Orioles 1B Ryan Mountcastle; Photo via Maryland GovPics
At the time of writing this (7/13/22), the 2022 Baltimore Orioles are the hottest team in baseball. Over the past couple of seasons, baseball fans far and wide have regarded the Orioles as the bottom of the barrel. This Baltimore team has been in a long rebuild since their last playoff berth in 2016. In that season, the ball club put up an 89-73 record but lost the Wildcard game to the Toronto Blue Jays. The seasons following that 2016 run have been nothing short of disappointing, as the O’s have produced 5 abysmal under-.500 seasons. The worst of these seasons happened in 2018 when the team managed a 47-115 record. Orioles fans have not had to deal with a playoff drought like that of, say, the Mariners, but the recent bottom-feeding stretch has to feel like decades for fans of this Baltimore team. Rebuilds are a part of baseball and may not look so pretty when in the thick of the process. However, the rebuilding phase implies a future era of dominance when the team will accomplish its goal. The Baltimore Orioles are on the cusp of that era. As of July 13th, 2022, the Orioles are on a 9-game winning streak and have improved their record to 44-44. A stretch of .500 ball is the best thing that an Orioles fan could have asked for. No matter what, this season is a win for the Orioles, as this team is proving that their dark ages of the past are propelling them into a bright future. When their top-rated prospects make their inevitable debuts in the following seasons, the Orioles can expect to climb back towards the top of the AL East. For now, looking at what is happening in Baltimore that is making this team succeed is extremely valuable for predicting what their season will look like after 162 games have been played. Will the Orioles continue to shock the league, or will they regress back to a more “Oriole-like” record by season’s end?
Starting it off in the starting rotation, Tyler Wells has been having an impressive, under-the-radar season, producing for the Orioles in a valuable way. As a 15th-round draft pick in 2016 by the Minnesota Twins, no one expects too much from this player, making him the perfect candidate to showcase the 2022 Orioles team. Wells is an oddball pitcher who does not feature many conventionally impressive statistics. Through 17 starts this season, he is sitting at 3.28 ERA with a 7-4 record. His strikeout percentage sits at a measly 16.6% with a 5.99 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. What is impressive about Wells is his walk rate, sitting at 6.0%, and his left on-base percentage, clocking in at 79.2%. That 79.2% is outstanding for any starting pitcher. For reference, National League fWAR pitching leader Carlos Rodon sports a LOB percentage of 75.0%. Wells changed his entire pitching mentality in the offseason between 2021 and 2022. After being a reliever for Baltimore in 2021, Wells rose to the challenge of being a secure member of the starting rotation. Strangely enough, as a reliever, Wells had better strikeout stuff. His 2021 bullpen year had him at a 4.11 ERA with a 10.26 K/9 and a 1.89 BB/9. The Orioles saw potential in these numbers from Wells and promoted him to his starting role. Wells is not finding success in the ways that the Orioles staff had predicted, but they have got to be ecstatic about the season this 27-year-old is having so far. Taking a look at Baseball Savant, Tyler’s percentile rankings back up his success in the first half of this season. Tyler’s expected stats are nothing to scoff at, as he finds himself in the 68th percentile for xERA, 66th for xBA, and 56th for xSLG. While these aren’t exactly ace-type numbers, they still reflect an above-average pitcher in the making. What is the most impressive from his percentile rankings is his fastball spin. This statistic measures spin efficiency on a pitcher’s fastball (4-seam or 2-seam). The higher the spin efficiency, the higher chance of a player being deceived by the pitch, which results in a swing-and-miss or weak contact. For Wells, the weak contact factor of spin comes into play the most often. While the 94th percentile ranking for his fastball spin would imply a lot of swing and miss in his game, the 37th percentile ranking in Whiff% (swing-and-miss) and the 12th percentile in K% is what is actually happening on the field. Wells does not throw particularly hard, either, only having an average velo of 94 mph on his fastball. However, Wells attacks hitters and gets the result he wants with his deceptive pitches. When hitters make contact, it is most often soft. Wells’ success in 2022 is no mistake, and remaining an above-average pitcher for the remainder of 2022 is a great possibility for this right-hander.
