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.