- The Washington Times
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Entering this season, there was one number that encapsulated the state of the Baltimore Orioles: 0.1%. 

That percentage — one-tenth of one percent — was the odds that FanGraphs gave the Orioles to make the postseason. The odds were the worst in the major leagues, and not even the team’s most ardent defenders could blame the website for its lack of belief in the Orioles.

For the previous four years, the once-proud franchise had undoubtedly been the worst in baseball, losing over 100 games in each full season, including a 110-loss campaign just the year before. A new regime entered after 2018, igniting a painful rebuild that was expected to extend through 2022 — and maybe even longer.

But something strange happened this summer. Suddenly overnight, the Orioles were good again. Since calling up baseball’s then-No. 1 prospect Adley Rutschman on May 21, the Orioles have a record of 58-43, and they’ve been in the wild card hunt since late July.

A bad start to September (2-6 in an eight-game stretch) likely ruined the Orioles’ playoff aspirations. However, they remain within shouting distance of the wild card (5 1/2 games back of Toronto and five games back of Tampa Bay and Seattle as of Wednesday afternoon) with three weeks remaining. 

Whether or not the Orioles make the playoffs this season is, frankly, immaterial to the larger point. After four years of ignominy, the Orioles have finally put their rebuild in the past. 

“When you start to win, now it’s about winning every single night and expecting to win,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said Tuesday at Nationals Park. “And we turned the corner with that this year.”

While the Orioles’ success this season — 74-67 after a one-run win over the Nationals Tuesday — is a surprise, it’s not confusing. It’s quite simple: A bunch of players are performing better this season than they did last year. 

Jorge Mateo went from an afterthought waiver claim last season to arguably one of the five best all-around shortstops in the American League. Mateo entered Wednesday hitting just .222, but he’s smacked 12 homers, stolen 30 bases (tied for third in MLB) and is tied for fourth on FanGraphs in defensive runs saved among shortstops. Outfielder Anthony Santander has reestablished himself as a presence in the middle of the order with 27 home runs after posting below-average numbers last season. And third baseman Ramon Urias has stepped up into a consistent role as an average hitter with an elite glove. His 16 defensive runs saved put him fourth among all MLB infielders on FanGraphs, and his 3.6 wins above replacement are the second-best on the Orioles

Starting pitcher Dean Kremer and relievers Dillon Tate and Felix Bautista have all made monumental strides this season. Kremer’s 3.34 earned-run average is the best among the team’s traditional starters and is far better than the 7.55 ERA he posted in 2021. Tate has also cut his ERA in half to a crisp 2.59, while Bautista has been one of the best relievers in baseball (1.60 ERA and 13 saves) since being called upon to fill in at closer after the team traded Jorge Lopez at the deadline. 

Another reason the Orioles have skipped a few steps on the ladder out of the cellar is the emergence of a few high-profile rookies. Rutschman, who the team selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, has lived up to the hype. He easily leads the team in WAR at 4.5, and ranks second among catchers with 16 defensive runs saved. In just 93 games, the rookie has roped 30 doubles and 10 home runs.

Joining the backstop two weeks ago was fellow top prospect Gunnar Henderson, who became the club’s top prospect once Rutschman matriculated to the show. In 13 games, Henderson is slashing .304/.360/.457, including a towering home run in his debut.

Despite the boost from Henderson, the Orioles have seen themselves fall further out of contention this month. Being five games back of a wild card spot in mid-September isn’t an insurmountable deficit, but it’s close to it. One caveat for Baltimore is that it still has six games remaining against the Blue Jays, which provides some hope down the stretch. 

“We’ve got to take care of ourselves,” Hyde said. “Nothing is going to matter if we’re losing a series. It’s important we get back on a winning track and play well these last few games.”

Up next is a crucial three-game series against the Blue Jays. After it’s done, the Orioles’ feel-good campaign could essentially be over, or the surprise of the MLB season could make a run at defying the 0.1% odds.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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