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Castoff Orioles providing no shortage of fun early in weird season

Posted on 13 August 2020 by Luke Jones

Think back to what you hoped to see from the 2020 Orioles a month ago.

It hasn’t really gone as planned.

John Means has made only two starts while Hunter Harvey has yet to throw a pitch in this abbreviated 60-game season.

His recent inside-the-park home run aside, Austin Hays entered Thursday batting just .200 with one extra-base hit and a .519 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Ryan Mountcastle has yet to be promoted from the alternate camp at Double-A Bowie while Keegan Akin has only observed from the bullpen since being recalled last weekend.

Chris Davis looks no better, hitting the ball with less authority than ever and not even walking much. Only two more years to go on that nightmare contract.

Meanwhile, the likes of Dylan Bundy and Mike Yastrzemski are thriving elsewhere, which typically makes fans cringe and dwell on why that didn’t happen here.

But the 2020 Orioles are competing, entertaining, and — to the surprise of everyone — winning. Frankly, you couldn’t ask for more fun after some wondered aloud if this rebuilding club with more castoffs than prospects would win even 10 games in this unusual season.

“We’ve got a little bit of a renegade group here that has been dismissed by other clubs,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Wednesday’s win in Philadelphia. “It’s still early on in their careers. They’re trying to fight their way to stay in the big leagues, and they’ve found a home here. I think they like to play here. I think you’ve seen a lot of them improve.”

It’s not always pretty, evident by the embarrassing season-opening loss in Boston or the four-game home sweep suffered at the hands of the virus-depleted Miami Marlins last week. You’ll still see some head-scratching mistakes reminiscent of the last two seasons that produced a combined 223 losses, but the Orioles are almost always in ballgames, suffering just two defeats by more than four runs so far. That’s something they haven’t done consistently for a long time.

Yes, we’re only talking about 16 games here, which would be just 10 percent of a normal schedule and too small a sample size in a six-month season. But this is 2020 when that amounts to just over a quarter of the schedule and the Orioles would currently qualify in the expanded AL playoff field of eight teams with their 10-7 record. Even if you’re skeptical about this continuing — I definitely am — there’s less time for regression toward the mean with just over six weeks of regular season remaining.

While the baseball world laments the lack of offense with 442 fewer hits than strikeouts around the majors entering Thursday’s action, the Orioles ranked first in the AL in batting average (.261), third in on-base percentage (.329), and second in OPS (.794) despite not having 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini in the lineup. Despite registering only one quality start so far, the pitching has been an otherwise passable 11th in the AL with a 4.41 ERA with Hyde leaning more heavily on an effective bullpen thanks to the expanded roster.

But the real story has been the improvement and production from so many players previously told they weren’t good enough somewhere else.

Instead of regressing from his surprising 2019 that included a .305 average and .398 mark against lefties, Hanser Alberto is hitting the ball harder against all pitchers with a .342 average and 11 extra-base hits in his first 76 plate appearances. The 27-year-old second baseman hardly ever walks, but he doesn’t strike out very much either, making him an interesting outlier in today’s game consumed by “the three true outcomes” approach.

Despite missing a large portion of summer training due to a COVID-19 infection, outfielder Anthony Santander leads the club in RBIs and is tied for the lead with 11 extra-base hits. The former Rule 5 pick won’t turn 26 until October and continues to state his case to be a long-term piece.

Having quietly hit for more power up after a summer stint with Triple-A Norfolk last season, Rio Ruiz has carried that over to 2020 with four homers. The 26-year-old has also made some plays at third base of which Brooks Robinson and Manny Machado would be proud.

Defensive limitations aside, Renato Nunez and Pedro Severino continue to hit for the power they showed last year while Dwight Smith Jr. and Chance Sisco are also off to good starts at the plate. These guys may not resemble long-term answers, but their production speaks for itself.

This group of castoffs — that also includes veteran newcomer shortstop Jose Iglesias and his lofty .372 average — isn’t playing like a team picked by most to be the worst in baseball. In fact, seven of the nine players in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s crazy win in Philadelphia had been waived, designated for assignment, or claimed in the Rule 5 draft.

That’s sure to put a chip on anyone’s shoulder.

“Once you’ve been [designated] or put on waivers, that’s tough for a player to go through mentally,” Hyde said. “To be able to get another opportunity, I know you’re going to try to take the most of it. … I think that you’re naturally going to play with something to prove all the time.”

So, what does this surprising start mean for the Orioles’ rebuild?

Probably not much, and it shouldn’t.

