The Orioles have been defined by defying expectations all season long. The club was afforded just 1.3% odds of winning the AL East over at Fangraphs when the 2023 season began back in March, with a projected record of just 76-86 that made them the only team in their division projected to finish below .500. Despite those long odds, however, Baltimore’s youngsters managed to propel themselves to a 101-win season that placed them firmly atop not only their division, but the entire AL, as only the Braves won more games in 2023.
Despite the club’s regular season success, however, the club was still far from favored in the postseason race. Entering October, the Orioles were given just a 6.5% chance of winning the World Series, odds worse than not just the Braves but also the Dodgers, Astros, and even their division-rival Blue Jays. Concern over Baltimore’s ability to translate their regular season success into the postseason seems to revolve primarily around one thing: the club’s pitching staff.
While the loss of closer Felix Bautista to Tommy John surgery hurts the club’s bullpen, much of the concern regarding the Orioles has been directed toward the club’s starting rotation. It’s not hard to see why; the club’s 10.7 fWAR from the rotation this season is just 16th in the majors, better than only the Dodgers among playoff teams. Other metrics are similarly lukewarm on Baltimore’s group: they rank 11th in rotation ERA, 13th in rotation FIP, and 16th in strikeout rate.
When looking at the individual pieces of the club’s rotation, it’s easy to see why the club’s overall numbers are uninspiring. Throughout the 2023 campaign, the Orioles relied on nine pitchers to start games of them: Kyle Gibson, Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin, Jack Flaherty, John Means, and Keegan Akin. Only Means (157), Bradish (146) and Wells (113) posted better than average seasons by measure of ERA+, and only Bradish remains in the club’s rotation for the ALDS after Means was scratched from the roster due to elbow soreness and Wells moved to the bullpen late in the year.
Given this mediocre production from the rotation, it’s easy to think that the club’s decision this offseason to make only minor tweaks to the rotation, replacing Jordan Lyles with Gibson and trading for Irvin, was a major misstep. The reality of the situation is more complicated, however, as the Orioles are set up fairly well for success both in the postseason this year and looking ahead to 2024.
The primary reason for that is a simple one: the starting group in Baltimore improved significantly over the course of the season. Not only did the return of Means in September provide the club with a quality mid-rotation option who could return in later rounds of the postseason and figures to be a staple of the club’s 2024 rotation, but several players took steps forward in the second half. Each of Bradish, Rodriguez, and Kremer ranked in the top 20 among starters in ERA after the All Star break, with Bradish (2.34) and Rodriguez (2.58) both ranking in the top five. No other team in baseball had three starts as effective at run prevention during the second half, with only the Brewers (Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta) and Rangers (Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery) even having two.
The most obvious success story for the Orioles this year is Bradish, who the club acquired from the Angels in the deal that sent Dylan Bundy to Anaheim back in 2019. After a difficult rookie campaign that saw Bradish post a 4.80 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 23 starts, the right-hander’s sophomore season in 2023 has been a resounding success. Bradish has improved in virtually every aspect of his game this year, with improvements in strikeout rate (25% in 2023), walk rate (6.6%), groundball rate (49.2%), and barrel rate (6.9%). Taken together, those stronger peripherals have allowed Bradish to post a 2.83 ERA in 168 2/3 innings of work that’s surpassed only by Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole among AL starters, with a 3.27 FIP that ranks fifth-best in the AL behind Gray, Cole, Zach Eflin and Kevin Gausman.
It’s nearly as easy to see the success of Rodriguez, who figures to start Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rangers this afternoon. After being promoted to the majors for his big league debut in early April, the 23-year-old hurler struggled badly in his first taste of big league action, with a 7.35 ERA and 5.90 FIP across his first ten starts in the big leagues. That prompted the Orioles to send Rodriguez back to Triple-A, where he very quickly found his footing with a microscopic 1.69 ERA across 37 1/3 innings of work. Upon his return to the majors in mid-July, Rodriguez looked like a completely different pitcher. In addition to his aforementioned 2.58 ERA across 13 second-half starts ranking fifth-best in the majors over that timeframe, Rodriguez also boasted a 2.76 FIP thanks to a 24% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate, and a whopping 52.7% groundball rate that paired with a 3.8% barrel rate to allow Rodriguez to suppress home runs in the second half better than any other starter in the majors.
Kremer is a somewhat different case, as the 2023 campaign has actually been something of a down year for him after he posted a 3.23 ERA and 3.80 FIP across 125 1/3 innings of work last year. The right-hander’s 2023 campaign has had the look of a solid back-of-the-rotation arm overall, with a 4.15 ERA that’s exactly league average by measure of ERA+ and a 4.51 FIP. That said, the second half of his 2023 campaign has lent credence to his 2022 numbers as he’s posted a 3.25 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 14 starts since the All Star break this year.
With Bradish, Rodriguez, and Kremer as the club’s top three options in the ALDS, the Orioles are in a recoverable position even after dropping Game 1 to the Rangers yesterday afternoon. What’s more, the club has a strong foundation for their rotation as they look ahead to the offseason and the 2024 campaign, as the aforementioned trio and Means are all under team control and figure to occupy rotation spots next year.
With four solid, average-or-better rotation arms locked in for 2024, the club is in a much stronger place than they were this time last year, when Kremer appeared to be the closest thing to a known commodity the Orioles had available after his first season as a regular starter. That should give GM Mike Elias and the club’s front office plenty of confidence in looking to add another arm to round out the club’s 2024 rotation this offseason on a free agent market that offers plenty of interesting options.