It may take organic growth in some key areas of the game for an Orioles roster that looks a lot like last year’s to push past the level they set (83 wins) and achieve their newly stated goal: making the postseason. Having a more consistent offense is one of those areas, and their approach in the season-opening win over Boston Thursday was an early sign that Baltimore’s hitters might be implementing an approach at the plate that will create more runs.

In Sarasota last month, co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller felt a shift in how his group — a mix of veterans and homegrown talents — regarded the team’s hitting program, which emphasizes difficult drill work and only swinging at pitches they can drive in the air.

That training may be starting to resonate. In walking eight times, laying off countless close pitches, and forcing pitchers to come back into the zone to attack them, the Orioles’ hitters proved that the methods Fuller has used the lessons he’s tried to impart could be crystallizing as the games start to count.

“Last year, me and [co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte] coming in, talking more about swing decisions, it seemed like it was a coaches idea,” Fuller said earlier this month.

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But with both young players such as Adley Rutschman and more veteran ones like Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander having success, Fuller has noticed a change in perception.

“It’s now player-driven,” he said. “So, when they come into the cage and they see guys doing different drills sets, it’s curiosity instead of saying, ‘Ah, that’s just coach stuff, that’s not going to translate to the game.’ It’s very player-led now, which I think is going to help us make even more gains.”

Ryan Fuller (72) )poses for a portrait during Photo Day at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on 2/23/23. The Baltimore Orioles’ Spring Training session runs from mid-February through the end of March. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

That might seem like a natural progression, and it’s one the Orioles have benefited from before. Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson were part of the hitting group at their pandemic alternate-site camp in Bowie in 2020, where a minor league hitting program in its infancy introduced swing-decision evaluation and that challenging drill work, including mixed batting practice, where coaches threw changeups and breaking balls in BP sessions to give hitters game-like repetitions.

That pair then went to the fall instructional camp, where a much broader group of Orioles prospects were introduced to the program. When minor league baseball returned in 2021, it was the norm throughout the Orioles’ system, and over the last two years dozens of players credited the swing-decision emphasis and challenging training for advancing their careers.

When Fuller and Borgschulte, who was hired from the Twins organization, took over as co-hitting coaches ahead of the 2022 season at the major league level, they brought that program with them. Some hitters availed themselves to the work and benefited. Santander had a career high 8.5% walk rate and the lowest chase rate of his career, while Mountcastle was his usual aggressive self but improved on the team’s evaluation metrics.

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Rutschman, naturally, required no buy-in. He already had a superlative batting eye and was basically the poster child for its benefits on the farm. As the season progressed Terrin Vavra, Kyle Stowers, and Gunnar Henderson joined the program, too.

Fuller saw in spring training that the year of experience for the younger players and the presence of all the program’s young acolytes made a difference. It showed Thursday in Boston, when the Orioles punished Red Sox starter Corey Kluber and those who followed him out of the bullpen for not being around the strike zone.

Mountcastle and Henderson walked in each of their first two plate appearances, while leadoff man Cedric Mullins walked twice and Adam Frazier and Jorge Mateo each walked once at the bottom of the lineup.

“We had really good at-bats the entire game,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m really happy with our offense today — a bunch of walks, we stole bases, and showed you the kind of offense we can be.”

Rutschman, the star of the day with a historic 5-for-5, featuring a home run and four RBIs, attributed the quality of at-bats to having good plans at the plate. This year, the Orioles are supplementing the instruction skills of Fuller and Borgschulte with offensive strategy coach Cody Asche, a former major leaguer who joined the organization for the 2022 season as their upper-level minor league hitting coordinator.

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Last summer, fellow minor league hitting coordinator Anthony Villa said Asche had elevated the whole farm system’s pregame preparation processes when it comes to studying pitchers, understanding how they attack, and formulating ways for Orioles hitting prospects to defend themselves against the pitchers they faced at their own level and, eventually, in the majors.

There will be nights when the approach they showed Thursday wanes, of course. But with elevated buy-in, more young players who have known nothing but this hitting program graduating to the majors, and further examples of the gains that can be made through swing decision improvements, the potential for significant gains in this team’s consistency on a nightly basis is real.

“We have phenomenal hitting coaches, and I’m excited to see how this year goes,” Rutschman said.

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

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