We’re still talking about a small sample size in an unprecedented, weird season. That’s not to say general manager Mike Elias should be giving away players at the trade deadline to further cut a payroll that’s already low enough, but the Orioles shouldn’t entertain being serious buyers at this stage either. Enjoying some short-term winning and prioritizing the long haul aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

It’s still difficult looking at the current roster and identifying good bets to be part of Baltimore’s next sustainable contender if we’re to assume the current prosperity is more diversion than breakthrough. Should some of the aforementioned names sustain their success for the rest of 2020 and beyond, Elias still must weigh whether their value over the next couple years would be better served elsewhere with younger talent coming to Baltimore in return.

Regardless, the improvement shown from such unheralded players reflects favorably on Elias and Hyde, the coaching staff, and the entire baseball operations department. That’s more important in the long run that fretting over not securing the first overall pick in next year’s draft.

Whether it’s the unknown Pat Valaika providing the walk-off hit and a socially-distanced celebration, two runs scoring on a dropped popup at the pitcher’s mound, or the Orioles winning four of their first six series, we all needed some unexpected fun in this weird 2020.

Why Not?

BUCKle up.

No matter how long this lasts, let’s enjoy it.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following home opener loss to Yankees

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles dropping their home opener in a 9-3 loss to the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. There was no orange carpet, decorative bunting, or buzz at an empty Camden Yards against an opponent Baltimore wasn’t even supposed to play before the Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak prompted changes. Yes, baseball is back in a world it hardly recognizes.

2. One thing that hadn’t changed was the result against the Yankees as the Orioles suffered an astonishing 17th straight loss overall and 16th consecutive home defeat to New York. Long-term rebuild or not, that’s as embarrassing as it gets.

3. Incredibly, the three home runs allowed was a slight mathematical improvement from the 61 given up in 19 contests (3.21 per contest) and 43 surrendered in 10 Camden Yards games (4.3) against the Yankees in 2019. Baby steps?

4. After giving up an RBI double in the first inning, new Yankees ace Gerrit Cole retired 14 straight and 19 of 20 hitters before the Orioles finally chased him from the game in the seventh inning. Too little, too late.

5. Sloppy play gives you no chance against someone like Cole as Pedro Severino was called for catcher’s interference twice in the first inning. Rarely do you see that twice in the same game, let alone in the same inning. It was a forgettable night behind the plate for Severino.

6. Asher Wojciechowski couldn’t overcome giving up three homers on elevated fastballs, but his seven strikeouts and 18 swinging strikes — the latter matching his second-highest total from 2019 — reflected the good breaking stuff he had. The margin for error against a lineup like that is razor thin.

7. Brandon Hyde revealing Chris Davis was unavailable and not at the ballpark naturally led to speculation that his absence was coronavirus-related. Speaking to media on Wednesday, Davis expressed a heightened level of concern watching the Marlins’ situation play out. We’ll see what happens.

8. Jose Iglesias left the game in the seventh inning due to some soreness in his quad. You hate to see that with the way the veteran shortstop has been swinging the bat to begin the season.

9. Walk, walk, single, walk, strikeout, single, hit by pitch, wild pitch, walk, single. An ERA of 162.00. That’s how 27-year-old reliever Cody Carroll has fared in two outings thus far.

10. On the bright side, New York shortstop Gleyber Torres went 0-for-4, which qualifies as a minor miracle after the way he annihilated Orioles pitching last season to the tune of 13 home runs and a 1.512 OPS in 18 games. More baby steps?

11. Wednesday marked five years and three months to the day since Camden Yards hosted the first crowdless game in major league history. I never thought I’d cover another one, but here we are. Weird baseball is better than none at all, but fans are sorely missed.

12. Heartfelt compliments to the Orioles, Ravens, and local media for all they did for Mo Gaba, the Baltimore sports superfan who passed away on Tuesday. I didn’t know Mo personally, but his courageous spirit lives on in the countless individuals he inspired. What a special young man.

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Orioles place left fielder Smith on seven-day concussion list

Posted on 07 June 2019 by Luke Jones

As if the mounting losses weren’t enough, the injuries are now piling up for the last-place Orioles as left fielder Dwight Smith Jr. was placed on the seven-day concussion injured list Friday afternoon.

Smith injured his head and shoulder crashing into the left-field wall in Thursday’s loss at Texas. The roster move comes just a day after recently-promoted outfielder DJ Stewart was sent to the 10-day injured list with a sprained right ankle sustained in a collision with infielder Hanser Alberto in Wednesday’s defeat, the same night in which infielder Jonathan Villar and catcher Pedro Severino also left with minor injuries. Manager Brandon Hyde was so shorthanded for the final game of the Rangers series that Chris Davis made his first start in right field in three years — and made a key error in the 4-3 defeat.

