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James McCann’s 2023 success holds a clue to the Orioles’ own

It’s a winning formula: no stragglers at any position, and platoons for rest and matchups.

Baltimore Orioles v Houston Astros
One of this team’s most unselfish players, James McCann puts his body on the line again as he lays down a bunt single against the Astros on September 19th.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In 2022, James McCann’s career was stalling out. Sidelined for two months with a broken hand, he was activated by the Mets in June, only to hit the IL two weeks later with an oblique strain. He’d end up making just 191 plate appearances for New York that season, finishing with an unsightly .195 average and 46 strikeouts. The former All-Star was losing playing time, and with Francisco Alvarez tapped to be the full-time catcher in 2023, the Mets shipped McCann off to Baltimore, agreeing to eat $9.5M of his $12.5M salary.

Cut to today: The $364M Mets have spiraled out of the playoffs, the Orioles are on track to win 100 games, and James McCann is a valued part of the fifth-best catching tandem in baseball.

Fatigue and injuries were a factor in McCann’s prior struggles, not to mention poor offense against righties (he has .640/.756 career righty/lefty OPS splits). But this year, he’s played less while playing better. McCann is on track for his best offensive season since 2020, a year removed from his All-Star campaign, and he’s giving the Orioles plus defense, especially in game-calling and throwing out base stealers (his caught stealing percentage is an AL-best 44%).

The same point can be made about Ryan O’Hearn, a Kansas City utility player/castoff who has added over 200 points to his OPS since last year, emerging as one of the team’s most consistent hitters. From on the way to baseball irrelevance to a daily contributor on the AL’s best team, it’s been quite the turnaround for him, too. You could multiply examples of players finding success in this environment: Adam Frazier, Jorge Mateo, Cedric Mullins, Ramón Urías, Aaron Hicks.

The point is: the Orioles are figuring out ways to put players in a position to succeed. This, in turn, is not just elevating those players’ play, it’s picking up those around them—especially the guys playing the same position.

Orioles fans have been tossing around this theory all year, but it appears to be true: the Birds are one of the league’s best at using platoons to their advantage. This happened all over the diamond. Adam Frazier (394 PA) split time at second with Jordan Westburg (135 PA), Ramón Urías (62 PA) and Joey Ortiz (16 PA). Other teams with starting 2B’s who had less than 400 AB’s usually were dealing with injuries (HOU’s José Altuve, MIN’s Jorge Polanco) or bad play (LAD’s Miguel Vargas). Not the Orioles; this was part of a plan.

This is partly why the lefty Frazier took five times as many at bats against right-handers than lefties. For fellow southpaw Ryan O’Hearn, the ratio was 10:1. (Note: right-handed pitchers outnumber left-handed ones by about 2:1 in MLB, so these splits seem significant.) Another reason why O’Hearn got increased playing time against righties is that Ryan Mountcastle’s splits opened up drastically for the first time ever: in 2023 Mounty clobbered lefties (.340 BA and 1.056 OPS) but struggled against righties (.232 BA and .636 OPS). Meanwhile, Ramón Urías, with his modest reverse splits, has gotten more use against right handers, while speedster Jorge Mateo is the natural reverse: he hits lefties well (.274 vs. .178 average against RHP) and is seeing more action against them.

The results of this experiment seem pretty encouraging. Take a look at the below chart. It shows five of baseball’s best teams and their total WAR at each position (this includes offensive and defensive production) and MLB rank. One thing that stands out is just how well Orioles platoons performed over the season.

For instance, no team that got Top-10 play at the hot corner divided its reps so evenly. The Orioles basically split third base reps evenly between Gunnar Henderson and Ramón Urías (263 to 288 plate appearances), and ended up with the sixth-highest production at that spot. That didn’t quite add up to one Austin Riley, but it wasn’t far off. The Orioles also did well with Team Ryan (Mountcastle and O’Hearn) taking almost even numbers of reps at first base, and at DH, where Anthony Santander, Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn all saw significant time.

2023 MLB Team Position Performance (WAR)

Team Total (Rank) All P SP RP Non-P C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH
Team Total (Rank) All P SP RP Non-P C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH
Atlanta Braves 54.3 (1) 16.5 (9) 10.1 (11) 6.3 (11) 37.8 (1) 3.3 (6) 7.1 (1) 4.7 (5) 5.8 (1) 1.3 (21) 1.1 (20) 3.2 (10) 8.0 (1) 3.0 (4) 0.3 (23)
Tampa Bay Rays 51.4 (2) 17.6 (5) 10.8 (8) 6.7 (6) 33.8 (3) 1.1 (18) 5.7 (3) 2.9 (12) 44.4 (5) 6.1 (2) 3.8 (3) 2.2 (18) 2.9 (8) 3.0 (5) 1.7 (3)
Texas Rangers 47.2 (3) 12.0 (21) 12.7 (4) -0.7 (28) 35.2 (2) 3.2 (7) 2.7 (8) 7.3 (1) 2.6 (13) 7.2 (1) 1.9 (13) 3.2 (9) 3.8 (5) 2.6 (9) 0.7 (13)
Los Angeles Dodgers 45.4 (4) 13.0 (20) 6.6 (22) 6.4 (10) 32.4 (4) 2.5 (11) 6.6 (2) 3.5 (11) 2.9 (12) 2.2 (16) 1.6 (18) 2.8 (14) 6.1 (2) 2.8 (8) 1.4 (6)
Baltimore Orioles 42.6 (10) 15.2 (12) 8.8 (17) 6.4 (8) 27.4 (8) 3.4 (5) 2.4 (10) 2.1 (17) 4.1 (6) 3.4 (12) 2.1 (11) 3.2 (11) 2.1 (14) 3.1 (3) 1.5 (5)

Injuries did account for some of the split time in the outfield and at first base. But Aaron Hicks and Ryan O’Hearn more than fulfilled their mission: Team Ryan ended up the tenth-best unit at their position, and Cedric Mullins (423 PA) and Aaron Hicks (121 PA) the eleventh-best.

The Orioles are not a team packed with superstars. But they are, as we can see, extremely well-constructed, well-managed, balanced, and deep. This year, they’ve added players carefully, people like James McCann whom they suspected could bring added value when used in the right way. This—and luck and talent and Orioles magic, among other things—might be why the Orioles are on the cusp of 100 wins and potentially one of their Top 5 finishes in franchise history. By putting their players in a position to succeed, they’re doing the same for their team.