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A quarter of the way into the season, the Orioles are in a playoff spot

If today’s standings hold for the rest of the season, the Orioles would make the playoffs. I know, it’s really weird.

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Baltimore Orioles v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

As spring training began six months that felt like six years ago, one thing that “everyone” knew about the coming baseball season is that the Orioles would be very bad. The reason for this near-universal belief was a simple one: The Orioles were bad in 2019 and over the offseason only acted in ways that, on paper, made them even worse. It’s a good way to have everyone expect that you will end up in last place.

In the early days of spring training, before anyone had any reason to think there would be anything weird about the 2020 baseball season, the Orioles had a 0.0% chance to make the postseason on Fangraphs. No permutation of possible events that registered with their simulations would have gotten the Orioles into the playoffs.

Even once the 60-game schedule solidified, with all the possibilities for things to get weird over a shortened season, the Orioles only had a 0.2% chance of making it into the postseason from that same Fangraphs prediction. The 11th hour expansion of the postseason from five teams per league to eight got them up to a 1.4% chance. This was not a team expected for anything other than contention for the #1 draft pick in 2021.

The 2020 Orioles who have showed up to play the first quarter of their schedule have, at least early on, had some different ideas. They are, amazingly, still above .500 at this point. If the standings from right now hold for the other 75% of the season, they’d qualify in the eighth and last postseason spot for the American League, set to play a best-of-three against the Athletics in Oakland.

The performance has not done much to persuade the Fangraphs algorithm, where the O’s have now have an 8.9% postseason chance. At Baseball Reference, where their simulation “takes into account the last 100 regular season games,” it’s much more generous to the Orioles. There, they have a 40.7% chance at one of the eight playoff spots. Even so, that’s more likely than not that the O’s will miss out.

This is also not much of a surprise. If anyone really believed the Orioles were most likely to continue flirting with being historically terrible, 15 games shouldn’t change their mind. Perhaps it will still end up going that way. For now, the Orioles are batting .260/.331/.457 as a team. That’s the best batting average and slugging percentage in the American League, and second-best in on-base percentage. Individual stats from Sunday’s suspended game are included.

Although there’s been an offensive explosion for the Orioles, this has not been matched across the league. Just yesterday, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris wrote an article asking where the offense has gone, noting that the league is on pace to set a new record for lowest batting average ever, as well as on pace for a 13th consecutive season of record-setting league-wide strikeouts.

Probably this trend will end up catching up to the Orioles. Still, it’s interesting that so far it hasn’t. Things going well for even as much 25% of the season is not something that many would have predicted, even among the most die-hard optimists in Birdland. Their hitters have the fourth-lowest strikeout rate among all MLB teams. There are a number of familiar faces in this lineup and so far a lot of them are performing better than we’ve seen before.

The other interesting thing about the Orioles success so far is that three of their best-performing hitters are at the “magic number” age. That’s 26, which I think of as the magic number because of an impression I get from reading everything Mike Elias says that this is the point where he thinks if a player who has scuffled is going to click, they will do it.

This happened to Elias in Houston when the Astros gave up on J.D. Martinez before the 2014 season, when Martinez was 26, and then Martinez went to Detroit and batted .315/.358/.553 over the 2014 season and .300/.362/.574 from 2014-17. Before 2014, he was nothing. He’d batted .251/.300/.387 in three seasons before that. Then, suddenly he was something.

The 26-year-old Orioles hitters who’ve starred over the first quarter of the 2020 season are Renato Nunez, Rio Ruiz, and Pedro Severino. When Nunez hits the ball, he hits it with authority. In the Statcast-measured “barrel” percentage, signifying when a player really squares up on a ball, Nunez is in the 83rd percentile of all hitters. Severino is in the 69th percentile, and rates in the 83rd percentile for expected slugging percentage.

Ruiz, who’s only played in ten games to date, is even higher than these. His exit velocity is 85th percentile and he’s in the 92nd percentile for barrels. When these guys really hit the baseball, they’re hitting it hard, and maybe it’s a fluke and maybe it’s something that’s sunk in after 18 months of hearing the message of Elias-led analytics relayed through Brandon Hyde’s coaching staff. Maybe the potential that got these guys to MLB to begin with, but was un-met enough for them to end up on the Orioles, is arriving.

There’s still plenty of reason to think this team will fall apart eventually. I think even Tuesday’s exciting win showed some of that. If the bullpen is going to be relying on guys like Miguel Castro and Cole Sulser, sometimes that will result in the Orioles getting burned. The offense inexplicably vanished for three of the four games against the Marlins. But again, it’s interesting that they won that Tuesday game. It was one of “those” games and the Orioles still won.

When I say “those” games, I mean the ones that were all-too-familiar during the 14 consecutive losing seasons. Stupid things happen and the Orioles lose. Except sometimes, if the team is better than people have realized, they don’t. The ultimate of “those” games was from 2012, when Chris Davis pitched. It felt like there were a million ways the Orioles should have lost, especially once Davis took the mound, and yet, Matt Wieters got the relay and tagged out Marlon Byrd and then grinned as he flipped up his mitt to show the ball to the umpire. Then the O’s took the lead and they won.

The 2020 season is young and the Orioles have already won at least two of “those” games. The 11-inning affair with the Rays a week and a half ago was one of “those” - and the Orioles ended up making history by being the first MLB team to ever get an inning-starting double play, and later they won the game when Pat Valaika got a walkoff while debuting a delightful socially distanced walkoff win celebration.

Tuesday against the Phillies was one of “those” too: The bullpen stunk, but then the easy infield pop-up fell in the one time in a million the infield fails to get an easy pop-up, and two runs scored for the Orioles. In extra innings, an unfortunately-timed (for the Phillies) outfielder dive turned into the first Orioles inside-the-park home run in nine years, and they made us sweat in the bottom of the inning but they still won.

Relative to preseason expectations, the Orioles might well be the biggest positive surprise so far in this strange 2020 season. Probably this won’t last, but it’s been fun so far and it’ll keep being fun as long as the Orioles hold on to a playoff spot.