An Orioles team that went 153-333, or a combined 180 games under .500 in its last three full seasons is 46-46 at the break. 2022 has seen a new-look Orioles, and, fresh off a 10-game win streak (the team’s longest since 1999), clubhouse confidence is high.
Can this run continue into the second half of the season? The people over at Ceasars Sportsbook don’t seem to think so, although you might forgive them for that take, since they stand to take a possible $50 million bath if the Orioles win the World Series—wouldn’t that be amazing (in every sense)?
What will it take for the Orioles to stay competitive? As good as they were in the first half, here are five areas where upping their performance would matter a lot.
It’s no secret: whatever Rougned Odor’s secret sauce, it does not come through on paper. He’s been a typical “glue guy,” credited by other Orioles for boosting the clubhouse mojo, and the author of some of the greatest bat flips of the season and some of greatest episodes of manly hugging.
… But he’s still not hitting. The Orioles have a combined .196/.269/.363 slashline and 83 OPS+ at second base, with Odor himself hitting .202 with a .656 OPS. That’d be one thing if he were a great fielder: shortstop Jorge Mateo and his .205 average is still the fourth-most valuable Oriole on the team because of his glove and speed. Odor, however, is arguably one of the worst-fielding 2B’s in all of baseball.
What to do? A question for Mike Elias, not us, thankfully. If the Orioles aren’t close to competing, the safest move is probably to do nothing. Moving Odor now would be unpopular in the clubhouse, and it seems unlikely he could fetch any meaningful prospect haul from a contender. If Odor hikes his average and OPS closer to his respective career averages of .232 and .717, good. But on the chance this team is still on a run come fall, we could see Terrin Vavra and his .433 OBP making a big-league debut.
It’s cool to see Anthony Santander finally taking walks. Between 2017-21, the powerful switch hitter averaged just a 5.1% walk rate, but in 2022, it’s up to 9.7%.
As for the rest of the team, we’re just not seeing the patient approach in practice. The Orioles have the fourth-lowest walk rate in baseball (7.4%). Worse, the only recent season when the Orioles walked less (7.0%) was 2018, when they went an awful 47-115.
It’s true that walk rates are slightly down across the whole league. But the Orioles are still one of the freest-swinging teams in the game, their 35.2% chase rate worse than all but Detroit and Chicago, both of whom are having pretty bad offensive years.
It can’t be said enough: an Orioles pitching staff made up of, let’s face it, a bunch of randos has turned in a shockingly good performance this season. From the worst staff ERA in baseball a year ago, they’re exactly average now, and in terms of pitching WAR, Fangraphs considers them the third-best unit in the American League. That’s huge.
Orioles pitchers have significantly cut down on home runs allowed (thanks, Mt. Walltimore) but especially walks. The only AL teams who walk fewer batters are Tampa Bay, New York and Toronto (and in the NL only the Dodgers and San Francisco). That’s excellent company!
But they’re still allowing a lot of contact. Orioles pitchers have the fifth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, and their 791 hits allowed is the seventh highest, tied with last-place Cincinnati.
It seems hard to win consistently when your pitchers don’t have swing-and-miss stuff and give up a lot of contact. The good news: the stunning new competence of the team’s defense is helping a lot, and on average, the contact allowed by the pitchers is not of the hard kind. Still, life would be easier with a few more whiffs.
Hitting with RISP
The Orioles have treated fans to some thrilling walk-off wins this season, almost as many as any other team in baseball. But on the numbers, they are not actually a clutch-hitting team: in particular their .233 mark with runners in scoring position is the sixth worst in MLB.
This happens when you have gaping black holes on offense. For most of the season those have been at catcher, second base, and shortstop. The Adley Effect has already made a huge difference for one of those. As for the others, we’ll see.
The Fifth Starter
Who is the Orioles’ fifth starter, anyway? At some point or another Bruce Zimmermann, Kyle Bradish, Chris Ellis, Austin Voth, Dean Kremer and Spenser Watkins have all filled the role. At least Kremer and Watkins have been really solid of late.
Who will fill the role in the second half? After a brilliant start, Bradish, one of the few O’s starters capable of drawing swings and misses, tanked in his last few outings. That may have had to do with an inflamed shoulder, an injury he’s almost back from. A Bradish bounceback in the second half would be huge.
Another way this could go: a Bruce Zimmermann revival. The lefty struggled with pitch tipping and with the shape of his changeup before being sent down to Triple-A Norfolk. For now, though, he’s allowed three or more runs in three of five Norfolk starts, which is not going to get him a call-up.
The other option: an internal promotion. Veteran Matt Harvey looks a likely bet for the next few weeks but, perhaps more excitingly for O’s fans, DL Hall and his 111 strikeouts in 66.2 innings figure to be part of the second-half picture, too.
The Big Picture
In the first half of the season, the Orioles went .500 against the competition, including a 16-21 record against the toughest division in baseball: they went 5-3 against Boston, 5-7 against Tampa Bay, 2-2 against Toronto, and, their only real struggle, 4-9 against the Yankees.
The good news: everybody has struggled against the Yankees this season, and the Orioles only have to face them six more times. They do see a lot of the rest of the AL East, with seven games left against the Rays, 11 against Boston, and 15 against Toronto.
The O’s chances at the playoffs turn, it looks like, on whether the pitching staff can keep holding the line and stifle these offenses—especially Toronto, which is, along with New York, one of the three best-hitting teams in the game.
If they can, playoff baseball in 2022 is not quite the long shot it once looked to be.