The Orioles' outstanding lead broadcaster Kevin Brown said it best after Brandon Lowe grounded into a game-ending double play to put the Orioles in sole possession of first place in the American League East: "Enjoy the view from the top...at the Trop!" What Orioles fans hoped would be a "dream season" has turned into just that 96 games in.
That's right. After the Rays' historically hot start, the Orioles have caught them, now sitting percentage points ahead of the Rays for first place in the AL East. The Rays have been sliding, losers of six of ten, while the Orioles have gone 5-3 since the All-Star Break. While there is a ton of baseball left to play - the Orioles have 65 games remaining, the Rays 61 - Orioles fans should embrace this feeling on this Friday in July. It is the latest the Orioles have been in first place in the AL East since August 12, 2016.
Before the season started, I wrote an article identifying seven key factors for the Orioles obtain a "dream season" and take the AL East crown for the first time since 2014. With the Orioles currently in first in the AL East as of July 21, this article will evaluate just how important these factors actually have been for the Orioles' success.
1. "Grayson Rodriguez stars out of the gate."
Grayson Rodriguez did not "star out of the gate." While the season is still young, the Orioles are not in first place due to a brilliant, or even above-average season, from Grayson Rodriguez. Indeed, Rodriguez did not even make the Orioles' Opening-Day roster. When Rodriguez was recalled to start the Orioles' sixth game of the year against Texas, fans assumed he would be up for good. He was not. The Orioles optioned Rodriguez after the Rangers (who would up bookending his first stint in the Majors) blasted him for eight earned runs over 3 1/3 innings in late May, ballooning his ERA to 7.35. Rodriguez did not star out of the gate, but the Orioles were 33-18 at the time. By the time Rodriguez returned to the Orioles this past Monday against LA, the Orioles were 57-35. Needless to say, the Orioles did not need Grayson Rodriguez to star out of the gate to reach first place.
2. "Gunnar Henderson contends for Rookie of the Year"
After a slow start, Gunnar Henderson is most definitely in contention for Rookie of the Year. Currently worth 2.3 WAR with a solid .818 OPS, Henderson has been a key cog in the Orioles success over the last two months. He has followed a .994 OPS in June with an .896 in July, played terrific defense, and scintillating base-running. But the Orioles were also thriving when Henderson was not. The Orioles went 19-9 in April; Henderson struggled to a .669 OPS. When the Orioles kept on winning in May, Henderson posted a respectable, but non-ROY OPS 0f .740. However, for the Orioles to stay in first place, Henderson has to continue putting up numbers that will place him in contention for AL Rookie of the Year.
3. "Adley Rustchman plays at an MVP level"
Despite making the All-Star Team, starring in the Home Run Derby, and playing a solid first half of baseball, Adley Rutschman has not quite played at MVP level. To be fair, this was a tall ask from a player entering his first full season with the Orioles. Rutschman has amassed a team-leading 2.4 WAR (0.1 ahead of Henderson) to go along with an .804 OPS. But Rutschman's 2.4 WAR is 31st among American league competitors, and well-behind MVP front-runner Shohei Ohtani's 6.8 WAR. Several players currently lead Rutschman by over 1.0 WAR, including Luis Robert Jr., Kevin Gausman, Wander Franco, Jonah Heim, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Jose Ramirez, and Adolis Garcia. Rutschman has been a critical part of the Orioles success, but thus far, an MVP-caliber season was not needed to perch the Orioles in first place at this time.
4. "The bullpen dominance continues"
The Orioles bullpen has "dominated" at times in 2023. But other than Felix Bautista, the Orioles have found success in unexpected places in 2023. The pre-season article identified continued dominance from Bautista, Cionel Perez, Dillon Tate, Brian Baker, and Keegan Akin as a key lynchpin for the "dream" scenario of a 2023 division crown. Perez and Akin have greatly struggled and spent time on the IL. Tate has yet to throw a pitch this year. Baker has been so-so, but not as dominant as he was last year down the stretch.
