By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The Baltimore Orioles are one of the hottest teams in baseball.
Soak it in. Read it twice. Revel in the madness. Camden Yards is alive again.
Winners of eight consecutive games, the O’s are suddenly just two games back of the third American League wild card. The Buck Showalter Orioles, a team that won more games than any other team in baseball from 2012 to 2016, never won eight in a row.
It has been a remarkable leap for a club that, for the past four years, was the doormat of the entire sport. The Birds were a joke, a punchline, an example of the ills of tanking and the lasting impact of poor management. Mike Elias, whom the Orioles hired as general manager in 2018, encouraged patience in the early days of the team’s rebuild, but the O’s were a brutal watch, an awful product and an even worse team.
But 2022 might just mark the start of a new era in Baltimore. Since June 1, the O’s are 21-14, fourth-best in the American League. They just swept the Rangers and mopped the Angels. Three of the eight wins in their current streak were walk-offs. Three others came by one run.
The Orioles now sit just one game under .500, and their playoff odds have increased from 0.1% on Opening Day to 1.3%. Still small, but bigger!
Call it chance, call it unsustainable luck, call it Orioles Magic, call it whatever you want, but the Baltimore Orioles have gone from literally the worst team in baseball to a real life, entertaining, decently good baseball team.
What has been behind this shocking transformation? You could write a whole book on it (at least, I could), but here are five reasons the new and improved Orioles are the talk of baseball right now.
When the Showalter Orioles were at their best, the bullpen was front and center, as stingy a relief corps as there was in the game. But while there isn’t a big name such as Zack Britton, Andrew Miller or Pedro Strop in the 2022 ‘pen, the current group might be just as good.
The Birds’ bullpen (should it be the bird cage? The aviary?) has the fifth-lowest ERA in baseball, better than that of postseason stalwarts such as the Dodgers, Rays and Brewers.
Every reliever with more than 30 innings pitched has an ERA under 2.61, except for mop-up guy Bryan Baker. Jorge López has been a revelation. The former starter-turned-closer was just named to his first All-Star roster as Baltimore’s lone rep — and deservedly so. The 29-year-old Puerto Rican has been one of the best ninth-inning guys in the league, with a 1.74 ERA in 41 1/3 innings while racking up 16 saves.
But it has been more than just López. Felix Bautista is built like Mount Everest, throws 98 and has a 1.77 era. Former No. 4 overall pick Dillon Tate has finally channeled his immense talent into sustained success as the setup man. Joey Krehbiel (aka Mr. Krehbs) is the rare random reliever in his late 20s who got better after leaving Tampa. And Keegan Akin has flourished in a multi-inning relief role to post one of the more unique pitching lines we’ve ever seen: 22 games, 50 2/3 innings, zero starts, 2.31 ERA. All but two of his 22 outings have been at least two innings.
A good bullpen on its own does not lead to champagne celebrations, but compared to the Orioles teams of recent years, this is a huge improvement. The emotional letdown of coughing up a lead in the late innings night after night is demoralizing for a young ballclub.
“You get into those late innings, and it’s a close game, and in the back of your mind, it’s like, you know, ‘How are we gonna blow it this time?’” O’s slugger Ryan Mountcastle told FOX Sports back in May. “But this year seems a little different. It’s the opposite.”
Competent starting pitching
A staff full of ERAs that start with three can win you a championship, but a staff full of ERAs that start with four, rather than five or six, leads to something beautiful and often underrated: competence.
The 2018-21 Horror Show Orioles’ biggest problem, their most common pitfall, was abysmal starting pitching. Every other game, a Baltimore starter would get blasted to smithereens by opposing hitters by the third inning, and it’s very difficult to come back from an 8-1 deficit. There were flashes of adult behavior, mostly from John Means, but as a whole, the Orioles were usually a batting practice machine.
Not anymore. Tyler Wells has been the biggest development; the tall righty with a skyscraper body has a 3.28 ERA in almost 80 innings. Jordan Lyles, signed by the O’s to munch up innings, has nom-nomed his way to 98 frames. Even Spenser Watkins, a person you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re an O’s fan or a member of his family, has a 4.15 ERA in 11 starts. Sure!
None of these folks is going to get Cy Young votes or All-Star nods, but more often than not over the past month, they’ve given Baltimore a shot to win the ballgame. And until the promising fireballers in the farm system, such as Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, reach the bigs, competence will do just fine.
Rougned Odor, vibes god
The most irreplaceable player on the Orioles has a .657 OPS. Odor, the oldest-looking 28-year-old in the world, has completely reinvigorated the Baltimore clubhouse. Ask any member of the O’s what has changed this season, and they’ll all mention “Rougie.”
When a bad team’s veterans are grumpy and jaded, it turns every day into a chore and a slog. When a bad team’s veterans are positive, passionate and energetic dynamos like Odor, it raises the energy of the entire club.
John Means, who is out for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, told FOX Sports about his first interaction with Odor in spring training.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Means said. “I thought, ‘This guy’s gonna be f—ing intense. This guy’s gonna be an asshole,’ and turns out he’s THE nicest guy in the world. It’s hilarious. I remember being like, ‘You smile? You’re the guy who punched Jose Bautista in the face?’
“I was pleasantly surprised that he was approachable, when I first met him. He’s so different than the perception people have of him.”
Ryan Mountcastle, legitimately great
Take a glance down the Orioles’ lineup, and there aren’t too many breakout seasons going on to suggest an eight-game winning streak. Austin Hays has taken a big step forward, Trey Mancini is his usual .840 OPS self, Adley Rutschman has been much better the past month after a rough start to his career, and Cedric Mullins is hitting over .300 since June 1. But there are no All-Stars, no MVP candidates, no hitters making headlines.
Mountcastle should probably be the exception. His full-season numbers are good — .277/.314/.491 for an .805 OPS — but not eye-popping when compared to the Judges and Deverses of the world. However, since coming back from a wrist injury in late May, Mountcastle has been one of the best hitters in baseball, with a .944 OPS since June 1.
More importantly, his batted ball data reveals enormous year-to-year improvement. He has gone from 45th to 96th percentile in average exit velocity, 41st to 93rd percentile in hard hit percentage and 47th to 92nd percentile in barrel percentage. No hitter in baseball has improved as much across all those metrics.
Because there are so many first basemen, Mountcastle didn’t make the All-Star team, but keep an eye on him for next year. He’s still only 25, and it looks like he has unlocked some things at the plate, solidifying himself as a middle-of-the-order force on the next good O’s team.
Dumb luck/Orioles Magic
You don’t win eight in a row without a bit of pixie dust.
Clutchness is random chance; random chance is clutchness. Who really knows? But over the past week, the O’s have been smiled upon by the baseball gods. They have a run differential of +14 during the winning streak. That’s an average winning margin of less than two runs. On nights when the offense hasn’t showed up, the pitching has been splendid. On nights when the starters have struggled, the lineup has raked.
The peak of the circus was Friday night’s contest against the Angels. Baltimore was down two with two outs and the bases empty in the ninth before stringing together four consecutive hits, three of them with two strikes, against Raisel Iglesias, one of the best closers in baseball, for a shocking, walk-off victory in front of more than 27,000 on floppy hat giveaway night.
Now look, the Orioles likely won’t join the top-tier teams in the October jamboree, but so what? This club is entertaining, it’s feisty, it’s worth caring about and worth watching. Attendance at Camden Yards is up, and O’s fans are reengaging with the team after years of futility.
Orioles Magic is, for the time being, back.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Mountcastle said. “Yeah, winning is definitely way more fun than losing.”
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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