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Can the Orioles maintain their offensive output?

Not all hot starts are created equal. The Orioles lineup might be a mix of players truly turning a corner, and others that have been a little lucky early on.

Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

With a third of the abbreviated 2020 season behind them, the Orioles surprisingly sit in a playoff position. It’s fair to say that they have exceed expectations in every facet of the game. But while the pitching and defense have mostly been passable with brief moments of brilliance, the offense has consistently carried the Birds to victory.

As of this writing, the O’s rank fourth in the AL in runs scored (112), fourth in on-base percentage (.331), second in slugging percentage (.467), and they are scoring 5.33 runs per game. Those are contender-type numbers. Camden Chat’s own Andrea SK took a look at some of these numbers last week.

The natural concern, however, is whether or not this young Orioles lineup, full of unproven hitters, can maintain their performance over the season’s final month-and-a-half.

We could examine every single hitter and dissect their opening three weeks. But for now let’s take a look at six hitters; three with the opportunity to maintain their current production and three that may be playing a bit over their head.

Ditching Davis

One big reason that the O’s could keep the good vibes going is Chris Davis. Or the lack of Davis, rather.

Davis is not back, and he has shown no signs that he will be back ever again. In fact, this is his worst season yet, posting a 4 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR over 48 plate appearances. But manager Brandon Hyde has limited the role of his former slugger as the season has worn on.

Davis opened the year batting fifth in the Orioles lineup. Since then, his status has precipitously dipped. No longer is Davis an automatic starter at first base. Instead, Hyde has given Renato Nunez more time in the field in order to open up the DH slot for one of the team’s hot-hitting catchers. And when Davis does play, he is most often in the eighth spot in the lineup.

If the Orioles were as bad as many expected them to be, Davis’s presence would be little more than a nuisance. But now that the O’s have a legitimate shot at the playoffs his wasted roster spot has become problematic. His role should continue to be diminished, and the team’s offense will be thankful for it.

Santander to dream

On the other end of the spectrum is Anthony Santander. After a two-home-run performance on Sunday, the former Rule 5 pick leads the team with seven home runs and is second behind only Pedro Severino (.633) with a .624 slugging percentage.

Of course, a breakout season doesn’t come without a few suspicious stats to work through. For Santander, his curiously low 12.8% strikeout rate and his career-high 16.7% home run per fly ball rate are cause for minor concern. But it can be explained away by a completely altered approach.

Santander is only seeing 3.40 pitches per plate appearance, which is the 11th fewest in MLB. There aren’t many chances to strike him out. And when he does swing, he is hitting the ball harder than ever before with a 41.4% hard hit rate, well above his 35.5% career number. On top of that, his average launch angle has jumped from 15.3 degrees in 2019 to 21.9 degrees in 2020.

It is not uncommon to see a 25-year-old player make a noticeable leap forward in their development, especially while playing in their second full MLB season. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. Santander’s home run rate probably isn’t sustainable, but he has a good shot to remain one of the Orioles most productive bats.

You’re in good Hanser

Someone who has not altered their approach one bit is Hanser Alberto. The O’s starting second baseman is seeing even fewer pitches than Santander. His 3.22 pitches per plate appearance ranks third in the league. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t walk (3.1%) or strike out (12.4%) much. But that is exactly what he did in 2019 too, when he burst onto the scene with the team’s highest batting average.

Once again, Alberto is rarely making hard contact. But it has happened a tad more often in 2020 when compared to a season ago (26.9% vs. 18.5%). That has resulted in more line drives and more doubles. If just about any other player was putting up these kinds of numbers they would seem fluky, but Alberto, for whatever reason, makes it work and should continue to do so.

The power of Nunez

OK, now that we have discussed the players with the best opportunity to maintain their production, let’s get negative.

Renato Nunez has been fantastic in the season’s opening weeks. His .307/.388/.587 batting line is a thing of beauty, and his .405 wOBA is near the top of the league. In addition, he is hitting the ball hard more often (44.0%) than ever before. That said, his numbers might have a little too much luck in them.

First up is the walk rate. Nunez owns a career walk rate of 7.5%, which is fairly pedestrian. So far in 2020, he is walking 10.6% of the time. It’s not otherworldly, but a 3% increase is probably too good to be true.

Then there is the matter of his BABIP. Nunez had a batting average on balls in play of .272 in 2019, but has a career number of .291. That has jumped to a whopping .383 BABIP in 2020. As mentioned earlier, he is hitting the ball harder much more frequently, which would allow for a slightly elevated BABIP, but not this high. That is due for some negative regression.

Finally, there is the matter of his home run per fly ball rate. Nunez has always been quite good at making sure his fly balls leave the ball park, which is why he owns a 15.7% career rate. But he is seeing a massive 23.8% of his fly balls turn into home runs this year. That likely won’t remain.

Sisco mode

Chance Sisco is the biggest all-or-nothing player on the Orioles roster. He has made 37 plate appearances this season; 15 of them have ended in strikeouts, eight have been walks and four have been extra base hits. That has resulted in a video game .321/.486/.607 batting line.

All of his numbers are out of whack. He is walking 21.6% of the time. He is striking out 40.5% of the time. His BABIP is .636. All of those numbers are going to calm down eventually, and while Sisco can still be quite productive, he likely won’t be able to maintain his current 196 wRC+.

The good Severino

The team’s other blistering backstop, Pedro Severino is on fire to start 2020. He leads the Orioles in batting average (.333), on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.633), wOBA (174), wRC+ (174) and fWAR (0.8) among qualified hitters. He is at, or near, the top of the league for catchers in most of those categories as well.

A lot of the same quirky numbers that plague Nunez also apply here. Severino has a .357 BABIP after hitting .269 on balls in play throughout his career. He also has a 23.8% home run per fly ball rate, which is nearly double his career number.

Those numbers are made even more curious by Severino’s average exit velocity of 84.1%, a metric in which he ranks near the bottom of the league, and his 9.1 degree average launch angle, the lowest of his career.

As the season drags on, not every player in the Orioles lineup will continue to product at their current level. But it is fair to say that there is more talent here than previously thought. Predictable dips in performance from guys like Nunez, Sisco and Severino can hopefully be balanced out by improvements from Austin Hays or the promotion of Ryan Mountcastle later on this summer.