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What a difference a year has made for the Orioles

The four biggest differences between the 2021 and 2022 Orioles: pitching, pitching, and pitching (and also defense).

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

When great things happen in sports, not just the athletes, but even the writers struggle to put things into words sometimes. It’s hard to put into words how awesome the team play is right now.

So let’s put it into numbers.

The O’s have won 10 games in a row, their longest win streak in a single season since a 13-game streak in 1999. After finishing an MLB-worst 52-110 in 2021, they just poked their head above .500 last night, at 45-44.

This turnaround is historic. As Sarah Langs reported on Tuesday, since 1900 only four teams have finished the season with the MLB’s worst record and then won 9+ games in a row the next: the 1902 Browns, the 1993 Dodgers, the 2001 Cubs and the 2022 Orioles.

There’s no doubt: the 2021 and 2022 Orioles are very different teams. The 2022 Orioles reached 45 wins in 89 games. It took the 2021 outfit 138 games to do the same.

Let’s break the differences down a little bit more.

The Orioles have hit solidly in this recent stretch of excellence (a .717 OPS), but offense is not the main separator from last year. Their 364 runs currently rank 20th in baseball. Their .231 average is 25th, and their .300 wOBA is worse than all but four other teams. In relative terms, the 2021 Orioles fared similarly, with the fifth-fewest runs (659) and the fifth-worst wOBA (.305). The 2021 team was actually a little better than this team in pure average (.239), but that difference might be fully explained by a league-wide offensive downturn. The point is: offense-wise, we’re not seeing a vast difference.

Defensively, the Orioles have taken big steps, though. According to Fangraphs, the 2021 Orioles were the 26th team in overall defense; this season they rank them a tidy 8th. Give thanks for a daily dosage of Jorge Mateo at shortstop, but also a healthy outfield in Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander. Credit, too, the organization for having substituted Ramón Urías/Tyler Nevin at third base for Maikel Franco, and especially, for Pedro Severino at catcher, Robinson Chirinos and Adley Rutschman.

The clearest difference-maker between 2021 and 2022, however, is pitching. The 2021 Orioles allowed a ghastly 956 runs, worst in the league. The current Orioles squad’s 377 runs allowed in 89 games puts them on pace for 686 over the season, about 28% fewer. That’s not an MLB-wide offensive slump; that’s distinctly better pitching.

The Orioles bullpen has been nails all season, and now we are spoiled—but let’s stop to appreciate this fact. First, pitchers other teams passed on—Bryan Baker, Joey Krehbiel, Austin Voth, Cionel Pérez—have been made into contributing members of the fifth-best bullpen in baseball. Pérez, DFA’d by Cincinnati and considered a long shot to make the team in April, now has a 447 ERA+, by the way. Others have been coached into their best selves: both Pérez and Félix Bautista have cut their walk rates in half since last season. Or take newly minted All-Star closer Jorge López, who only made 12 bullpen appearances in 2021 and still has just 51 games under his belt in this new role. (Not every starter moves to the bullpen and suddenly becomes Zack Britton; most, in fact, look more like Mike Wright.)

But hands down, the greatest surprise is the starting pitching. In 2022, the Yankees’ starting rotation will take home $62 million; the Orioles’ current patchwork outfit is set to earn $8.6 million ($6 million of which belongs to Jordan Lyles alone). And yet, over the last month or so, it is the Orioles who have the best starter ERA in baseball, at 2.33. Their 4.50 mark overall is also a lot better than last year’s 5.99. For an outfit that lost their staff ace (John Means) to injury after a month and replaced him with a Rule 5 guy (Tyler Wells) and some Triple-A callups (Dean Kremer and Spenser Watkins), that is pretty amazing.

One more factor is contributing to the cool “out of nowhere” factor here. As a not-usually-this-gleeful Mark Brown put it in last night’s recap,

What makes this whole thing all the more remarkable is that the team has so many of the same players who were around last year and contributed to a squad that only won seven games more than the Orioles have right now across the full season.

It’s true: of the 31 players who’ve made 10 or more appearances for the 2022 team, just seven are new faces to the MLB team. Of course, like last year, the pitching merry-go-round continues: the Orioles have already cycled through a veritable smorgasbord of 29 throwers. But it does seem like the standards have been raised: if you’re not great, your audition is over very quickly (think blink-and-you missed them types like Cody Sedlock, Marcos Diplan, and Logan Gillaspie).

Underlying these defensive/pitching improvements, it seems, are real contributions by the organization as a whole. For one thing, well-drafted and -scouted prospects are finally reaching the majors (think Adley Rutschman, Tyler Nevin or Kyle Bradish, as well as guys like Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg who are chewing up the minors). For another, a lot of pitchers are peaking at the same time: this includes other teams’ washouts like Wells, Krehbiel, López and Pérez plus homegrown acts like Bautista and Keegan Akin—all of whom credit the ability to throw strikes as the reason for their success this year. The arrows are all pointing in one direction: the Orioles are drafting, scouting and coaching with appreciable success.

Can the good times last? Sadly, not the win streak, which has come against several not-good teams (Texas, the Angels and the Cubs). But keep in mind that the Orioles are hanging in around .500 with the MLB’s fourth-most difficult schedule, tilted heavily towards MLB’s unquestioned best division, the AL East, where every team has a winning record right now. That’s only happened three times in the Wild Card era, period. Rare air.

From the worst of the worst to the hottest team in baseball in July, the Orioles are forcing the national media to start speculating that they might be buyers at the halfway mark, while giving their fans feverish visions of the playoffs, sitting, as they are, two games out of a wild card slot.

Too soon to dream? Sure, probably. The Orioles are about .500 against most of the AL East, but would have to greatly improve on a 4-9 record against the Yankees to be competitive. Still, back in April, most people would have said the team doesn’t have the starting pitching to do much, and for a month or so, theirs has been the best rotation in baseball. Maybe we don’t worry about it so much. It’s been almost five years since Baltimore got to enjoy winning baseball. So let the good times roll.