Former Rule 5 outfielder Anthony Santander was recalled Friday to take Smith’s place on the 25-man roster.

Acquired from Toronto for international signing bonus slots in early March, Smith has been one of the few bright spots for a club currently on pace for its second straight sub-50 win season. The 26-year-old leads the Orioles with 41 runs batted in and ranks third in home runs (11) behind only Renato Nunez (15) and Trey Mancini (13). In 243 plate appearances, Smith is batting .249 with a .759 on-base plus slugging percentage.

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Sisco recalled by Orioles to begin road trip in Texas

Posted on 03 June 2019 by Luke Jones

On the same day the Orioles took Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman as their catcher of the future with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft, Chance Sisco will have his latest chance to stake his claim to that job in the present.

After optioning catcher Austin Wynns to Triple-A Norfolk after Sunday’s 8-1 loss to San Francisco, Baltimore has recalled Sisco for the start of a road trip to Texas and Houston. The 24-year-old was batting .289 with 20 extra-base hits and a .914 on-base plus slugging percentage in 193 plate appearances with the Tides this season. He joins corner outfielder DJ Stewart as the second Norfolk player to be promoted to the big leagues for strong performance in the last week.

Regarded as a top-100 prospect in baseball as recently as 2018, Sisco struggled mightily in 63 games with the Orioles last season, batting .181 with 66 strikeouts in 184 plate appearances. Those difficulties followed him back to Norfolk where he hit only .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances. Most expected the lefty-hitting catcher to make this year’s rebuilding club out of spring training, but Sisco was demoted in late March despite posting a stout 1.298 OPS in the Grapefruit League, his second straight strong spring.

While some concerns remain about a perceived long swing that was seemingly exposed in the majors last season, Sisco’s defense remains his biggest question mark as many have speculated whether he’ll need to shift to another position. He has thrown out just six of 33 runners attempting to steal in the International League this season.

It remains to be seen how manager Brandon Hyde will distribute playing time as the 25-year-old Pedro Severino has been one of the bigger surprises on the team after being claimed off waivers from Washington at the end of spring training. Previously regarded as a defense-first catcher, Severino is batting .273 with 10 extra-base hits and an .834 OPS in 115 plate appearances and has thrown out nine of 15 runners attempting to steal.

In case it weren’t clear, there was no relationship between Sisco’s promotion and the Orioles’ decision to draft Rutschman, the consensus top player in this year’s draft.

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Nine notable Orioles numbers at end of April

Posted on 01 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the 2019 Orioles now entering May, below is a look at nine notable numbers from the opening month of the season:

1.023 — Trey Mancini’s on-base plus slugging percentage

Let’s start with the big positive as Mancini entered Wednesday ranked eighth among qualified major league hitters in OPS and batted .355 with 17 extra-base hits in March and April. His .413 batting average on balls in play isn’t sustainable, but Mancini is striking out less (20.7 percent compared to 24.1 percent of plate appearances in 2018) and hitting fewer grounders (37.2 percent of balls in play compared to 54.6 percent last year). Those numbers lead you to believe marked improvement is real even if some regression toward the mean is inevitable. In a rebuilding year in which you wondered which player might represent the Orioles at the All-Star Game and if anyone would be remotely deserving of the honor, Mancini would be a legitimate choice from any team so far.

.333 — winning percentage

The 4-2 road trip to begin the season was a pleasant surprise, but a 10-20 start — two games better than last year — couldn’t have surprised anyone with realistic expectations at the start of a lengthy rebuild for general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. To the latter’s credit, a team clearly lacking the major league talent to compete on a nightly basis has played hard with few moments in which you’d question the effort, something you couldn’t say about last year’s 115-loss outfit. Dwight Smith Jr., Renato Nunez, and John Means have been early surprises in addition to Mancini’s blistering start, but the struggles and subsequent demotions of prospects Cedric Mullins and Tanner Scott are reminders that not everything will go to plan on the road back to respectability.

73 — home runs allowed

You may have heard by now the Orioles have a slight propensity for giving up the long ball as the pitching staff has allowed 20 more than any other team in baseball and more than twice as many as 14 others clubs. Baltimore is on pace to surrender 394 homers this season, which would obliterate the 2016 Cincinnati Reds’ major league record by 136 trips around the bases. The Orioles won’t like hearing it, but this probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, especially considering the weather hasn’t even warmed up. Yes, homers are up around baseball with many convinced the ball is juiced, but what the Orioles have allowed goes so far beyond that or the cozy confines of Camden Yards. Those many gopher balls have left the Orioles with the worst ERA in the majors (6.05) by more than a half-run.

