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The Orioles in May: A lot better at the dish

From a 7-14 record in April, the team managed to sniff .500 in May, thanks to offensive explosions by several players.

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MLB: Seattle Mariners at Baltimore Orioles
We see you, Trey.
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles were a much better team in the month of May. This was evidenced, among other things, by a 14-16 record, one of their closest attempts at a winning month since they last did it in August 2017. You felt it in cute things like the home run chain and a lot of simulated Fortnite goggles when they got on base. Or in the slew of feel-good headlines that popped up all month (“‘Their time is coming’: Rivals taking notice of O’s,” “O’s [see] blue skies among some clouds” (this, a reference to literal weather), “These Orioles may be creating a ‘different vibe’ even if the losing isn’t stopping soon”). Plus, the team didn’t fold against the big baddies of the AL East, going 2-1 against Tampa Bay, 3-2 against a hot Boston, and hanging in there against New York (a -7 run differential in six games against a team that’s been laying waste to the competition).

In April, the Orioles went a lousy 7-14 (.333 win percentage) . Their .467 win percentage in May was significantly better. The difference? Offense, plain and simple.

Let’s start with the bad news: to even sniff .500, the Orioles had to put up much better offensive numbers in May, because their pitching got worse. The team ERA leapt from 3.76 to 4.36, with home runs allowed nearly doubling. (On the bright side, walks did not increase and strikeouts stayed about the same.)

Whom this falls on breaks down quite clearly. The bullpen was great in April, and actually even better in May, with a 3.16 ERA, the fourth best of any relief corps in baseball. It was the starters who unraveled a bit, going from a 4.08 ERA in April to a 5.45 mark in May, “led” by month-long skids by Bruce Zimmermann (5.85 ERA in six starts in May), Kyle Bradish (8.46 ERA in five appearances) and Spenser Watkins (10.95 in four starts).

All of this would have spelled bad news but for the fact that the offense performed so strongly over the course of the month. From April to May, the team average improved 33 points, to .244. Slugging went up by 85 points (.392) and OPS climbed about 90 points, to .691.

Most significantly, this outfit scored a lot of runs—more than twice as many. They put up just 62 runs in April, worse than all but Kansas City. But in May they scored 128, 13th-best in MLB. That’s a vast difference.

Back in April, many people were talking about how O’s hitters were unlucky, not bad, making solid contact but with little to show for it. Turns out they’re right: Baltimore ranked solidly average in hard-hit balls but last, or near-last, in runs scored.

Nobody exemplified this more than Trey Mancini, who, from a piddling .224 BA and .281 BABIP in April, has boosted his average about 80 points to .303, helped along by a .363 mark in May and .417 BABIP. Lucky this month? Maybe. But his quality of contact this whole season ranks 21st among qualified MLB hitters.

Two other guys who saw the largest month-to-month improvements were Rougned Odor and Ramón Urías, who went from drags at the plate to competent hitters. Odor was a distinct liability at the dish in April (.523 OPS, 4 XBH) but decent in May (.723 OPS, 12 XBH). Plus, he really does rise to the occasion: in high-leverage situations, Odor boasted an .813 OPS and 18 RBIs. Urías, meanwhile, went from a lowly .194 average and .463 OPS in April to a .261 BA and .787 OPS in May.

Others saw subtler changes, but still improved. Ryan Mountcastle boosted his OPS 155 points to .768. Austin Hays saw his power numbers drop, but he keeps making contact, averaging .299 on the month. Meanwhile, Cedric Mullins has started the year cold, and still hasn’t find his power stroke, but his .254 average in May is still 40 points better than what he put up in April.

There was exactly one offensive category where the team got worse. Curiously, after all the fuss everyone made about guys like Mountcastle and Anthony Santander being more patient at the plate, team walks did not go up in May. They went down significantly, in fact, from 9.2% in April to 6.3% in May. This made the Orioles one of the least patient-hitting teams in baseball. This regression sort of looks like it’s because one player, Santander, had an absurd 18.4 BB% in April and then dropped to about 7%. But it’s something the team will want to work on.

Team defense, which improved in May, also helped buoy the W-L record somewhat. According to Statcast, the Orioles had just one above-average fielder in April, Ryan Mountcastle, at just 1 Outs Above Average. Now hop to May, and the plus-defenders club includes, from worst to best: Ramón Urías, Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, Tyler Nevin, Ryan McKenna, and, by far the best fielder on the team for the month, Jorge Mateo, at 6 Outs Above Average. (Overall, Mateo ranks 11th out of 40 qualifying MLB shortstops in OAA.)

Anyway, the Orioles’ May exploits may not leap out from the pack in MLB Power Rankings or anything. But the Birds are quietly climbing out of the cellar and playing good baseball. If they can sustain these offensive improvements, get back to their patient approach at the plate, and receive stable, if not brilliant, turns from their starting pitchers, that elusive winning month could come around really soon (pre-All Star break, maybe? Any takers?).