Sellers at the recent August 31st trade deadline, the 2020 Orioles are probably not playoff-bound. But keep in mind the positive: in almost all senses, this team is already a vast upgrade on 2019’s 54-108 squad. They’ve surrendered fewer home runs (1.4 per game vs. 1.9 last season), the team ERA is almost a full run lower (4.73 vs. 5.61), and according to FanGraphs, the team UZR went from an embarrassing -53.8 (!!) in 2019 to a positive 1.2 now.
2020 is ostensibly a down year for hitters across the league, but if so, the Orioles seem to have missed that memo. The offense has been streaky, but it’s an improvement on 2019 in team average (.264), runs per game (4.72), on-base percentage (.326), and OPS (.768). Those are actually decent numbers in and of themselves.
Three hitters standing out on the team are first baseman/DH Renato Núñez, switch-hitting outfielder Anthony Santander, and catcher/DH Pedro Severino. All three rank in the Orioles’ Top 5 in offensive WAR, and together, they account for a shocking 46% of team runs batted in. What explains their success?
Two things we know are that one, since Mike Elias took over as GM and Executive VP in November 2018, the Orioles have overhauled the way they do player development, and two, that HitTrax technology has become standard on MLB teams. Minor league affiliates use it, too. In late July, Bowie Baysox coach Buck Britton talked about how, with minor league baseball canceled for the season, the Orioles farm system was using “technology to see how guys’ bodies are moving throughout their swing” and to “clean up some swings,” even if this was a far cry from a real in-game situation.
In March 2018, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris reported on how this technology works. First, hitters in the cage are given data on how their batted balls are traveling, metrics like exit velocity, launch angle, and batted ball spin. Mark Trumbo, who mashed 47 home runs for the Orioles in 2016, told Sarris that his breakout season was thanks to HitTrax, which he used in the offseason to see what was happening with the ball while he was hitting in the cage.
The next step is to translate that data into an attack angle that’s ideal for the hitter. Around 25° is good for most, but each hitter’s bat speed and path varies, so ideal launch angle will, too. From this point of view, it’s interesting that the Orioles’ three biggest RBI-producers each seem to be taking a unique approach at the plate. (All data below is drawn from BaseballSavant, FanGraphs, and BaseballReference.)
Renato Núñez: Bombs away!
In his third season with Baltimore, Noonie, as Brandon Hyde calls his streaky, free-swinging first baseman, is putting up career-high power numbers. He’s swatted nine home runs and driven in 22 runs, on pace (in a normal season) for 42 home runs and 102 runs driven in. Núñez’s average and OBP are pretty much identical to what he showed in 2018, his next best season, when he hit .275 with a .335 OBP in 220 at-bats. But his slugging (.526) and OPS (.857) are way up.
So what is he doing differently? The truth is, not much. The righty continues to be a free swinger: he offers at about 50% of the pitches he sees, including 41.5% of pitches outside the zone (this was 37.5% in 2019). When it comes to batted balls, Núñez’s exit velocity is actually down a tick from 2019, and his average launch angle of 20.7° is just barely higher. But Núñez seems to be making better contact. His barrel and sweet spot rate are up. He’s pulling the ball a lot more (52% of his batted balls, compared to 44% last season), and he’s hitting more line drives compared to grounders and flyball outs. Most impressively, last season about 16.7% of the fly balls he hit were four-baggers; this season that number is 23.1%.
Anthony Santander: Wait for your pitch and drive it “hard and high”
Tony Taters is having a monster year. He’s in the Top 10 in the AL in hits, extra-base hits, home runs, RBIs, total bases, and slugging. Before this season, Santander had never cracked .500 in slugging or an .800 OPS; in 2020, he’s slugging .591 and his OPS is .909 (actually down a bit after a cold start to September). There seem to be two explanations for these career-best numbers.
One is plate discipline. Santander has cut down his K rate by almost seven percent, from 21.2% in 2019 to 15.6%. He’s seeing more pitches out of the zone, probably because he’s earning more respect from opposing arms, and he’s swinging less often at pitches outside the zone (and more often at ones in it).
Lesson No. 2 is launch angle. It’s well-known at this point that good ballplayers can field ground balls just fine. Line drives and deep, well-hit fly balls are harder to defend, though, and as a result, hitting coaches will often instruct batters to elevate the ball to try to “find some green.” Although Tony’s exit velocity is not significantly up, his launch angle has jumped by a full nine percentage points, from 15.3% in 2019 to 24.3% now. (Remember, Renato Núñez’s didn’t even climb by a full point.) He is also barreling up the ball and hitting the sweet spot of the bat a lot more. This has helped him put up career-best numbers in home runs and RBIs (his 162-game pace is a ridiculous 51 and 148, respectively). Also fun to note: whereas Núñez seems to be matching his career-best numbers, Santander is blasting through his old records. So he may be just now reaching his potential.
Pedro Severino: Less is more (when it comes to exit velocity), more is more (when it comes to hitting singles)
Pedro Severino has always been a glove-first catcher. At least, you could forgive the Washington Nationals for thinking that of a player who averaged a .187/.273/.287 line in four seasons with them. Last season, Severino didn’t give the Orioles much reason to think differently, with a .249 average, .740 OPS, and 94 WRC+.
So how the heck is the 2020 Severino third on the Orioles in batting average (.310) and RBIs (21), second in OPS+ (144), and first in offensive WAR? Severino seems to be doing more by doing less. His hard-hit percentage has actually dropped six points to 27.8%, which is in the bottom six percent of the league. But he’s turned out to be an excellent contact hitter, with a superlative 90.2% contact rate on balls in the zone. He’s also walking more and striking out less while while racking up hits at career-best levels. At this pace, Sevvie would have 173 hits in a 162-game season.
For all three hitters, the usual caveats of small sample size of course apply: Severino’s BABIP stands at a bloated .356, so a regression should be on the way. For Orioles fans, though, it’s been fun to see how these hitters have achieved results this season through developing their own unique styles at the plate. Whether those hitting personalities remain distinctive and successful is something to keep an eye on during the rest of the season.