Offense, defense. Hitting, pitching. Starting pitching, relief. In almost all facets of the game, the Orioles have been a bad team, lately and all season. I said almost all facets: the post-All Star break story of this team has been the bullpen’s horrible regression, but lost in the fog of fans’ disappointment is that for the last three weeks, the Orioles have been a solid hitting team.
Since July 23, the Orioles are No. 2 in the AL in home runs. Third in slugging. They’re second-best in ISO. Fourth in WRC+. Second-best in strikeout percentage (only the Blue Jays are whiffing less).
There are two apparent reasons for this unexpected stretch of offensive competency. One is players going on hot streaks, or at least doing a little bit of defrosting. The headliner here is Anthony Santander. The team’s Most Valuable Oriole in 2020, Santander hit .261 with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in only 37 games last year, but in 2021, the switch-hitting outfielder has been a little rough on the eyes. Hampered by a bum ankle, his compact, coiled swing has been more tentative than we’re used to, and he’s been painfully lumbering on the basepaths and a liability in the field, too.
Not lately, though. In the last two weeks, Santander has been on a tear at the plate. His power is back, and so is his contact. Since July 20, Santander is hitting .386 with 17 hits, 8 RBI and a 1.163 OPS. Brandon Hyde says Santander’s swing is “noticeably different” since he’s been healthy. In two losing efforts this week against Detroit, Santander hit five hits, including three homers. He’s not going to keep hitting at this hot clip, but it’s closer to his real baseline than what we’ve seen so far this year.
Ryan Mountcastle has been another recent catalyst in what’s been a weird sophomore season for him. Here are his monthly batting averages: .198 (April), .256 (May), .327 (June), .205 (July), and .563 (in five games in August). In his last 12 games, Mountcastle had 16 hits in 44 at bats, 8 for extra bases, until he was knocked out for a few games with a concussion. Crappy timing. It’s good the O’s are taking his injury seriously, and it will be huge if he can return to form.
A couple other Orioles are hitting lately, too. Pedro Severino is OPS’ing .885 with four home runs in 12 games in this recent three-week stretch. Ryan McKenna is hitting .250. And it’d feel wrong to ignore Cedric Mullins here, since all he’s done is be excellent all year. So we have to acknowledge his .349 average, 22 hits and 1.042 OPS in the last three weeks, too.
The other reason the Orioles are hitting better post-ASG is that there are many different Orioles. Here, for example, was the starting lineup that faced the Yankees on May 15:
Cedric Mullins CF
Austin Hays LF
Trey Mancini 1B
DJ Stewart RF
Freddy Galvis SS
Pedro Severino DH
Rio Ruiz 3B
Pat Valaika 2B
Chance Sisco C
And here it was on August 6:
Cedric Mullins CF
Austin Hays LF
Trey Mancini DH
Ryan Mountcastle 1B
Ramón Urías 2B
Anthony Santander RF
Pedro Severino C
Maikel Franco 3B
Richie Martin SS
There are exactly two things this 2021 Orioles have done consistently: lose and cycle through players. They’re nearing a team record for most players used in a season (58) and will almost certainly break it (52 and counting).
Gone are Ruiz, Galvis, Sisco and Valaika (as well as Kelvin Gutiérrez and Domingo Leyba and others), to be replaced by Urías, Richie Martin, Jorge Mateo, and Austin Wynns. Mateo (signed off the waiver wire on August 5) and Richie Martin (activated off the IL on August 2) have hit better than their past histories indicate. Mateo, not known for his bat, has a slashline of .263/.300/.474 with the team so far. Richie Martin, too, has been hitting like his job depends on it (it does), with a more controlled approach than he showed in a rough 2019 season.
The Orioles’ last two series didn’t go their way, but don’t blame the offense, exactly. Against Detroit, the team went 0-for-14 with RISP, but they managed eight hits on Tuesday and nine on Wednesday. The week before against Tampa Bay, one of the AL’s best pitching outfits, they scored 15 runs in three games.
Does a team deserve to lose when it gives up nine runs in five consecutive games and then five and six runs, respectively, in the next two, as it did this week? Yes, it does. Am I trying to find nice things to write about a lousy team? Yes. Yes, I am.
But Orioles fans already know that 2021 is another season where there might as well be posters in the clubhouse reading, “Winning is Not Strategically Relevant.” They already know that the mission is to keep unearthing and developing talent for the future.
And with that being the goal, it’s a significant development if the team that finishes the 2021 season looks better than the one that started it. That’d be a sign that young talents like Ryan Mountcastle are finding their footing in the big leagues and that “finds” (fingers crossed) like Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo become what the front office hopes they can be. It’d be a sign that the Orioles are signing and developing talent—a sign that this team is (finally) headed in the right direction.