From the start of the season, when the Orioles were lobbing their first warm-up tosses of the spring in February, Baltimore fans looked at the roster and said the same thing.
This year will be rough. It won’t be about wins and losses. It’s going to be about improvement.
Well, as the season enters its homestretch, it’s hard not to call that mission accomplished at the plate — a small mission, mind you, but a mission nonetheless.
In the second half of the season, the Orioles have improved across the board offensively. At the beginning of the season, the O’s were dead last in pitching, and they didn’t have much of an offense to go with it.
The pitching has remained miserable, and remains by far the biggest reason the Orioles have already reached 100 losses while it’s still technically summer, but the hitting has moved towards respectable since the All-Star Game. The Birds are not the mid-90s Colorado Rockies, but some of the jumps even by modest standards have been impressive.
The Orioles’ ratio stats are all up, from batting average (26th in the majors at .240 in the first half, 14th at .254 in the second) to slugging (25th at .402 to 19th at .424) to OPS (27th at .704 to 20th at .741). So are the cumulative stats compared to the rest of the league, including home runs (23rd to 16th), RBI (28th to 16th), runs (26th to 18th) and hits (22nd to 15th).
At least on offense, the Orioles have been better than their record of 49-101, second-worst in all of baseball, would suggest, and the stats indicate something anyone watching them has been seeing for themselves.
Offensively speaking, the Orioles, especially of late, have found some players that can swing the bat.
A case-by-case look reveals as much. As the season has gone on and ineffective players have been shuffled out while effective ones have settled into spots in the lineup and everyday roles, legitimate hitters and potential contributors to future lineups have emerged.
Jonathan Villar and Trey Mancini were the only known commodities coming into this year — and including Mancini in that description might be a stretch — but both have done their part in carrying the club. Villar, with a .276 average, .794 OPS, 21 home runs and 35 stolen bases, has been one of the best power and speed combinations in the game. Mancini, with a .278 average, .867 OPS, 32 home runs and 83 RBI, has been a middle-of-the-lineup bat even your World Series hopefuls would gladly take.
What should have Orioles fans feeling confident, however, is how some of the young, unproven players on which the club rolled the dice have come through. Renato Nunez, 25, will almost assuredly be a 30-homer hitter by the time the season is through. Anthony Santander, 24, is batting .270 and will likely reach 20 home runs after only playing 28 games in the first half of the season. Pedro Severino (.775 OPS), 26, has hardly been a hole in the lineup.
And then, of course, there’s Hanser Alberto, 26, who started only 67 of 89 games in the first half but has seen his role as an everyday, every-inning player defined in the second. With a .317 average and historic success against left-handed pitching and on the road, he’s been perhaps the find of the season — in Baltimore or elsewhere.
Dragging the Orioles’ numbers down to the high teens and 20s are the players the team has had to put in the lineup and that never figured out how to hit — Richie Martin, Stevie Wilkerson and the Ghost of Chris Davis — but the end result is a team that, each night, is turning in a lineup with players in six of nine spots that can be expected to come through with a big day at the plate or a hit in a big spot in the game.
This isn’t often the case for teams seemingly headed for 105-110 losses. Normally in those cases, the lineup looks the way Baltimore’s rotation has looked: a bunch of overwhelmed AAAA players or washed-up veterans who are laboring through the season because the team either let its core decay (see, the 2018 Orioles) or is just looking for stopgaps until the real prospects come through.
In Baltimore, however, the 2019 season has been revealing some hitters who have earned the right to stick around and be part of something better going forward. Alberto, Santander, Nunez and Severino are all under contract for next year and beyond, and the team should feel good about going into next year with them along with Villar and Mancini, provided none of them get traded for prospects along the way.
Make no mistake, the focus has been on the help that’s on the way, the Ryan Mountcastles and Adley Rutschmans in the organization. But Baltimore’s stronger second half at the plate has revealed some players who can stick around until they arrive, and perhaps stay in the mix even afterward.