The biggest surprise this season is the success of the Baltimore Orioles. Expected by virtually everyone but the most hardcore of fans to occupy the cellar of the AL East, the Baltimore Orioles are currently tied for the best record in baseball at 19-11. For a team that hasn’t won 70 games since 2006, this is a fantastic accomplishment for the Baltimore Orioles. Even if the O’s only win .415% of their next 133 games, they’ll still end up with 74 wins. So there’s a very good chance that the Baltimore Orioles ends up with a 500 or better record for the first time since 1997.
A series of trades with the Texas Rangers have paid immediate dividends with the Baltimore Orioles. Last season they sent reliever Koji Uehara and some cash to the Rangers for Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis. While Hunter has cooled down a bit, Davis has been a fantastic addition. Not only did he win a game in extra innings, but he’s added a consistent bat to the middle of the lineup. Davis has 5 homers and and 843 OPS, putting him on pace to shatter his previous career highs. In a separate trade the Baltimore Orioles sent Mike Gonzalez to the Rangers, acquiring Pedro Strop in the process. Strop has been outstanding in the bullpen, saving two games and posting a 1.59 ERA. He’s been able to stabilize the bullpen, one of the weaker aspects of the team over the past decade.
The success of the Baltimore Orioles is not limited to trades that were made at the 2011 trade deadline. During the offseason they sent Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies for Matt Lindstrom and Jason Hammel. At the time the trade looked like a step in the wrong direction, as Hammel was a back of the rotation pitcher and Lindstrom was just a promising reliever. However, this might have been the best move of the season by the Baltimore Orioles, as Guthrie has struggled in Colorado (5.92 ERA) while Hammel and Lindstrom have flourished.
The Baltimore Orioles encouraged Hammel to use his slider, and combined with the increase in velocity of his fastball (93.5 MPH) have led to a pitching line that is amongst the best in the game. Hammel has struck out nearly a batter an inning, while cutting back on the walks and posting an elite 61% ground ball rate. This has led to a 4-1 record and a 2.09 ERA, and he’s a big reason why the Baltimore Orioles are unexpectedly leading the American League in ERA.
As for Lindstrom, he’s only managed to pitch 13 innings without allowing a run. He’s been even more effective than Strop, and it’s given the Orioles a legitimate end game duo coming out of the bullpen.
The final reason for the Orioles unexpected success is the continued development of Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. Originally Wieters was expected to be an MVP candidate, but those were unrealistic expectations placed on a rookie catcher. In his fourth season with the club he’s transformed into the hitter everybody believed he could be, mashing in the middle of the lineup with 7 homers, 18 RBI and a 964 OPS. Oh, and he’s playing gold glove calibre defence behind the plate, making him arguably the best catcher in the game. Meanwhile Adam Jones is taking advantage of his natural power, as he’s hit a team leading 8 home runs. He’s got a fantastic all around game this season, playing quality defence in the outfield, stealing 5 bases, and hitting for average. He’s finally developed into the 5 tool player that scouts once predicted he would be.
It’s unlikely that the Baltimore Orioles continue to win at their current pace. They’ve got a tough stretch against the Rangers, the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. The next two weeks will be their first real test of the season. One thing is clear though – regardless of the outcome over the next couple of weeks, we have all underestimated the Baltimore Orioles. And right now they’re a team that nobody wants to face.