Instead, the 2023 bullpen has gotten a boost from new faces: All-Star Yennier Cano and lefty Danny Coulombe, whom the Orioles plucked from the Twins before the season started. While these two and Bautista have dominated, the Orioles' middle relief has been shaky, prompting the Orioles to trade for Oakland hard-thrower Shintaro Fujinami. Unquestionably, a good bullpen has keyed the Orioles to the position they are in now: first place as of July 21. But it was not the type of "dominance" expected coming into the season.
5. "Solid, steady seasons from the regulars"
The Orioles have received solid, steady seasons from most of their regulars. However, as was the case with the Orioles' 2023 bullpen, the Orioles' "regulars" have been different than expected. The pre-season article identified Ryan Mountcastle, Jorge Mateo, and Ramon Urias as three position players who needed to maintain at least average production. Mountcastle and Mateo have been well below average. Urias has been steady, but has also ceded regular playing time to Jordan Westburg and Adam Frazier. In addition, injuries to Cedric Mullins have stunted what has otherwise been a solid season for the Orioles' regular centerfielder.
But never fear: the Orioles still have gotten solid steady seasons from their regulars. Ryan O'Hearn has been a revelation, posting an unexpected 0.8 WAR and .859 through 52 games, most as the Orioles' regular first baseman. Similarly, Aaron Hicks has put up an .833 OPS as at least a semi-regular for the Orioles, who signed him two days after Cedric Mullins was first injured against Cleveland. Not to be forgotten, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander have had extremely solid seasons, with Santander leading the Orioles in home runs and Hays earning his first All-Star game nod.
Not surprisingly, the Orioles' regulars (outside of Rutschman and Henderson who got their own sections) had to put up at least solid, above-average numbers for the dream scenario of first place. Thus far, the regulars have done so. The only surprise has been who those regulars are.
Not surprisingly, the pre-season article identified health as a key factor for a first-place finish in 2023. Not surprisingly, the Orioles current first-place position has been keyed by a relatively healthy season. Like any team, the Orioles have dealt with some injuries. Cedric Mullins was put on the IL for the second time this season, Ryan Mountcastle missed time with vertigo, and Dillon Tate has not even thrown a pitch. Kyle Bradish missed a few starts in April after being struck by a line drive in Texas. But for the most part, the Orioles have stayed on the field this year, and must continue to remain healthy in order to complete the dream season and secure an AL East crown.
7. "A little luck"
Throughout their first 96 games, the Orioles dealt with their share of good luck and bad. Ryan McKenna infamously dropped a routine fly ball in the second game of the season that would have given the Orioles a 2-0 start. Instead, one batter later, Adam Duvall homered over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, and the Orioles lost. Cedric Mullins' injuries could also qualify as bad luck. And frankly, playing in a division where each and every team is over .500 - the only team in baseball with such a distinction - is some bad luck.
But overall, the Orioles have had good fortune. One-run games and games in extra innings often depend on various "luck" during the game, and the Orioles are 19-10 in such games. As the pre-season article predicted, Orioles luck comes in the form of bad luck for other teams. The Yankees have been riddled with bad luck, with Aaron Judge and Carlos Rodon missing significant time due to injuries. Toronto superstar Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has also spent time on the IL this year, and Red Sox ace Chris Sale has missed significant time. Perhaps most telling of all, the Orioles sit in first place in the AL East despite a good-but-not-great +48 (the Rays are +144!) and an expected win/loss record of 53-43 (the Rays XWL is 64-36!). The Orioles have had luck on their side for the most part, and will need it moving forward.
Let's embrace this feeling. The Orioles are in sole possession of first place on July 21, 2023. 2023 has been a dream, albeit imperfect, season for the Orioles. Of the key factors that my pre-season article predicted would drive a first place finish, some have not taken place (Grayson Rodriguez, MVP-like season from Rutschman), some have (Gunnar Henderson, health, luck), and some have in unexpected ways (O'Hearn and Hicks solid as regulars, Cano and Coulombe dominant in the bullpen).
What does this tell us? Essentially, that we can make all the educated guesses and predictions that we want before the season starts, but what happens between the lines on the baseball diamond is very difficult to predict. The baseball gods will do what the baseball gods will do. Thus far, they have given the Orioles a dream season and a position alone in first place. It will be interesting to monitor the key factors identified above to see if the Orioles can hold off the Rays and the rest of their AL foes over the final 2.5 months of the season. It won't be easy.