In between the Orioles’ early-May visit to and mid-June visit from the Kansas City Royals sits a 31-game stretch against opponents who, the thinking goes, are of the quality to truly test whether this team is as good as its record says it is.
Monday’s off-day sat basically in the middle of that span, and returns so far are promising. The Orioles are 10-6 in 16 games against the Braves, Rays, Pirates, Angels and Blue Jays, with three-game sets on deck with the Yankees (in New York, starting tonight), Rangers, Guardians, Giants and Brewers.
As high stakes as Sunday’s series finale in Toronto felt, the Orioles had already won the series on the road, so to achieve the sweep was more of a bonus than a statement. It really only represented the same thing as the preceding nine wins in this stretch, or the 30 wins this year that preceded it: a tick in the win column, one of the 90 or so that will likely be required for the Orioles to break a playoff drought that stretches to 2016.
They can essentially play .500 baseball the rest of the way and get close to that — with 115 games remaining, to go 58-57 the rest of the way would get them to 89.
This stretch, however, was touted as one that could help determine whether they can pull it off. Halfway through this run, it feels a lot more like a snapshot of this club’s strengths and weaknesses rather than any kind of forecast of what will happen going forward. Here’s why.
These two-plus weeks have been a test the Orioles’ pitchers have largely passed. The staff as a whole has a 3.03 ERA since the Braves series began May 5, making the Orioles the best in baseball in that stretch, albeit with a 3.98 FIP that suggests there’s been some good fortune baked in.
Both the favorable outcomes and the good fortune are illustrated within the rotation. The group deserves credit for its consistency; Dean Kremer’s quality start on May 5 was the first of seven in this 16-game span, and the Orioles had just six in the first 31 games of the season. The rotation’s general lack of strikeout prowess means the expected stats suffer some, as their 3.21 ERA in this span is backed up by a 4.32 FIP and the rotation’s 1.24 WHIP since May 5 is middle of the pack.
Same goes for the bullpen, which has a 2.76 ERA in that span with a league-best 10.9 strikeouts per nine and a 1.30 WHIP to go with a 3.46 FIP.
What has set them apart? FanGraphs has categorized 89 of the plate appearances in this span as high leverage. Orioles pitchers have struck out 33 of those hitters and allowed just 14 runs (11 earned). With two outs and runners in scoring position, they’ve allowed just 11 hits and struck out 21 in 68 such plate appearances. All those rank near the top of the league during this stretch.
Credit goes a few places here. Late in the game, it goes to Brandon Hyde for inserting relievers with favorable matchups. Overall, it represents a success for the pitchers’ ability to execute the game plans the team has.
Unfortunately, such outperformance in these leverage situations versus expectations is hard to model, hard to predict and hard to sustain. That was the case during the lockdown bullpen days of the mid-2010s Orioles and is true now, so any disconnect between the team we see on the field winning more often than they lose and the projection systems that dampen the Orioles’ playoff chances stems from this. At some point, it might reverse. But every win earned this way counts and gets the Orioles closer to their playoff goal.
It is at once a beauty and a flaw of the Orioles in this stretch and through this whole year that the team’s offense has produced as much as it has without ever really giving off the feeling that there were more than two or three hitters truly locked in at a given time.
That’s an upgrade from this time last year where it might have only felt like one player at a time was going.
Cedric Mullins hit for the cycle when the Orioles beat Pittsburgh on May 12, then had a five-hit game Sunday. Austin Hays has two three-hit games and three-more multi-hit games in this span. Anthony Santander began this run with a two-homer game in Atlanta on May 5 and has five total in this tough stretch. Adley Rutschman has had a ho-hum .788 OPS while playing every day of this run.
Even without Ryan Mountcastle or Gunnar Henderson performing up to their potential and Jorge Mateo’s production cratering, there’s an Oriole able to carry the load every night, to say nothing of the little surge Adam Frazier has enjoyed and the contributions from Ryan McKenna and Ryan O’Hearn in limited roles.
Taken together, it amounts to a 100 wRC+ since May 5 — which is exactly the league’s average. Again, this seems like an area where it’s more of an indicator of where they are or where they can be. There have been meaningful swing decision improvements from Mullins and Hays that suggest their strong performance can continue, while all of Santander, Mountcastle and Henderson seem like they have better ahead of them.
To be able to win 10 of 16 against this kind of competition requires the right mix of carrying performances and timely hitting, yes, but all they need is more than their opponents on a given night. They’ve won scoring five or more runs six times while losing one such game, and won half of the six games they’ve been held to three runs or fewer.
More so than at any other point since the Orioles were last relevant, these hitters at least seem to broadly understand what’s required of them on a nightly basis and how to achieve it. Whether that carries is hard to say, but again, these wins count. And with half of this challenging chunk of their schedule remaining, continuing to do so will have a significant influence on whether the Orioles’ playoff goals can be achieved.