The Baltimore Orioles are on the highwire

Adley Rutschman (left) and Felix Bautista celebrate an Orioles W.

One of the bigger stories of MLB so far this season is the unrelenting and pretty comedic dominance of the AL East. The last-place team, the Jays, have the exact same record as the first-place team in the AL Central, the Twins. Every team is at least three games over .500. The entire division has a .693 winning percentage against the other two divisions in the AL, which would be a 112-win pace. They have a .740 winning percentage against the National League, which is a fuck you for the look on your face-pace.

Maybe the strangest thing is that the two teams with the two best records in the AL East, and thus the two best records in MLB, are Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. Far from the biggest spenders, far from the biggest markets, far from the biggest pressure and expectations. We know how the Rays got here, by having been the smartest guys in the room for a long while now. But what are the Orioles doing here?

The easy answer is that the Os were ass for so long that they couldn’t help but collect a ton of prospects and that even a small percentage of that collection panning out would constitute a great lineup. And that’s certainly part of it. Adley Rutschman is closing hard on the outside to be the game’s best catcher. But as of right now, he’s really the only part of the decade-long prospect haul that is contributing in a major way. Gunnar Henderson is up, and hasn’t drowned or anything (95 wRC+) but isn’t a star yet. The rest of the lineup that has the Orioles 8th in MLB in runs is composed of guys who have spent a fair share of time loitering in front of the drugstore.

Were you ready for the Cedric Mullins III MVP campaign? Well, you’re getting it, cowboy. Mullins is just the latest convert to the lift-and-separate theology, watching his slugging jump 100 points from last year by boosting his launch-angle four points. A dash of dropping the number of pitches he chases outside of the zone and ignoring offspeed pitches altogether have made him a 2.0-fWAR player already. The analytics say that he will deflate like a tire going over spikes soon, but his HR/FB rate is still below league average and Camden Yards is still friendly to left-handed hitters — while being a dungeon master to righties — so he might be able to keep Wallenda’ing his power numbers.

Over to Mullins’s right in the field, Austin Hays has taken the path of “good things will happen if you hit the ball way harder than you have.” Hays has seen his barrel-percentage jump from 5 percent last year to 13 this one, and he’s been far more selective about what he offers at so far. He’s also been able to turn on inside pitches far more.

We’re not them, we’re the other guys

But the Orioles’ real base of success, and the one that seems most precarious, is that they’ve gotten yeoman’s work from a bullpen, and a bullpen that can’t stop walking people.

And the O’s have needed it, because while the rotation hasn’t been as bad as expected, it’s still pretty middling. Their collective ERA is 19th. But the pen’s is 3rd, the pen’s FIP is second, and they lead the Majors in strikeout-percentage.

But going through the relievers, these walk percentages give off a feel of kids playing with matches near piles of hay in a barn. Felix Bautista, the closer, is striking out 45 percent of the hitters that face him. He’s also walking 16 percent of them. He’s been able to be a ghost to hitters by shrinking the difference in release points on his fastball and splitter, “tunneling” them to use the parlance of our time, which has made the latter a complete mystery to batters (60 percent whiff percentage). Bryan Baker is striking out nearly a third of his hitters but is also walking nearly 15 percent. His adjustment this year was to move on the rubber more toward first, which has given him a kind of reverse-split ninja profile (.087 batting average).

The Os bullpen walk numbers would look far worse if Yennier Cano had walked anyone…which he hasn’t. 19 appearances, 23.2 innings of work, and not a single walk. He’s also been throwing a sinker and change-up that turn into bowling balls on the way to the plate, as he has a 70-percent ground-ball rate on the season. Danny Coulombé is the other member of the pen who can be counted on to locate the plate on a regular basis, and he’s the Baltimore emissary to the Sweeper Nation, basically only throwing a slider and a sweeper. Cionel Perez and Mike Baumann are other regulars coming out of the swinging doors in the outfield wall who walk over 10 percent of their hitters.

The big question for the Os, though, is whether they will simply pass again at the trade deadline, as they did last year, or will they finally add to a team that looks like it should be primed for a playoff spot. Given what we know of Baltimore ownership it may be rooting for all the percentages to go the other way on their own team so they don’t have to make that call. How long Mullins can keep hitting for power he’d never shown before and how long the pen can keep cleaning up their fiend for walks by striking everyone out will tell that tale. It’s a dangerous way to live, but it’s gotten them this far.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Pickleball at the mall? Sounds like a good time for all

Pickleball, seen here in Central Park, has apparently taken the nation by storm in recent years.

Are you sick of the Johnny-come-lately groups at your tennis court playing a game that sounds like batting practice? Fear not, local American malls are working on getting those people into proper courts that are being built where the Home Depot-sized Old Navy was once located.

The mall experience has changed in America over the last 20 years. No longer is a trip to JCPenny necessary to get the kids new Easter clothes or flipping through the CDs at Sam Goody the only way to get new music for the car. Combine that with teenagers no longer using that space as a live-action Tinder, and it’s clear that the mall’s standing in American life has been in free fall.

Pickleball America has presented a solution for Woodfield, Lennox, Fox Hills, and any other mall that needs a jolt of energy — pickleball courts. The sport is the fastest growing in America, but there aren’t that many places to play. A tennis court will do, but there is a reason that nearly all MLB teams no longer play in football stadiums. Specific sports need specific venues.

One of the most massive new pickleball courts will be built at the Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Connecticut. What used to be a two-story Saks on Fifth will eventually be an 80,000-square-foot pickleball court. Pickleball America is also working on facilities in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and other places across the country.

It’s like high school all over again, except you have bills now

As one of the OG pickleball players from a high-school lifetime activities P.E. class in the mid-aughts, seeing the sport’s rapid growth has been a hilarious surprise. I took the course because, for a third of the semester, the sport of focus was bowling. Not only did we get to take the bus to the bowling alley every day, but Chicagoland traffic gave us permission to be 10 minutes late for our next class.

It was whispered in the hallways by those who took the class before me that the pickleball unit was a blast. Then one day in the small gym, the teacher handed us plastic rackets and a dense ball. It wasn’t as fun as goofing around on the bus and missing class, but it did get competitive and led to some great trash talk.

With pickleball blowing up like Beanie Babies, and Amazon becoming the mall for the world, it’s a worthy option for physical malls to use as an attempt to stay relevant. A person can gather a few friends to play at the courts for a couple of hours, then they all grab a slice of Sbarro, and a Mrs. Fields cookie for old time’s sake. They may still try on an outfit at Macy’s and then buy it cheaper from Amazon later, but at least the mall is being patronized.

For you pickleballers out there, if you’re still into the sport in 2024 go check out one of these mall courts. A little pickleball and a Cinnabon sounds like quite the pleasant Saturday afternoon, and you will be sparing the tennis players of your infernal racket.