As we get into the new year with a new season just over the horizon, hope for a successful 2023 campaign begins to flood the minds of all of Birdland. After all, Orioles fans are coming off the high of enjoying the first successful season of O’s baseball in what felt like an eternity. (In reality, it was about six years.)
However, achieving a successful season will not be as easy in 2023 for the simple fact that the height of expectations surrounding this Orioles team has risen—significantly. Heading into last season, most sportsbooks had the Orioles just barely squeaking out 60+ wins. Instead, the O’s put up 83 Ws and now head into 2023 looking to finish what they started last year.
To say 2023 is a “playoffs or bust” year for Baltimore seems a little disingenuous given that this team was at the very bottom of the league less than 18 months ago. And yet, many members of Birdland surely share my sentiment in believing these Baby Birds should make it into the postseason in ‘23.
A big reason the Orioles failed to make the playoffs last year was offensive inconsistency that plagued the team during the latter half of the season. The O’s 2022 offense peaked in June, putting up 4.77 runs/game to give Baltimore its first winning month since April of 2017.
While the wins kept coming in July and August, the offense began a steady decline post-All-Star break. The July runs/game average dipped to 4.44, before falling even further to 4.37 in July and then completely bottoming out at 3.97 in September/October. And while 0.8 may not seem like a huge drop, based on Pythagorean Winning Percentage, it could account for as much as 15 extra wins. The 2022 Orioles only needed four more wins to make the postseason.
So, if the key to a successful season is greater offensive consistency, what do the key members of this Orioles lineup need to do to have a successful season? I am here to answer exactly that question!
Cedric Mullins: Raise the On-Base Percentage
We’ll start with the very top of the O’s lineup. After bursting onto the scene of national relevance with a 2021 season that earned him a start in the All-Star game and a Silver Slugger award, Mullins’ 2022 was… well, quieter. That’s not to say it wasn’t successful, either; Mullins still led the Orioles in hits and runs scored, put up 52 extra-base hits and finished second in the AL with 34 stolen bases—all while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in CF. These are all positive numbers for your leadoff hitter to put up.
However, it was still a little hard to ignore Mullins’ drop from a .291 average in 2021 to .258 in ‘22. Or the 115-point drop in slugging percentage—which came as the result of his HR total being almost cut in half. Sure, he wasn’t going to win the Silver Slugger every year, but it would’ve been nice if Mullins’ 2021 season didn’t feel like an outlier so often in 2022.
The most worrying trend we saw from Mullins’ 2022 season was the steep drop in his on-base percentage. OBP is perhaps the most important stat for a successful leadoff hitter as it is incredibly hard to set the table for an offense if you’re not actually on base. Of 20 AL hitters with at least 150 at-bats out of the leadoff spot in 2022, Mullins’ .324 OBP at the top of the lineup ranked 12th. For him to be the leadoff hitter the Orioles need to make the playoffs, that number has to go up—way up.
A big step for Mullins to improve his OBP in 2023 could come from remaining more patient in his leadoff spot. To be clear, Mullins will never have a Rutschman-esque walk rate as even his 2021 season saw his walk rate rank in the 47th percentile across the MLB.
However, in 2022 Mullins did become noticeably more aggressive early in counts, to his detriment. In 2021 Mullins had 181 plate appearances that ended after two pitchers or less, including 72 that ended on the first pitch. In those 181 appearances, he posted a .374 BA with a .370 OBP. In 2022, Mullins had 201 plate appearances of two pitches or less—including 100 that ended on the first pitch. That increase in aggression led to a decrease in production, as his batting average slipped to .314 and his OBP dropped to .323.
Adley Rutschman: Lay off low sliders and changeups
It’s worth mentioning that the Orioles’ #2 and face of the franchise is set to be one of many O’s this year that benefit from the rule change regarding shifts. Hitting from the left side of the plate, Adley’s OBP rose 20 points when not facing the shift in 2022. No longer will seemingly perfectly placed rockets to RF end up in the glove of a shifted second baseman.
It also feels somewhat unrealistic to say “hitting lefties better” is what Rutschman needs to do to have a successful season. Yes, hitting above .200 against lefties would go a long way in Rutschman’s quest to solidify himself as a true MLB superstar.
However, there are other, more realistic, ways that Rutschman can show the growth needed to help this lineup succeed. Perhaps the most easily identifiable comes in his track record against changeups and sliders. Renowned in his rookie year for his plate discipline, Rutschman’s swing-and-miss percentage against those two pitches rose dramatically compared to other offerings. Against fastballs, curveballs, cutters and sinkers, Rutschman only swung and missed 14.9% of the time. However, against changeups and sliders, that percentage rises to 26.8%.
When you map out all those swings and misses it becomes clear that Rutschman struggled especially to lay off sliders and changeups at the bottom of the zone. If he can eliminate at least some of those whiffs, it should force pitchers to try and beat Rutschman with the fastballs he routinely crushes. That, or Adley will simply continue to draw walks at a truly impressive rate. Either way, eliminating some swing-and-miss in the star catcher’s game will go a long way in making this lineup successful.
Anthony Santander: Find your form against fastballs
No one could argue that Anthony Santander wasn’t a huge offensive success in 2022. By leading the Orioles in HR, RBIs and slugging percentage, Santander changed his narrative from “most likely to be dangled as trade bait this offseason” to “invaluable member of the middle of the lineup for 2023.” The former Rule 5 Draft pick had always shown flashes of being a productive corner outfielder, but 2022 was when he finally put it all together.
Santander’s spike in production came in almost contradictory fashion when it came to how he handled certain pitches. Tony Taters saw a marked improvement last season in his success against all off-speed and breaking pitches, but struggled much more against fastballs. Over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Santander put up a high respectable .284 average against fastballs. However, during that same stretch, the Orioles outfielder struggled against any offspeed pitches, combining to hit .176 against changeups, sliders and curveballs.
Then, like an accountant trying to balance the books, Santander became a much better offspeed hitter while his performance against fastballs suffered. In 2022 Santander hit .209 against heaters but combined to hit .243 against changes, sliders and curves. His dip in production against fastballs seems attributable to pitchers consistently attacking him higher in the zone with their fastballs. Combine that with an increase in launch angle and a decrease in exit velocity against four-seamers and you get a picture where Santander struggled at times to stay on top of fastballs and drive them instead of popping them up. If he can correct this, while maintaining his 2022 performance against offspeed pitches, he could certainly help the O’s offense find new levels of success in 2023.
Gunnar Henderson: Get more comfortable in Camden Yards
Gunnar Henderson has every chance to be one of the top four hitters in the lineup next year. Such is his immense raw talent. However, with only 116 at-bats in his Orioles career thus far, it’s hard to find something definitive that is holding him back from further success.
The one split that was glaring from Henderson’s brief stint in the majors was his home and away splits. Perhaps fueled by the confidence from hitting a road HR in his first major league game, Gunnar posted an impressive .300 average and 1.007 OPS in 14 road games. At Camden Yards it was a decidedly different story, as he hit on .227 with a mediocre .620 OPS.
Given the history of success for lefties at Camden Yards, as well as the introduction of the Great Wall of Baltimore, it seems like a sweet lefty swing like Gunnar’s would be tailor-made for the O’s home ballpark. The hope for 2023 is that, with a full season at the Yard, Henderson will find a level of comfort that allows him to consistently produce the highs he’s capable of in front of the Birdland faithful.