Q: What do you get when you take one of the worst teams in history, subtract their two best hitters and their most dependable starter, trade their most reliable reliever midway through the season, and leave their highest-paid player sitting on the bench?
A: The 2020 Orioles, a ragtag bunch of nobodies currently in the playoff hunt, that’s who!
Look, the shortened 2020 season is only a fourth of the way through, and no one will be surprised if the bubble pops and these renegade Orioles fall back to earth. But that’s OK. Because for the last two weeks, this team has been playing some of the best baseball the Baltimore fanbase has seen in, say, the last four years?
It’s all the more fun because the building blocks of this team are pretty much the same as those of the team that went 54-108 last season. There are new faces like Travis Lakins, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, José Iglesias, Pat Valaika and Andrew Velazquez. But that bunch, at a combined WAR of 0.4, is not exactly the thing powering the team right now.
As of Thursday evening, the Orioles lead the AL in batting average (.261) and are just shy of the Yankees in slugging (.465), OPS (.794), OPS+ (119), and hits per game. The Orioles’ top eight hitters, in fact, have a combined OPS of .966 and an OPS+ of 165. That’s something, especially considering that six of them—Rio Ruiz, Pedro Severino, Renato Núñez, Hanser Alberto, Anthony Santander, and Dwight Smith Jr.—are technically castoffs of other teams. (I’m glad this has become a story, so we can appreciate it, move on, and stop saying it.)
A few of the hot hitters seem to be building on productive signs they showed last season. Hanser Alberto is the same singles-hitting, rarely-walking guy he was last season, barring numbers inflated by the small sample size. (Alberto in 2019: .305 BA/.329 OBP/.422 SLG/.751 OPS; Alberto in 2020: .351/.383/.535/.928.) Alberto is notching more extra-base hits, though (he hit 35 in 550 plate appearances last season, and has 11 already in 81).
Renato Núñez is a similar story: his .318 average is way above his career mark of .251, and his barrel percentage has jumped up to 14% from 10.7%. Whereas last season he managed 31 HRs and 90 RBIs, if this were a 162-game season, he’d be on pace for 45 home runs and 117 RBIs. He’s also walking more, 11.3% versus 7.3%, albeit striking out more often, up to 29.6% from 23.9% in 2019.
What about Anthony Santander, whose hot start last year was marred by a long cold stretch in the dog days? Tony has made his adjustments, too. His 2020 stat line is similar to 2019’s—with the exception of the power numbers (especially hard-hit percentage and extra-base hits), which are up. (2019 Santander: .261/.297/.476/.733. 2020 Santander: .260/.289/.548/.837.) Santander is actually walking less in 2020, 2.8% down from 4.7%, which explains the flat OBP, but he’s also striking out a lot less, too: 12.7%, down from 21.2%.
Other Orioles seem to have made even bigger adjustments at the plate. Pedro Severino is hitting a ridiculous .333/.407/.625/1.032 right now, which will drop, because it must, but it’s interesting to see that, like Núñez, his K’s are down and his walks are up, which speaks to a more-sustainable trend of improved plate discipline. Dwight Smith Jr. definitely ran hot and cold in 2019, but so far in 2020 he’s benefited a lot from regular playing time after Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart were dispatched to Bowie. DSJ’s .275 average is not too inflated from his .254 career mark, but his slugging is up (.500 vs. .429 career) and he’s barreling balls way more (11% versus 6.3% career) while upping the walks, as well (11.6% versus 8.3% career).
The most dramatic turnarounds have been those of Chance Sisco and Rio Ruiz (which is fun, because the two were offseason workout buddies, getting together everyday to throw each other BP in a field in Sarasota, a thought that is all kinds of warm and fuzzy). With a frankly stupid .750 BABIP right now, Sisco’s magical ride is bound to end, but he’s also blowing away his career numbers in average, OBP, slugging, walks, exit velocity—especially barrel percentage (20.0% in 2020 vs. 10.4% in 2019), and sweet spot percentage (60% (!) in 2020 vs. 37.7% in 2019). It’s pretty much the same across the board with Ruiz, who’s leapt into the 88th percentile in the league in exit velocity and barrel percentage. Both Ruiz and Sisco are striking out slightly more often, which makes me think they’re swinging harder, but this is with mostly good results.
Small sample sizes definitely account for the Orioles’ hot hitting, at least in part. On the other hand, last season saw guys like Núñez, Santander, and Trey Mancini go on tears, but definitely not all together—and definitely not seven (make that eight, counting José Iglesias) of them at once.
Guys like Ruiz, Sisco, and Santander did come into the season extra-motivated and extra-conditioned—that’s helped the power numbers, up for all hitters described here. Then there is the “magic age of 26” theory, which Mark Brown described this week, when players seem to click as hitters (this applies to Núñez, Severino, and Ruiz). There may be truth there.
But I think coaching can’t be left out of the story, because Alberto, Núñez, Santander, Severino, Smith, Sisco and Ruiz are showing a similar pattern: improved plate discipline, harder swings, and more frequent contact. A better approach is also suggested by one more thing: in-game adjustments. The Orioles’ best innings by average and runs scored are the seventh, sixth and the fourth, in that order. That’s a great sign that they’re hitting starting pitchers the second or third time around. (We saw evidence of this against the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler and Jake Arrieta, where the offense arrived late, but when it did, it arrived in bunches.)
For the Orioles to be doing this with a roster considered extremely skimpy on talent, one of the toughest schedules in the league, and in a year where league-wide offensive totals are way down, is incredible. We know it won’t last forever, but however long this hot hitting continues, Orioles fans should enjoy it.