Heading towards this weekend’s Division Series, Camden Chat writers will be looking at each of the winning months that got the Orioles to where they are right now. Up first: March and April.
Record: 19-9 (19-9 overall)
Injuries: Dillon Tate - flexor strain (never appeared with team), Mychal Givens - knee inflammation (missed 46 games), James McCann - oblique (missed 8 games), Kyle Bradish - foot contusion (missed 13 games)
Worst loss: 4/1 walkoff loss to Red Sox. It was the one where Ryan McKenna dropped the game-ending pop-up. You remember.
Best win: 4/7 comeback win at home vs. Yankees. The Orioles overcame a poor start by Dean Kremer, bullpen shenanigans, and Franchy Cordero, a player they released in spring training, hitting a three-run home run against them. (Cordero homered again two games later and they did not overcome that.) Since the O’s lost the final two games of this series, this win quietly kept the not-swept streak rolling on long enough for people to start noticing and talk about it.
Best position player (fWAR): Jorge Mateo, 1.4 WAR. He batted .347/.395/.667 in 23 games and had 10 stolen bases by month’s end.
Best pitcher (fWAR): Tie between Yennier Cano and Grayson Rodriguez, 0.7 WAR. Cano did not walk a batter or allow an earned run in 11 innings. Rodriguez had a 4.07 ERA with a 2.89 FIP that suggested better things were coming. And so they did, if not until the second half after he was demoted and returned.
The first month of the Orioles season looked like a fairly easy one as soon as the schedule was released and people started thinking about who was and wasn’t likely to be good in the 2023 season. Seven games against the Tigers, plus series mixed in with the White Sox, Nationals, and Athletics.
As it ended up, this was an even easier month than people guessed. The Orioles played just three of the 28 games against another postseason team, the Rangers, and adding in the three games against the Yankees, six of 28 faced opponents who finished the season over .500.
None of this guaranteed that the Orioles would go on to finish 19-9 at the end of the month. There were points that they could have stumbled. This could have happened as soon as the second series of the year, when they played the Rangers after giving up 27 runs in three games to the Red Sox. The Rangers had scored tons of runs in their first series and then they were shut out in the first game they played against the O’s and held to just two runs in the second.
The 2-0 victory in the series opener was the one that saw Bradish take a line drive off the foot, pressing Tyler Wells into long relief duty when he was supposed to start the next game instead. This was the first but hardly the last time this season that the Orioles managed to improvise their way to a solid victory. Fortunately, Bradish was back by the end of the month.
At the end of the first Orioles home series on April 9, the team was 4-5. That was after losing the final two of three games against the Yankees. The offseason’s trade acquisition Cole Irvin pitched poorly in game 2 of the series, leading to his being demoted before month’s end. In the series finale, Adley Rutschman had four hits and the rest of the Orioles batters had two hits.
Either the final two Boston games or these Yankees games could have been a sign that the Orioles weren’t actually good this year. Cordero hitting two home runs against the O’s after they ditched him in spring training was the kind of thing to make you grumpy and a little concerned. However, he had a .578 OPS by the end of April and was demoted by the Yankees. Ryan O’Hearn winning that camp battle looks like a fine decision now. His part of the season story comes later; O’Hearn joined the team mid-month and had just 20 PA by the end of April.
The signs for concern did not continue. The Orioles never fell back below .500 after improving to 5-5 for the season and they were no worse than second place in the division starting on April 19. They spent the next three months as the primary challengers to the Rays before finally catching them, but that’s a story for subsequent articles.
As a team for April, the Orioles batted .256/.335/.449 with 147 runs scored. That set them up as tied for the fourth-best offense in MLB over the month using the Weighted Runs Created (wRC+) stat, behind only the Rays, Cubs, and Rangers. Aside from Mateo, other Orioles with good batting numbers in April were Rutschman (.409 OBP, 4 HR), Cedric Mullins (11 SB, 21 RBI), and Austin Hays (.538 SLG).
Eventual team home run leader Anthony Santander was ice cold over the first month, hitting just .213/.280/.362 over his first 107 plate appearances. Adam Frazier (.663 OPS) also had room for improvement, as did Gunnar Henderson (.659 OPS). Henderson walked in about one in six of his April plate appearances, which is good for the OBP, but struck out nearly one in three times, bad for the batting average.
Orioles pitchers in April collectively produced a middle of the pack ERA of 4.22, 14th among MLB teams for the month. By Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) they were 10th at 3.91. The starting rotation was not part of the success story in April, producing a 5.28 ERA, 24th in the league. That was balanced by a best-in-MLB bullpen ERA of 2.86 for April.
The Orioles were the only team that had a bottom 10 ERA starting rotation at the end of April and went on to a postseason bid. Even with the soft competition they faced, it’s remarkable to me that they overcame that kind of rotation performance for a 19-9 record at the end of April. Irvin stunk in three starts and got demoted. Dean Kremer had a 6.67 ERA at month’s end. Bradish closed April with a 6.24 ERA over four starts.
There was chaos and struggle in the bullpen too even as it posted a best in MLB ERA. Early outings by Austin Voth, Keegan Akin, Logan Gillaspie, and Cionel Pérez were collectively disastrous. Pérez got better. The other guys got replaced as the season went along. An unsettled bullpen was not surprising after Tate and Givens, two guys who figured over the offseason to be set in stone for the roster, were not able to start the season.
Fortunately for the Orioles, unexpected replacements like Danny Coulombe and Cano turned out great in April and beyond. Coulombe only became an Oriole on March 27, when he was traded by the Twins for cash considerations. After 13 April outings, he had a 0,84 ERA. Cano, as we know, arrived in the Jorge López trade last year. He was probably not a part of many people’s projected bullpens. He joined the team on April 14 and never looked back.