The Baltimore Orioles have been one of the biggest surprises in baseball during the first week of the season. There are plenty of things that we learned on Opening Day this year, but we didn’t know how good the Orioles were going to be. Most had pegged them to finish last in their division, based upon few changes in the offseason and the mediocre pitching staff they assembled. But the Orioles are currently 7-1.
They had a hot start from their best hitters at the plate and are seeing some of the best pitching in the American League. Things have been going well in Baltimore, but is it sustainable? After all, their strong beginning to the season involved five home games and just one road game in Boston. Three of those games came against the Minnesota Twins, who are 0-6 on the season and may not ever win a game.
On Wednesday night, they lost to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, but the team remains optimistic about its future. The concern comes when Baltimore has to dig into the more difficult teams on the schedule, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, and Houston Astros.
The hitting might be a big part of their strong start, too. Chris Davis, who returned to the Orioles on a seven-year, $161 million contract in the offseason, is back to doing the things that Chris Davis does—he’s hit four homers and has a slash line of .233/.361/.633 in his 26 plate appearances.
Overall, the O’s have six regular players with an OPS over .900 and are second in the AL as a team with an .867 OPS. For a comparison, the Toronto Blue Jays high-powered offense of 2015 led the AL with a .797 OPS. On the other side of the ball, there’s the pitching. The Orioles pitching staff has a composite 3.04 ERA, which is third in the AL right now. While they had a quality relief corps last season and look good this year as well, the starting pitching is a big question.
So far, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman have performed well in their starts, combining for 14 innings pitched, just two earned runs and 19 strikeouts. Last year, the starting rotation, which included Jimenez and Tillman, had an ERA of 4.53 and just 7.0 K/9. It’s hard to envision the Orioles continuing this kind of production from their pitching. They lost their best starting pitcher from last year, Wei-Yin Chen, to the Miami Marlins.
Baltimore replaced Chen with Yovani Gallardo, who had a good year with the Texas Rangers last year but has seen his velocity drop off heavily on his fastball (down from around 93 mph average a few years ago to around 90 or 91 in 2015). His K/9 has dropped off; it was 9.4 from 2009-2012 to just 6.6 from 2013-2016. It dipped as low as 5.9 last year. Will he continue to perform at a high level, with so many balls in play?
The Orioles’ devision could be the bright spot in the conversation. There’s always at least one surprise team in Major League Baseball each season, and the AL East isn’t predicted to be one of the stronger divisions in the game. Fangraphs projected the Red Sox to win the division at 88-74, with the Orioles coming in fourth at 83-79 and the Rays in last place at 81-81.
With just seven games as a projected difference between first and last place, it’s fair to say that the division is completely up for grabs. The core of this Orioles team also won 96 games and made it to the ALCS as recently as 2014. Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Davis, Jimenez, and Tillman all played major roles on that team, and you could argue that down years from some of their pitchers in 2015 was what led to the O’s having a down year.
So why not the Orioles? Most think the Blue Jays or the Red Sox are the likely winners of the division. There’s a reasonable chance that Baltimore will compete all year to be the surprise team in baseball. They still have a strong bullpen and a lineup that features one of the best power hitters in the game, Davis, and if they can get bounce-back years from Jimenez and Tillman, the Orioles could compete in October this year.
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