Mike Elias has rarely shied away from giving a blunt assessment of the organization’s current status. He admitted in the past that winning was not “strategically relevant” at the time, and recently squashed some good vibes when he said it was “not a probability” that the Orioles would win a wild card this season.
Last August I wrote about how the Orioles lineup had evolved under Mike Elias. I examined Baltimore’s batting order from August 17 over the previous three seasons, and let’s just say there are a few names that should stay in the past.
Elias’s first year featured Hanser Alberto in the leadoff spot and Renato Núnez batting cleanup. Alberto absolutely destroyed left-handed pitching in 2019, but everyone knew that duo would not aid the next winning Orioles team. Richie Martin started at shortstop and DJ Stewart played left field. Neither player evolved into a talent worth keeping on the active roster.
The Orioles surprised early during the 60-game sprint in 2020. Pat Valaika playing left field headlined a wacky lineup that included Bryan Holaday behind the plate and Andrew Velazquez starting at short. Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins marked the only two that remain with the organization today.
I wrote the piece last year with the Orioles entrenched in the middle of a 19-game losing streak. The juxtaposition between a team with that streak compared to this year’s playoff contender feels enormous, but how different were the two teams?
Cedric Mullins led the Orioles with a 30/30 season and an All Star appearance. Ramón Urías, Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, and Austin Hays followed Mullins to represent the core of the lineup. Stewart, Pedro Severino and Maikel Franco filled spots 6-through-8, and Jorge Mateo batted ninth.
Mateo represented an improvement over Velazquez, and Mountcastle emerged in his first full season. The outfield marked one of the few bright spots throughout the year. Trey Mancini, who incidentally missed games in 2020 and 2021, added value as well.
The team’s progress can be measured in many ways this season. The record is a good place to start. Baltimore has already won more games than it did last year, and double-digit win streaks trump 19-game losing streaks every time.
The Orioles batted .239 as a team in 2021. They got on base at a .304 clip and slugged .402. Last year’s unit walked 451 times and tallied 195 home runs.
This year’s team entered the Toronto series batting just one point lower at .238. They got on base at a .306 clip and slugged .392 through the first 114 games. The Orioles ranked 24th in the bigs last year with a .305 weighted on-base average, and Baltimore traveled north of the border this week with a .306 wOBA.
It’s not exactly the improvement one would expect from a team that went from picking first in the draft to contending for a playoff spot. Baltimore’s pitching has made the biggest difference this season, but has the lineup improved?
The arrival of Adley Rutschman has bolstered the unit over the last two months. Rutschman slashed just .180/.273/.256 in his first 10 games, but the rookie adjusted.
Rutschman has batted .300 and gotten on base at an absurd .462 in 21 games after the All-Star break. He has locked up the two-hole and greatly increased offensive production from the behind the plate. Rutschman has cooled off in the last week, but the former top pick should strengthen the lineup for years to come.
Rutschman feels like a given, but he’s not the only one helping the cause. Ryan McKenna slashed just .183/.292/.266 in 90 games last season, but the outfielder has figured things out this season. McKenna entered this week slashing .257/.309/.372 through 125 plate appearances.
McKenna’s speed and defensive ability continue to add value, but he’s no longer reduced to a defensive replacement. McKenna’s .293/.356/.512 line against lefties has forced him into a potential platoon with Mullins, and he remains a better offensive option than the newly acquired Brett Phillips. McKenna shined from the leadoff spot with a pair of doubles against Toronto on Monday.
The Orioles have played the averages more this year with Brandon Hyde managing to win games. Hyde started Tyler Nevin as the designated hitter on Monday before giving Phillips and Rougned Odor at bats based on matchups.
Mateo, McKenna, and Phillips have made a difference with their speed, and Mountcastle and Rutschman run well for their position. The Orioles have manufactured runs all year, and used hot streaks from Urías, Hays and Santander to propel the team at different points this season.
The Orioles’ lineup has resembled something close to a finished project in 2022. Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers and Jordan Westburg looming at Triple-A all but confirm that the lineup should be in a strong place moving forward.