For Orioles fans, there were several years in a row where our favorite baseball team was not much fun. The streak of grim marches towards 100 losses was interrupted last year with the surprisingly fun second half of the season. Not that this was enough to convince the world of baseball analysts and computer simulations that the good times would continue to roll this season.
Through 40 games, at least, the good times are rolling in Baltimore. Their 26-14 record up to this point of the season is better than even an optimist might have predicted for the team. That is a pace for 105 wins over a full season. Every game is fun and close. The Orioles have lost just one of their 40 games so far by more than four runs. It is so much different than it was just two years ago, when the O’s were blown out 44 separate times.
What makes it even more fun beyond just the team’s win-loss record is that the Orioles have the vibes that unquestionably go along with a good team. The whole suite of what are now being dubbed the “Bird Bath” celebrations, the faucet and the sprinkler and the homer hose, are a delight, and both fans and the marketing department are embracing them.
The inaugural weekend of the Splash Zone section had a sold out section all three games. It is silly, fun, and cool to have a guy dubbed Mr. Splash with a hose and a ridiculous costume spraying people for every Orioles extra base hit. That is the kind of thing that has gotten attention outside of the usual sphere of people who talk about the Orioles. It is also fun when those sorts of people notice the Orioles for good reasons rather than to say “lol Orioles” through the years of tanking.
It has been a close to a whole team effort. You do not end up on a 105-win pace through a quarter of the season without having a lot of good performances. Things are going well in a lot of areas for the Orioles. The longer that continues, the farther into the summer the fun will be rolling.
Here are a few of the biggest things that have gotten the team to this point.
The Orioles are winning the close games
In one run games, the Orioles are 8-4 up to this point in the season. They’re 5-1 in games decided by two runs. The narrow margins are being dominated by the O’s.
Someone who was feeling optimistic about Félix Bautista as the closer after his performance in August and September of last year might have predicted something like this. Though Bautista has had problems with walks sometimes, he’s been nearly unhittable. Batters are just .162 against him in 2023, and he’s struck out 44.4% of everyone he’s faced in the season.
Even more of a revelation than Bautista has been Yennier Cano. The 29-year-old rookie Cuban right-hander was an afterthought for me going into the season, as I viewed him as little more than a throw-in to last year’s Jorge López trade to make the 40-man roster math even.
Cano has been transformed so far this season into a pitcher even more unhittable than Bautista - he’s still sporting a 0.00 ERA after 19.2 innings and has allowed just five of the 61 batters he’s faced to safely reach base.
The Orioles starting rotation has not, on the whole, been one of the team’s strengths up to this point. One exception to this is the former Rule 5 pick, Wells. His season began a day earlier than he expected when he volunteered for emergency long relief after Kyle Bradish left his own first start early. Wells fired off five hitless, scoreless innings to help the Orioles win that April 3 game and has hardly looked back ever since.
Now eight games into his season, Wells is sitting on a 2.68 ERA and 0.723 WHIP while averaging nearly six innings per game pitched. He leads all qualified major league starting pitchers (1 IP/team game) in the WHIP category. Not many people might have guessed Wells would be the steady early hand in this rotation. If he can keep that going, the Orioles will have an easier time staying on something close to this pace.
There’s nothing exactly surprising about having the former #1 overall pick who went on to be the #1 prospect in all of baseball be one of the best players on the team so far, but it’s still lots of fun for Orioles fans to have a graduated prospect continuing to live up to or even exceed the hype in his sophomore season.
By Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, Rutschman is the top performing Orioles position player to date. That’s helped by Rutschman posting one of the top ten on-base percentages in all of MLB, with Rutschman’s walk total of 32 well exceeding his number of strikeouts, 25. He’s hitting for respectable power too, in addition to continuing to do his hard work with getting the most he can out of his pitchers.
The Orioles success so far is all the more remarkable considering that there are a couple of significant aspects of the team that are underperforming in a big way.
At least as far as is measured by the Statcast Outs Above Average stat, the Orioles team defense is a mess. They’re tied for the worst defense among MLB teams to date, with significant negatives at third base, first base, and left field. Second base defense is also a negative by this metric to date.
It’s really not good. The quartet of James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Kyle Stowers, and Terrin Vavra have collectively taken about 150 plate appearances. The best OPS of any of these players is McCann’s .584. Stowers is especially down in the basement with a .219 OPS following his 0-4 with four strikeouts on Sunday. He’s struck out 12 times in 33 plate appearances this year.
Sunday’s disappointing effort against Pirates starter Mitch Keller is not enough to dampen the fun. Neither should be having to face Shohei Ohtani in Monday’s game. If the Orioles can keep on being good in the 2023 season, they might stop surprising people as the calendar turns, but it won’t stop being fun in Birdland.