Jon Meoli: What the Orioles’ top hitters did best this year, and why it matters going forward

Published 10/24/2023 3:04 p.m. EDT, Updated 10/24/2023 3:52 p.m. EDT

Even two weeks out, the recency and sheer disappointment of the Orioles’ improbable fall out of the playoffs still obscures a lot of what was good about the season.

Specifically, an offense that more or less went cold down the stretch and into October had a number of individual performances that not only speak well of the players who had them but for the future as well.

For all of the top Orioles hitters, here’s a facet of the game that they did better than all of their teammates this year, and what that could mean for their careers going forward. (All stats via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.)

Adley Rutschman

Rutschman was the Orioles’ best hitter in a lot of measures this year, with his .352 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 127 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) best among qualifiers on the team. He did so by providing something that few on this team did at a consistently high level: consistency.

For example: a 100 wRC+ is considered league-average, with every point above or below representing one percentage above or below average. Rutschman was at least 15% above average in five of the six months of the season, and that puts him in rare company around the league. Just a handful of stars around baseball had a wRC+ of 115 in that many months (minimum: 85 plate appearance in a month).

In the National League, the three players with six such month reads like a list of MVP candidates in the National League: Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Matt Olson, all with the Atlanta Braves. Rays slugger Yandy Diaz is the only player with six in the American League.

Those with five, along with Rutschman, include Corbin Carroll, Kyle Tucker, Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Isaac Paredes.

That consistency is going to be the bedrock of the Orioles’ offense going forward. Others may have more impactful stretches, but considering the state of production from catchers around the league, Rutschman being able to play as often as he does and be that productive is a major advantage as the Orioles look to build going forward.

Gunnar Henderson

The presumptive American League rookie of the year had one month of the season where things didn’t go well for him, and then the calendar turned to May and basically everything did. Chief among those was Henderson’s success against right-handed pitching. Facing opposite-side pitching, the left-handed hitting Henderson had an .883 OPS and 140 wRC+, both of which were best on the Orioles.

A majority of Henderson’s plate appearances will come against righties going forward, and while there’s certainly upside to what he did as a rookie — 20 players league-wide had a better OPS against righties than he did in 2023 — it’s basically been established that Henderson hits righties extremely well, and that can probably be forecast to continue. His overall offensive production will be determined by how well he adjusts to the added exposure to lefties, but as it stands, Henderson established a clear strength to build off in his first full season.

Anthony Santander #25 of the Baltimore Orioles slides into second base after hitting an RBI triple to score three runs against the Cleveland Guardians during the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 30, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Anthony Santander

To be an Orioles batter these days, and by extension to follow the Orioles, is to view hitting through the prism of swing decisions — which pitches one should or shouldn’t swing at to maximize their potential impact. The Orioles evaluate that from a proprietary standpoint, but MLB’s Statcast data on quantifies it based on expected run value based on pitch zones and whether a batter swung or took a given pitch.

For the second straight year, Santander had the highest such rating among Orioles hitters, with his swing decisions worth 21 expected runs this year — two better than Rutschman’s 19. He didn’t fare particularly well on pitches on the shadow of the strike zone — and really, no Orioles player fares great on those — but his takes outside the zone and his aggression on pitches over the heart of the plate carried him to the top of the club’s leaderboard.

We aren’t talking about elite scores on a leaguewide basis: Santander’s run value this year rates 35th-best in baseball. But it’s his second season leading the Orioles. It shows that players can improve on this front as their careers progress, and more specifically, that Santander is hardly the swing-away slugger you might think.

Ryan Mountcastle

Mountcastle returned from a difficult bout of vertigo completely transformed from a swing decision standpoint, but his greatest strength this year was his dominance of left-handed pitching. The same way Henderson was the top Orioles hitter against righties, Mountcastle was similarly overpowering against lefties with a 1.052 OPS and 185 wRC+. His previous best was .842 and 120, respectively, in 2021.

Sustaining this kind of production against opposite-side pitching isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Mountcastle, considering how the production was backed up by better swing decisions. It was mildly concerning that his production fell against righties in step with this, but overall, Mountcastle showing this capability against lefties creates a scenario where he’s going to play in the majors a long time — not that it was ever really in question. Long and lucrative careers have been built on less.

Austin Hays

An All-Star and Gold Glove finalist, Hays had his most consistent and productive full season at age 27, and did it by cutting down on his chase rate in a manner that likely made the Orioles’ hitting coaches quite happy.

Hays swung at 36.2% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2022, and cut that to 30.9% this year, with the 5.3 percentage point decline representing the largest of any qualified Orioles hitter. Laying off pitches outside the strike zone not only increases the odds of getting one later in an at-bat by creating favorable counts for a hitter, but also gives batters like Hays who have the ability to make contact on all types of pitches the chance to focus on the ones they can do the most damage on. That’s how he ended up as productive as he was this season, particularly in the first half.

The rub here is in the last five years, this has fluctuated pretty significantly for Hays. His chase rate was 30.6% in 2019, then 35.7% in 2020; 29.5% in 2021, then 36.2% in 2022. If he can keep that on the lower end, there’s a higher probability of recreating what he accomplished in 2023.

Cedric Mullins

In what was an uneven offensive year, one in which he was hitting at an All-Star level before his June groin injury and struggled after, Mullins still found himself at the heart of so many big Orioles moments due to what he did in run-scoring situations. Others may have earned more acclaim as run-producers, but Mullins was the best Orioles hitter with runners in scoring position this season, with a 1.025 OPS and 173 wRC+.

By way of raw numbers, in his 123 times at the plate with runners on second and/or third, Mullins came away with 33 hits and drove in a team-high 64 runs in those circumstances. There’s a reason it felt like many of the team’s most clutch hits belonged to him. He came through in those spots often.

As for what it means, it’s Mullins’ second straight year of above-average production with runners in scoring position despite not being his best offensive self in either. When he was an All-Star in 2021, he had a .644 OPS with runners in scoring position. As that 2021 season recedes further into the rear view, Mullins being able to still come through in big moments for the Orioles will lessen the impact of what could be a broader decline.

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