One of the brightest spots in the Orioles’ lineup for the past two seasons has been Ryan Mountcastle. In 2021, Mountcastle set the Baltimore rookie home run record with 33 long balls in 144 games. Coming off his successful 2021 campaign, Mountcastle was looking for all-around improvement in 2022. He is indeed finding that through his first 75 games of the season. A basic slash line for Ryan gives him .272/.309/.483, good for a 120 wRC+ (20% better than league average in 2022). Mountcastle ranks in the 91st percentile and better for several of the game’s most important hitting metrics. The most impressive percentiles on his Savant page are 94th in average exit velocity and HardHit %, 95th in barrel %, and 95th in expected slugging percentage. The xSLG percentile is exceptionally impressive because that implies that Mountcastle is not experiencing a ton of luck in his game. This is further backed up by his 96th percentile ranking in expected batting average. Even with these sort of numbers being put up by the Orioles first baseman, there has to be some sort of negative about Mountcastle. To put it simply, Mountcastle has all of the makings of the next great power hitter. This means extremely below-average plate discipline and a ton of swing and miss featured in his game. The 25-year-old barely walks, swings at everything (3rd percentile for chase rate on Savant), and strikes out 25.8% of the time. With today’s game rewarding players like this, it would be hard to criticize Mountcastle for these rankings. Orioles fans should expect Mountcastle to break past last year’s home run count of 33 in this 2022 season. He is on pace for another outstanding season and has undoubtedly been a big factor in his team’s success this year. The Orioles may have found their power-hitting first baseman of the future and Mountcastle’s breakout season very well could be unfolding before us.
The last key piece for the Orioles is, fittingly, their closer. Jorge Lopez is having other-worldly success in 2022. In 2021, Lopez was a terrible starting pitcher who featured a 6.07 ERA, a 3-14 record, and a very high 4.14 BB/9. To shake things up for Lopez, the closing role in the Orioles’ bullpen was assigned to him. Lopez is shining for the Orioles, putting up a 1.70 ERA with 17 saves in 42.1 innings. 10.20 K/9 with a LOB percentage of 79.9% is far beyond what the Orioles could have expected from him. Lopez, to be blunt, gets guys out. His WHIP is .094, and his ground ball percentage is 58.1%. Those numbers from any pitcher would be enough to make any manager shed a tear of joy. However, the question of the longevity of this pitcher’s success is what could be his fall from bliss back to a more normal season. Lopez’s chase rate is in the 16th percentile. Being able to fool hitters consistently is what makes a closing pitcher succeed. Lopez throws hard, averaging 98 mph on his sinker. At a certain point, however, velocity is not enough to carry a pitcher. As hitters continue to improve and figure his stuff out, a few more blown saves could very well be headed his way. Lopez is an impressive pitcher, but his spin percentiles must improve for there to be hope for long-term success from his arm. The Orioles should make a trade for a more sustainable reliever and use Lopez’s first-half success as the bait. The Orioles should target a guy like Anthony Bass of the Miami Marlins. While Bass’ fastball spin is not great, he relies primarily on his nasty slider, which propels Bass into the 92nd percentile of chase rate. The change of pace from the starting rotation to the closer role has very much benefitted Lopez in 2022. If he does not end up being traded, however, regression to a 3.50-4.00 ERA by the end of the season for this closer is not a crazy prediction.
The 2022 Orioles are a very exciting team. Their chemistry, combined with the successful 2022 seasons of several players, is putting them on a path for their best season since 2016. Although their 9-game win streak is extremely good for the game of baseball and this Baltimore club, the underlying numbers for the majority of their players are not enough to produce a playoff spot. However, the players mentioned above are a massive part of this 2022 Orioles team and their recent improvements as a club. Gone are the days where we see 100-loss seasons from the team in Baltimore. This team is proving they can win without buying the big-time free agents. Their fans and management have put their trust in the rebuilding process. Within the next couple of seasons, the Orioles will be at the top of the AL East. This rebuild has the potential to be the most dominant in recent history, as the Orioles have many more top-100 prospects to call up. Fans of the game should take note of what is going on in Baltimore and be excited for what is to come out of this team in the future.