7.56 — strikeouts per nine innings

We’ve seen bits and pieces of Elias’ Houston effect with pitchers throwing more sliders and elevated fastballs, but the Orioles rank last in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, which is quite a contrast from the Astros ranking in the top five in that department over the last three years. It’s hardly a novel concept around the game, of course, but Elias values pitchers who will miss bats with the major league average hovering around 9.0 strikeouts per nine frames so far this season. Baltimore has only three pitchers on the current 25-man roster (minimum five innings) hitting that threshold. Prospects such as Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and Blaine Knight are piling up strikeouts in the low minors, but such gifted arms are still at least a couple years away and many more are needed in this system.

6.67 — Dylan Bundy’s ERA

Bundy isn’t the only Baltimore pitcher struggling, but the 26-year-old is supposed to be one of the most valuable commodities on the current club, either as a trade chip or someone around which to build in the next few years. Bundy’s strikeout rate (10.8 per nine) is up, but his average fastball velocity has dipped once again to 91.0 miles per hour and he’s allowing homers even more frequently than last year when he led the majors with 41. Given his strikeout rate and how opponents have batted just .167 against Bundy his first time through the order, you wonder if a move to a relief role would be best and might improve his velocity. That doesn’t figure to happen anytime soon with Alex Cobb on the injured list and few apparent alternatives, but the current version of Bundy is neither fetching anything in a trade nor providing the Orioles with a building block.

.343 — Chris Davis’ average since his record-breaking hitless streak

Yes, Davis is batting only .176 for the season, but that sounds more palatable after his record-breaking hitless streak to begin the season. Since going 0-for-33 — and 0-for-54 dating back to last September — Davis has a 1.064 OPS with three home runs, three doubles, and 11 runs batted in over 37 plate appearances. Of course, that’s a small sample mostly avoiding left-handed starters and should not be interpreted as him being “back” after his historically poor 2018, but his average exit velocity of 90.7 miles per hour is his best since 2016 and is second on the club behind Nunez. According to Statcast, Davis is in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage this season. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t improved from last season, but the 33-year-old has calmed some of the discussion about his immediate future — for now.

Minus-15 — defensive runs saved

It would be way too kind to suggest the Orioles have played good defense so far in 2019, but they have improved from 29th to 25th in DRS and own only one more error than the league average. The outfield defense has had some issues that have been more pronounced since Mullins’ demotion, but the Orioles have typically made the plays they’re supposed to make and the “Bad News Bears” moments have been less frequent than we saw last year. Third baseman Rio Ruiz and catcher Pedro Severino have stood out defensively, but even Mancini has looked more comfortable in right field than he did in left. The defense definitely hurt the pitching last year, but this year’s group would probably help more if the pitching staff could keep the opposition from hitting the ball over the fence.

14 — stolen bases

There was much discussion this spring about Baltimore stealing more bases and putting pressure on the opposition — something we saw last year from deadline acquisition Jonathan Villar — but their 14 swipes are tied for ninth in the American League. In other words, the improved speed hasn’t exactly moved the meter. Then again, the 2016 Orioles stole just 19 bases for the entire season, so we’re talking about a very low bar set during the plodder years under Buck Showalter.

1 — intentional walks issued 

A hat tip to Jayson Stark of The Athletic for pointing this out, but the Orioles are one of several teams — including the Astros — to all but abandon the intentional walk, which analytics have exposed as an overrated strategy. Baltimore issued 29 free passes last season, so just one over 30 games is a striking contrast. In addition to that, the Orioles have only three sacrifice bunts and have usually stacked their best hitters at the top of the order rather than too often trying to shoehorn a Craig Gentry type at the top or putting Davis in the heart of the order because of the hitter he used to be. The strategy has been sound, even if the execution and talent are lacking.

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dwightsmith

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Twelve Orioles thoughts after first 20 games of 2019 season

Posted on 19 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles off to an 8-12 start after their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles entered Friday with the majors’ third-worst run differential — defending World Series champion Boston was shockingly second worst — but a 3-4 trip left them a respectable 7-6 road record. The 2018 club had 19 away wins all season. A roster overmatched on paper nightly has played with good energy.

2. Credit Baltimore for getting off the mat to win in extra innings Thursday, but that doesn’t wipe away the bullpen squandering a 5-2 lead with five outs to go. Orioles relievers have allowed seven more homers than any other team in baseball. Who can you really trust out there?

