It’s considered bad form around baseball to ascribe much meaning to what happens in April.
Try telling that to anyone with even a modestly strong opinion about the Orioles, who at 19-9 just wrapped up their winningest April ever. The same way they say Mona Lisa is staring straight at you no matter where in the room you stand, these Orioles spent all of April affirming pretty much any belief one could have had before the season began.
They won far more than they lost, and did so looking the skeptics and believers alike dead in the eyes, nodding and smiling. This is what they are. This is what they’ll continue to be. So whether you’re looking at them side-eyed, still wondering whether a big-ticket offseason addition or two would have put this team over the top, or wide-eyed and grinning at this incredibly enjoyable team of homegrown players with more on the horizon, these Mona Lisa O’s are meeting your gaze right back.
Most of the reason why is because this is largely the same team as last year.
That’s a main pillar of the skeptic’s case, and it stems from the idea that enhancing that roster with a big-ticket acquisition or two, instead of simply raising the floor in a couple spots, would have made a start like this seam more legitimate. Just like last year’s team rode Adley Rutschman’s nascent greatness and spells of lineup-carrying production from a half-dozen individuals at one point or another, this team’s has already had a handful of heroes coalesce around the consistent strength of their catcher. On the mound, they’ve pitched well enough to stay in pretty much every game — though that’s a moving target from night to night and the breadth of such a statement hides some consistency issues in the rotation.
In both good and bad ways, though, there are differences. Most notable early are the outperformers. And when trying to make sense of significant improvements on the Orioles’ farm, I often fall back on one specific criteria: Was there a meaningful change that led to it?
For two Orioles who best fit this category so far this season — Jorge Mateo and Yennier Cano — the answer is yes. Mateo, the Orioles’ dynamic shortstop, changed his swing to ditch his leg lift and spent April driving the ball with consistency he’s never seen before. Cano built on an impressive spring training and, under the watch of Triple-A pitching coach Justin Ramsey in Norfolk, refined his delivery to make it repeatable and help him throw more strikes. The only blemish on his line since joining the Orioles mid-month is a hit-by-pitch over 11 dominant innings.
On the other side, it’s jarring to see Anthony Santander and Gunnar Henderson coming in as the Orioles’ worst-performing regulars. The Orioles likely had 30-something home runs penciled in from Santander, and while there’s very little difference in his hard-contact rates so far this season, he’s clearly not as on-time as he is at his best and the results aren’t there. Henderson is walking a lot, but struggling with major league caliber breaking balls — he entered Sunday whiffing on over half the breaking balls he was offered.
Similarly, there hasn’t been much consistency between Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer, a pair of pitchers from whom much was expected this season. The flashes of their best make it clear what’s possible, but the urgency to make a change isn’t as strong as it was for Cole Irvin, who made three poor starts and was sent to the minors.
That’s because Kyle Gibson has been the steadying force he was signed to be, Tyler Wells leads all of baseball with a 0.74 WHIP, and Grayson Rodriguez has taken a regular turn in the rotation and is getting better with every start.
Rodriguez’s success, and more broadly the potential that he will not be the only top prospect making a significant impact on this team, are probably the largest variables remaining. The middle class of this roster is steady enough to keep things on track. Cano and Mateo may regress, and Santander may find his stroke to add a force to the middle of the lineup, but those rookies could do anything — provided there’s a place for them.
Rodriguez needed Bradish to be hit with a line drive on his foot to get his. Others have been relegated to smaller roles, like DL Hall with his relief cameo Saturday and the bit roles for Kyle Stowers and Joey Ortiz so far.
If anything, that’s the challenging part about believing in this team’s ability to sustain and build on this hot start: the unknowns. No one denies the talent on their farm, but it’s another thing entirely to break it into the majors and benefit from it.
What’s more known are the cold, unforgiving numbers. The Orioles enter May, despite having baseball’s third-best record, with a 31% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. The site’s forecasts project the Orioles to have a .472 winning percentage the rest of the way. That would still bring them above .500 to end the season, but not into the playoffs.
Part of that has to do with themselves. The wins from April are banked, but the historical precedents and millions of data points these kinds of projections are built on don’t change with four weeks of games.
There are also some external factors. For all the talk of the balanced schedule helping the Orioles, they have the highest remaining-opponent winning percentage in baseball at .514. Once this three-game set in Kansas City is finished, they’ll have already the played 19 of their 30 scheduled games against six of the worst teams in baseball: the Athletics, Royals, White Sox, Rockies, Tigers, and Nationals.
To their credit, they’re 13-3 against those teams so far this season. Some of those wins, be they comebacks or shutouts or dominant bullpen displays, may not carry against a better team. But they made April one of the more enjoyable Orioles-watching months in recent memory.
By doing so, they captured plenty of hearts along the way. As for the minds? It might be a while before they change any of those.