In the 2020 world of COVID-19, it really seems as if anything is possible.
When thinking about the upcoming season for the Baltimore Orioles in February, most experts and fans alike assumed that this would be another 100 loss season and potentially even worse than last year’s 54-108 campaign.
On March 11, Fangraphs projections gave the Orioles a 0.0% chance to make the playoffs. This made them the only team given zero chance to make the playoffs in 2020 and one of only two teams in the last five years to be designated as such (the 2019 Marlins were also given a zero percent chance prior to the season).
On July 22 after the new season and playoff structure was decided upon, the team’s chances went up to 1.4%. The team’s chances today stand at 6.8%, almost quadrupling since the beginning of the season.
With the season 25% complete, the question is, can the Orioles actually keep this up and how will they do so. If the season ended today, the Orioles would be a Wild Card team.
Unfortunately, the season does not end today and there are many that see the team’s quick start as a fluke. In ESPN’s latest power rankings, they have the Orioles ranked 29th, ahead of only the 3-13 Pirates and behind teams with much worse records.
As eternal optimists, however, we here at The Baltimore Battery are confident that the Orioles can keep this going, and we provide the reasons below.
Of course, we are also realists and understand that there is one thing, in particular, that can bring the “Why Not?” train to a screeching halt.
Reasons that the Cinderella season can continue:
Some teams came into the season thinking World Series or bust, regardless of season length (we’re looking at you Yankees and Dodgers). Such lofty expectations can weigh heavy on the shoulders of any team, let alone a young and inexperienced squad like the Orioles.
The expectations for the “Baby Birds” were literally nothing (see above). This team can play free and loose knowing that anything positive that comes out of the season is a bonus.
The Orioles are on the verge of sweeping the defending World Series Champions (thanks Nats tarp crew). Let’s take a look at the final game lineup that charged 2019 Cy Young contender Stephen Strasburg with a five-run fifth inning.
- Hanser Alberto – Waivers
- Anthony Santander – Rule 5 Draft
- Renato Núñez – Waivers
- Rio Ruiz – Waivers
- Dwight Smith, Jr. – Trade for International bonus money
- Austin Hays – 3rd round pick
- Chance Sisco – 2nd round pick
- Pat Valaika – Waivers
- Bryan Holaday – Minor league deal
There are no high-priced free agents, no blue-chip draftees and no big name trades here.
The average age of that lineup is 26.7, a full two years younger than the lineup that Nationals fielded on the same day. In fact, the there was one Oriole in that lineup over the age of 27. For the Nationals, six over the age of 27 and five north of 30. These Orioles are just kids that like to play baseball, and it shows.
Recently, teams such as the 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox have ridden high on-base percentages (OBP) and high slugging percentages to World Series Championships.
The Astros and Red Sox actually led the league in on-base percentage during their championship seasons. The thought process has been championed by baseball “super brain” Bill James for years.
The statistics show that the best way to score runs is to get on base and accumulate bases. This year’s Orioles are second in the American League in OBP and slugging. This is not by accident.
The 2020 Orioles work the count when necessary and swing away when the situation calls for it. This work has come against the likes of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and the aces of both the Rays and the Red Sox. There could be some regression here, but this team seems to be built to get on base.
Help is on the way!
There are certainly holes in the Orioles lineup, rotation and bullpen. There are improvements that can be made, however, and they are slowly starting to happen.
On Saturday the Orioles recalled 2016 second round draft pick Keegan Akin. It remains to be seen what role Akin will play; however, it is likely that the young lefty will improve any role that he steps into.
By most accounts, 2015 first round draft pick Ryan Mountcastle is MLB ready. The 23-year-old can step in at many positions and provide an instant upgrade.
Mountcastle drubbed Triple-A pitching last year for 25 home runs, a .312 batting average and an .851 OPS. The question remains, will Mountcastle get the call?
The Orioles projected closer at the beginning of the season, Hunter Harvey, is expected to return from injury in late August. Harvey provides an immediate upgrade to the bullpen and potentially the closer role.
What could derail the hot start?
Of course, in baseball things happen, and players and teams tend to revert back to their mean. Hitters could go cold (see the Marlins series), the bottom could fall out of the pitching, etc. None of that would be surprising and most fans would accept this team being in contention through 25% of the season.
One person, however, could have a huge effect on the competitiveness of the team going forward, and that is GM Mike Elias.
If Elias feels that these Orioles are paper birds with no real shot of reaching the post season or making a dent in the playoffs, he will hold off on calling up prospects to fill glaring holes in the roster.
If the GM feels that he doesn’t care how the Orioles perform in a shortened 2020 season and wants to see improvements in 2021 and beyond, he may start trading away the Alex Cobb and José Iglesias types that have been so important to the early season success of the club.
As of now, Elias hasn’t given much of an inclination as to where his head is on that front.
Regardless of how the 2020 season plays out, as an Orioles fan, the start to the season has been fun and exciting and much more dramatic than most thought it would be.
Follow along with The Baltimore Battery all season, as we track these fun-loving, on-base getting youngsters that hopefully continue to put the O’s in the win column (cue Joe Angel voice)!