Baltimore Orioles: Two Pleasant Surprises During Tough Times

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - APRIL 23: Pitcher Gabriel Ynoa #64 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Chicago White Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 23, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - APRIL 23: Pitcher Gabriel Ynoa #64 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Chicago White Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 23, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Orioles have had a few pleasant surprises this seasons, saving the organization from total darkness.

The Baltimore Orioles aren’t the worst team in baseball. Did you think you would read that statement in 2019 and it be true? Brandon Hyde‘s squad is over-performing expectations, showing a new style of baseball in Birdland, and giving fans a few pleasant surprises along the way.

Their 13-24 record tops the Miami Marlins (10-26), is right in line with the Kansas City Royals (13-25), and is just about to take over the Washington Nationals and their 14-22 record. Baltimore could very well end up with the number one overall pick again in next year’s draft, but it won’t be easy to acquire.

The Orioles didn’t win their 13th game until May 18th last year, a 7-4 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. They won just seven games during the month of April. The 2019 Orioles won eight games in April (there was one extra game played this April, but we can just ignore that, right?) and won their 13th game of the year on May 6th, also coming against the Boston Red Sox.

Improvements have been small, often unnoticeable unless you dig into Fangraphs or Baseball Savant numbers, but they are there. The team hasn’t been a complete black hole like many of us expected before the start of the season. Even some previously unknown names have been hot commodities for the Baltimore Orioles.

When the O’s traded for Dwight Smith Jr. how many of you genuinely believed he would make the Opening Day roster? The better question is, how many of you actually watched him play in a baseball game before he joined the Orioles? I sure didn’t. Now here we are on May 9th and Dwight Smith Jr.might be my favorite player on the 2019 Baltimore Orioles.

Dwight Smith providing solid value for the Baltimore Orioles.

Traded for international dollars that weren’t going to be used, Smith figured to be an organizational depth piece with a minor league option intact as the likes of DJ Stewart and Anthony Santander lit up the box scores in spring training. But here we are, with Smith cemented in left field at Camden Yards and Santander and Stewart roaming the outfield of Harbor Park (and playing very well in their own right, despite many attempts by others to belittle their success after looking at batting averages just two weeks into the season. Maybe try actually watching these minor league games?)

Smith is currently slashing .284/.331/.485 with an .816 OPS and 117 wRC+. In 34 games, he has drilled six home runs and collected nine doubles, 23 RBIs, and is a perfect 4-4 in stolen bases. Smith finds his name at or near the top of every statistical leaderboard for the Orioles, accumulating 0.7 fWAR up this point in the year. That ties him with Jonathan Villar and Pedro Severino for second on the team, just behind Trey Mancini‘s team-leading 1.1 fWAR. Last season, Joey Rickard and Craig Gentry‘s (enjoy retirement!) 0.6 fWAR were tops among Orioles’ outfielders.

Smith doesn’t hit the ball hard. His average exit velocity on batted balls of 87.5 mph ranks among the bottom 26% of major league hitters. It’s all about placement with the 26-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder. The vast majority of his extra-base hits are hit to right field, but he deposits nearly all of his singles into the opposite field or up the middle. 

He’s also proving to be more than just a place holder. His success has allowed the Orioles to keep their top outfield prospects down in the minor leagues and he’s holding his own as a major league outfielder. There are lapses defensively, but we have seen much worse defense roam the outfield of Camden Yards.

I’m not sure how much longer Joey Rickard will hold a major league spot, but you have to imagine that it won’t be for much longer. Mark Trumbo doesn’t appear to be returning anytime soon and even if he does, he’s out after the season. Santander, Stewart, and Cedric Mullins still have to prove they can contribute at the major league level on a consistent basis, but hopefully, Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz can shake off their injuries and develop into regular outfielders for the big league ballclub. Smith’s consistent play could be valuable over the next two or so seasons while the outfield situation shakes out.

Gabriel Ynoa is proving to be a valuable asset in many different ways for the Baltimore Orioles.

Gabriel Ynoa finally appears to be healthy. It’s been a long journey, but Ynoa has always had the stuff to make the wait worthwhile. Is he a piece who will hold down a rotation spot for the next five-plus seasons or become a light’s out force in the bullpen- no. However, he is currently pitching very well and helping out the rest of his bullpen mates.

Ynoa made three starts in AAA to begin the season, was a little rocky (17 IP, 3 HR, 9 ER), but has been effective out of the bullpen with the Orioles. The 25-year-old has made five appearances, logging a 0.79 ERA and WHIP in 11.1 innings of work. He’s allowed just one earned run on eight hits, walking only one and striking out 11.

“Leaky” is a kind way to describe the O’s bullpen performance this season. I remain dumbfounded as to why Mychal Givens is continually asked to go multiple innings and while Miguel Castro‘s stuff may be good, he doesn’t execute. There isn’t a single arm in the pen that invokes much confidence when they enter the game, except for Ynoa.

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Add in his 64% groundball rate and everything appears to be working very well for Ynoa, but a slightly deeper look does raise a few red flags worth keeping an eye on. Hitters are making a lot of contact against him, nearly 92% of the time on pitches in the strike zone. Batted balls against Ynoa have been classified as “hard-hit” (95 mph or harder) at an alarming 50% rate. However, barrelled balls aren’t finding gaps in the defense, yet.

The biggest contribution Ynoa has made to this ballclub has been his consistency. He has thrown three scoreless relief innings in each of his last two appearances. The bullpen is already overworked and taxed, Ynoa is helping to alleviate the workload and give guys more time off. It’s impossible to be effective when you’re forced into action by the fourth inning in many ballgames.

If Yefry Ramirez can finally figure it out at the major league level, the O’s will have two serviceable long-relief/swingman options in Ramirez and Ynoa, allowing the rest of the bullpen to pitch in more favorable situations- exploiting matchups, one inning stints, avoiding high-leverage situations for guys like Evan Phillips.

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Everything isn’t doom and gloom in Birdland this season. Enjoying the bright spots like Dwight Smith Jr.and Gabriel Ynoa will help fans get through this long first season of the rebuild. Give it a few more weeks and maybe a promising prospect finds their way to the major league roster? There’s also the upcoming MLB draft, where we are all fairly certain you-know-who will be joining the organization.