3. The top answer could be John Means if he doesn’t settle into the rotation. The lefty will fill a hybrid role for the time being with Alex Cobb returning, but a 1.72 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings have made him fun to watch in whatever capacity he’s pitched.

4. I’m glad to no longer be tracking a historic hitless streak for Chris Davis, but we’re a long way from suggesting he’s made meaningful improvement. I will note his average exit velocity (91.1 mph) is the best it’s been since 2015, but we’re talking about a very small sample size.

5. An 0-for-5 Thursday dropped Cedric Mullins to an .089 batting average. Patience is warranted and he’s defended well in center, but you wonder how hard a healthy Austin Hays — who’s just beginning a hitting progression after recovering from the thumb injury — might have been knocking at the door.

6. The Orioles own only two starts of six innings or more so far this season. It’s fair mentioning the handful of times they’ve used someone who wasn’t fully stretched out as a starter, but that still doesn’t say much for veterans like Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy.

7. Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino have combined to hit barely above the Mendoza line, but the catchers have thrown out eight of 13 runners attempting to steal this season. I would like to see Severino receive a few more opportunities since he’s five years younger.

8. Trey Mancini has been far and away Baltimore’s best hitter, but Dwight Smith Jr. has been the biggest surprise so far as he’s shown some power with a .474 slugging percentage and gone 9-for-24 with four extra-base hits against lefties. He has a nice swing.

9. After a slow start at Triple-A Norfolk, Ryan Mountcastle has homered in three of his last four games and has received all but two of his starts in the field at first base. His development is the most relevant baseball-related factor in the Davis saga at this point.

10. In his first three starts for Single-A Delmarva, 19-year-old Grayson Rodriguez has pitched to a 0.54 ERA and struck out 28 batters in 16 2/3 innings. I suppose that’s not too shabby for the 2018 first-round pick.

11. Brian Roberts has been impressive as a color analyst on MASN, especially considering his limited experience in the role. He clearly does his homework and presents those insights in an entertaining way. I’d like to hear more of him on broadcasts.

12. This FanGraphs article offered a look at Brandon Hyde, his daily routine, and how he interacts with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal. It’s also a reminder the infrastructure of baseball operations is far from complete as the manager notes the current size of the front office and analytics department.

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Orioles send Sisco, Scott to Triple-A Norfolk to begin 2019 season

Posted on 25 March 2019 by Luke Jones

Catcher Chance Sisco and relief pitcher Tanner Scott were thought to be among the few intriguing young players who would begin the season with the rebuilding Orioles while most others go the minors.

General manager Mike Elias had other ideas, however, as the two were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday despite seeing extensive playing time with the Orioles last season. The moves were just the latest reminder of there being a new regime in Baltimore with a different vision prioritizing player development for the future over the short-term results at the major-league level.

Sisco and defensive-minded veteran Jesus Sucre had appeared to be the favorites to head north on the 25-man roster, but the waiver acquisition of former Washington catcher Pedro Severino over the weekend led to the former’s demotion, a clear sign of the organization valuing defense behind the plate to help a young pitching staff. Sisco, 24, had a strong spring in which he posted a 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances — his second straight impressive Grapefruit League — but his defense remains a major question mark in his long-term development.

In 184 plate appearances with the Orioles last season, Sisco batted just .181 with 66 strikeouts and a .557 OPS. He also struggled in his 2018 stints with the Tides, batting just .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances.

Once thought to be the Nationals’ catcher of the future, the 25-year-old Severino is out of minor-league options and owns a career .560 OPS in 282 major league plate appearances. His defense is his strength as he’s thrown out 36 percent of runners attempting to steal in his brief major league career.

Also vying for a major league job, 28-year-old catcher Austin Wynns has missed extensive spring action while recovering from an oblique strain and is likely to begin the season on the injured list.

Scott was demoted to Norfolk after a rough spring in which he posted an 8.00 ERA with six walks and six strikeouts in nine innings. The hard-throwing lefty posted a 5.40 ERA in 53 1/3 innings with the Orioles last season, but his 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings were encouraging, especially if he can further improve his control.

It’s worth noting Scott has pitched just 12 innings at the Triple-A level, which may have factored into Elias’ decision to send him to the minors after an up-and-down rookie season. The Orioles are also trying to fulfill the remainder of right-hander Pedro Araujo’s Rule 5 requirement, which will require the 25-year-old to stay in the majors until mid-April.

The Orioles also optioned left-hander Josh Rogers to Norfolk and reassigned catchers Carlos Perez and Andrew Susac and infielder Jace Peterson to minor-league camp on Sunday.

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