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(Julio Cortez/AP)
(Julio Cortez/AP)

The Baby Birds: How Baltimore Dominated The AL in 2023

From 2017 to 2021, the Baltimore Orioles were by far baseball’s worst team, posting a record of 253-455 and finishing last in the American League East in four of those five seasons. While 2022 gave Orioles fans a glimmer of hope into what their future would hold, 2023 has been a glistening display of what this team will be for years to come. Made up of a roster littered with young talent, along with a few team mainstays, this Orioles team has shown why they are a side that no team wants to face in the playoffs. If 2023 is any indication for the future, the American League will run through Baltimore, and the fans at Camden Yards will be sure to bring the electric atmosphere into the stadium after having little to cheer for since the mid-2010s.  

As the regular season winds to a close, the Orioles stand on the precipice of clinching home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series. To understand how exactly this team went from worst to first in just a matter of 2 years, let’s take a look at some of the most vital components that have contributed to this quick turnaround.

Homegrown Talent

After a league-worst 2018 season in which they finished 47-115, the Orioles had the first overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft.  In this draft, Baltimore decided to take the best hitting prospect available and selected Adley Rutschman, a switch-hitting catcher out of Oregon State.  Rutschman was a power-hitting backstop who also excelled at putting the ball in play, portraying him as the best catching prospect since Buster Posey in 2008. The Orioles pounced on the chance to add him to their system.  After also taking left-handed hitting shortstop Gunnar Henderson with an early draft pick that year, Baltimore’s middling farm system leaped up into the top 10 in all of baseball and hasn’t looked back since.  They boasted the top-ranked minor league talents in 2021 and 2022, and their elite player development has turned raw prospects into above-average major league-level talent, such as Cedric Mullins, Jordan Westburg, and others.  General manager Mike Elias has orchestrated this complete overhaul since his arrival after the 2018 season and has been overseeing the rise of some of baseball’s best young players.  Standing above the rest, Rustchman and Henderson have lived up to the expectations, performing at high levels for this entire season.  Rutschman’s success is an encore of his AL Rookie of the Year runner-up performance in 2022, while Henderson’s first full year is likely to end in a runaway victory for the award in 2023.  With these two former top prospects hitting at consistently above-average levels during their stints so far in the major leagues, pitchers have had a tough time navigating their way through the top of the Orioles’ lineup, and that will only continue to be the case in the years ahead.

On the pitching side of things, Baltimore’s staff has been headlined this year by 2018 fourth-round pick Kyle Bradish.  The right-handed starter out of Peoria, Arizona, has turned things around after a sub-par 2022 season and has led all Orioles pitchers in wins above replacement this season.  With his high ground-ball rate and low number of walks allowed, Bradish has excelled at limited opposing teams scoring, boasting the only sub-3.00 Earned Run Average among Baltimore’s starting rotation. Outside of Bradish, 23-year-old flamethrower Grayson Rodriguez has been impressive for Baltimore down the stretch.  After a rough first few months to his major league career, the former 2018 first-round pick has been a consistently reliable starter since mid-July, lowering his ERA by almost a full 3 runs in that time.  The results are finally starting to show for the rookie after a mid-season demotion to the minor leagues in June, and the Orioles hope that this current run of form can translate into postseason success.

Clubhouse Culture

Since his arrival after the end of the 2018 season, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has emphasized positivity throughout the clubhouse from players and coaches, and that jovial culture that he has been building has finally come to fruition. Baltimore has been one of the most fun teams in the league to watch this year, breaking out numerous celebrations for home runs and extra-base hits.  Water seems to be the common theme among these fun traditions for the team, with players drinking from their self-proclaimed “homer hose” after dingers.  Following doubles, runners on second mimic a sprinkler as the players in the dugout spray water to emulate fountains.  Not only does the team have fun, but their on-field performance has been among the most exciting in the league as well, with an AL-leading 48 comeback wins and an excellent 30-16 record in one-run games. This recent success has been extremely well received by the Oriole faithful, and after averaging less than 10,000 fans per game during 2021 (COVID-impacted), that number has risen to over 23,000 during the current season.  Camden Yards is one of the most beloved ballparks in all of baseball, so seeing it filled with excitement on a nightly basis is a welcome sight to see for any fan.

Outside of the enthusiasm that exudes from the team, Baltimore has enjoyed this season-long success because of the veteran leadership in all facets of the game.  Corner outfielders Anthony Santander and Austin Hays have been vital pieces in the heart of the Orioles lineup.  While Santander is more of a power-centered hitter and Hays excels at putting the ball in play, their differing styles are both tough for opposing pitchers to navigate through.  Even during an injury-riddled year, 6th-year centerfielder Cedric Mullins is another key contributor to the middle of Baltimore’s lineup when healthy.  Just two years removed from an All-Star campaign, Mullins has been slumping offensively recently, but his elite range and above-average speed help his defense make up for his hitting struggles, but we all know what he’s capable of with the bat. On the pitching side of things, their staff is led by 35-year-old right-hander Kyle Gibson.  Despite the fact that 2023 marks Gibson’s first year in Baltimore, the longtime starter has brought plenty of experience to a youth-filled pitching core, along with a team-leading 15 wins.  He is sure to pick up big postseason innings after he was sparingly used during the Philadelphia Phillies’ long playoff run last year.

Having a team of individual successes means nothing without wins on the field, and for the Orioles, victories have been plentiful.  From the first pitch back in March until this playoff race in late September, Baltimore has consistently won series after series, no matter the opposition.  Every month of the season, the Orioles have won more than half of their games, and since the All-Star Break, they have been particularly exceptional, sporting a .652 winning percentage.  In fact, the Orioles have not lost more than 4 in a row all season long, so when they get knocked down, they bounce back almost instantly.  This constant winning that has surrounded the team this year has boosted them into the national spotlight, and has given their players some well-deserved recognition.   While they have yet to be tested in a do-or-die scenario all year long, the brash confidence that they exude will have them fighting until the very end this postseason.  Whether they fall swiftly in the America League Division Series, rise to success and hoist the Commissioner's Trophy, or falter somewhere in between, the 2023 season has been a massive success for the Orioles, and it is only just the beginning.

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