the Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians.
Even by Pythagorean winning percentage, which estimates a team’s winning percentage based on how many runs it scored and allowed, the Orioles are just about as good as their record during this time frame suggests. Along with the AL’s third-best record since May 1, the Orioles also have the league’s sixth-best Pythagorean record with a .526 mark. Over a 162-game season, this represents an 84-win pace.
What has guided the Orioles’ fast turnaround? Well, it is certainly not the team’s offense, which ranks 22nd with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark of 94 (where 100 is league average). Rather, it has been their superb bullpen, which is third in the league in ERA and ranks second in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement.
One of the pitchers leading the charge is veteran reclamation project Jorge López, who has increased his sinker velocity by more than two miles per hour this season. A former starter with the Brewers and Royals, López carried a career ERA of over 6 and a strikeout rate of just 19 percent before 2022. But as the team’s closer this year, he owns a pristine 1.59 ERA and is striking out over 28 percent of the batters he faces. Not to be outdone, rookie setup man Félix Bautista has been just as good. One of baseball’s hardest throwers, Bautista has a deadly three-pitch arsenal, and his fastball is the best in baseball by a considerable margin in terms of vertical movement.
And it’s not just those two who are pitching quality relief innings. Entering play on Tuesday, four other members of the Orioles bullpen — Dillon Tate, Cionel Pérez, Joey Krehbiel and Keegan Akin — all had ERAs of 2.62 or better.
Then there’s the man crouched behind the plate to receive their pitches, catcher Adley Rutschman. Rutschman was the organization’s best prospect (and second-best in baseball overall) going into 2022, according to MLB.com. Since he was called up on May 21, Baltimore has gone 32-24 — a 93-win pace per 162 games.
Rutschman, while only appearing in 50 games through July 25, has fit right in as a big-leaguer. From the day of his major league debut onward, he has been baseball’s sixth-best catcher with 1.7 WAR. In his short career so far, Rutschman has already established himself as one of the game’s better pitch-framers at the position, one of its best throwers and an above-average hitter, too, owning a 115 wRC+ mark.
Certainly there were very few people who thought the Orioles were supposed to be any good this year. But general manager Mike Elias may have had an idea. In an interview from 2021 regarding the team’s trade deadline plans, he indicated that while he received many calls about players such as breakout star Cedric Mullins and rotation ace John Means, they “are here for a long time.” Elias’s eye for holding onto the right building blocks, as well as building at least two of baseball’s best farm systems, are exactly the reasons he was brought into the fold in Baltimore.
Elias, of course, was the assistant general manager of the Houston Astros, he was credited with scouting and drafting stars such as Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Lance McCullers Jr. That Astros team was also historically awful in the early 2010s … until it wasn’t. Within four seasons of winning an Orioles-like 51 games in 2013, Houston had won 101 (and a World Series). After Baltimore hired him away in 2018, he brought Sig Mejdal with him to focus on the analytical side of things.
All of which is to say that an eventual return to winning for the Orioles should not have been completely unexpected, even if it did happen more quickly than anybody predicted.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.