The first 19 days of the Orioles’ season have been hectic, and with Sunday’s win against the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore has played 10% of the season. More precisely, the Orioles have played 9.88% of the season, but it’s close enough.
In those first 16 games, the Orioles (9-7) have shown an offensive firepower worthy of the postseason aspirations with which they entered the season. Baltimore has scored just seven more runs than its opposition, though, because of a pitching staff that has proven hit-and-miss. And with a few costly defensive gaffes, there’s still room to grow as the season progresses.
Manager Brandon Hyde said, “We still have 90% to go, and I think we’re going to continue to improve.”
Let’s take a look at how the Orioles have done thus far. Here are the facets of the club that are above, meeting or below expectations to this point.
Last season, shortstop Jorge Mateo showed his worth on the basepaths and in the field. He led the American League in steals with 35, alongside center fielder Cedric Mullins. And while he didn’t earn a Gold Glove award, he was absolutely worthy of one.
Perhaps all that held Mateo back was his production at the plate, but early in 2023, Mateo has found a rhythm that’s encouraging. Mateo is hitting .372 — the highest average of Orioles with at least 20 plate appearances — with a 1.083 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He popped his third homer of the year during the series against the White Sox, and his hard-hit percentage has steadily risen.
In his last four starts, Mateo has recorded five of the seven hardest-hit balls of his major league career.
“Just focusing on the little things, honestly,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “Trying not to move too much, trying to focus on barreling the ball and doing those little things and hoping they work out.”
While the bullpen as a whole has taken a step back from the heights of 2022, two pitchers in particular have especially stood out.
Left-hander Danny Coulombe, who was claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Twins right before the season began, is no longer an unknown commodity. Coulombe has pitched in 6 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and one run with no walks and 10 strikeouts. The 33-year-old holds a 0.450 WHIP.
And right-hander Mike Baumann, who was a rotation candidate but has since moved to a relief role, has covered 9 1/3 innings with just one run against him. He’s walked five batters, but Baumann has avoided damage and can provide length, and he’s doing it in a role that wasn’t his focus entering spring training.
At any point during a season, an offense will have those who scuffle. But the Orioles’ lineup overall has produced when needed; their 91 RBIs are the second most in the league, and their 24 steals (eight from Mateo and Mullins, respectively) are also second-most in the majors entering Monday.
“I think our offense so far this season has really showed a lot of capability of staying in games, regardless of what the situation looks like,” Mullins said.
What catcher Adley Rutschman has done so far this season is impressive. Right-hander Tyler Wells recently called him “Superman,” and Hyde has lauded Rutschman’s ability to come through in big moments.
But Rutschman was also expected to be this good — which doesn’t minimize what he’s done, but reinforces the hype around the 2019 first-overall selection in the draft. Rutschman leads the majors with 16 walks and is hitting .344 with a 1.054 OPS.
Rutschman, a switch-hitter, has also improved against left-handed pitching, blasting a homer from the right side of the plate as part of his four long balls so far. Last year, he hit .174 with a .552 OPS against southpaws. This year, in a smaller sample size, his average as a right-handed batter is .350 with a .980 OPS.
Rutschman’s walk-off homer won a series against the Oakland Athletics on Thursday, and then he came back Friday in Chicago with a bases-clearing double to seal a win there, too.
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle is also growing into his potential. Last year, he was one of the unluckiest players in baseball, with an expected slugging percentage of .509 compared to his .423 mark. Plus, the deeper left field fence at Camden Yards hampered some of his right-handed power at home.
Despite a .217 average this season, Mountcastle’s power numbers have taken an immediate step forward. He has clubbed six homers and driven in 20 RBIs (the latter of which leads the majors), with the bulk of those coming last week in a nine-RBI performance against the Athletics.
Closer Félix Bautista burst onto the scene last year with a devastating splitter to record 15 saves for Baltimore, and he has maintained that success early this year. In 7 2/3 innings, he has allowed one earned run and has closed four games. His splitter, if possible, has only seemed to improve.
And at 9-7 overall entering Tuesday’s matchup with the Washington Nationals, the Orioles are about where they expected themselves to be. They’re competitive in every game, and if they keep that up, they could be in the postseason picture by year’s end.
“Can’t remember a game that hasn’t been close,” Hyde said. “So I think that’s going to go well for us, playing in the kind of games we’re playing in.”
Room for improvement
Beyond right-handers Tyler Wells and Kyle Gibson, no other starting pitcher has recorded an out in the sixth inning this year. That’s a problem — and a key area for improvement.
The obvious candidates for a step forward include right-hander Dean Kremer, who has allowed 13 runs in 12 1/3 innings; left-hander Cole Irvin, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after three lackluster starts that featured 15 runs in 12 2/3 innings; and, in a lesser sense, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. Rodriguez has impressed in 11 1/3 innings, but nine of the 11 runs against him have come in three standalone innings.
Baltimore’s team starting pitching ERA is 6.75, the second-worst mark in baseball. The rotation was an area the Orioles sought to improve this offseason, and while Gibson has been passable — if not yet the innings-eater he aims to be — Irvin’s addition hasn’t reaped benefits so far.
The lack of lengthy outings from starting pitchers has added pressure to a bullpen that has regressed from last year, at least early. The 65 2/3 innings relievers have covered for Baltimore are the third most in the majors.
Among those to have regressed are right-hander Austin Voth and left-hander Cionel Pérez. Voth allowed a home run in each of his first five appearances before breaking the streak Sunday with a clean inning that included two strikeouts. Pérez held a 1.40 ERA in 2022, becoming one of the Orioles’ most trustworthy high-leverage arms, but in 7 2/3 innings this year, opponents are batting .432 against him.
“On the mound, we’ve had our moments, but I think we can continue to improve,” Hyde said. “And I think we have some room to grow defensively, also. We can get back to that defensive club we were last year.”
Infielder Gunnar Henderson and outfielder Anthony Santander both began their seasons in slumps, but the signs of a breakout are there. Santander clubbed his first homer this weekend and added an RBI single Sunday to bring his average to .193, and Henderson went 2-for-4 on Sunday, bringing his average to .178. Henderson, in particular, still got on base at a .373 clip because of his 13 walks in 14 games.
Of course, this is all early. The season is only 10% old — or actually 9.88%. There’s still plenty of time for the full picture of the 2023 season to take form.