Inside the Dugout: What the Orioles’ outfield success should teach us (2024)

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Before we begin, thanks to Andy Kostka for bringing the heat out of the bullpen with last week’s edition of this newsletter as we welcomed a new baby boy at the end of June. Everyone is doing great, and we are sleeping enough that I feel ready to get back into the mix. Fair warning, though — enough is still not a lot, so please attribute any takes that age poorly to that.

I think this one is sound, though. And it has to do with the Orioles’ outfield, which despite plenty of peaks and valleys is still among the more productive in baseball. It has plenty we could learn from as we try and make sense of how the Orioles utilize depth and maintain their roster going forward.

Before we discuss those lessons, let’s review how the season has gone so far.

  • Austin Hays got sick during spring training and lost a ton of strength, and a week into the season, rookie Colton Cowser hit his way off the bench and into an everyday role in left field as Hays struggled.
  • In center field, Cedric Mullins started out reasonably well and peaked with three homers in four games in mid-April — including an April 17 walk-off home run — before going into a deep funk that lasted until early June.
  • Cowser cooled off some after his 1.004 OPS in April, but Mullins has an .887 OPS in the last month and Hays has a .962 OPS, primarily as a platoon outfielder, since coming off the injured list on May 15. It’s at the point now where any combination of the three can give manager Brandon Hyde top-shelf defense in two outfield spots and also a chance to win at the plate.
  • In right field, Anthony Santander plugged along with an OPS hovering around .700 until the end of May before he went on the longest, greatest heater of his career, with 14 home runs and a .943 OPS since June 1.

All the while, they’ve had the most overqualified, talented fifth outfield pair ever assembled with Kyle Stowers and Heston Kjerstad alternatively occupying that roster spot with a .291 average, .864 slugging percentage, and four home runs in 87 combined plate appearances. (Ryan McKenna’s two home runs in nine plate appearances would make that spot’s production even more impressive. I am excluding them. Sorry, Ryan.)

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Add in Ryan O’Hearn’s contributions when an outfield assignment is used to get him in the lineup, and the Orioles are getting above-average production from their outfielders, as one would assume. The group’s .745 OPS is sixth best in baseball, with their 110 wRC+ tied for sixth best as well. Since June 1, that’s been even better, with their .853 OPS third best and 139 wrC+ fourth best.

All three of the opening day starters — Santander, Mullins and Hays — probably feel good about where they are offensively right now. Kjerstad is on an absolute tear, and Cowser’s expected stats remain strong even as his April production keeps getting farther in the rearview.

As expected, the Orioles’ outfield is blossoming again into one of its strengths, even if the journey to this point was an eventful one. The lessons we spoke of? Here they are:

There’s value in having this many good players. Say the Orioles had looked at their depth chart and decided Cowser was expendable in November. What would their offense have looked like in April without him? Probably not as good. Similarly, the boost they’ve gotten from the Stowers/Kjerstad combo when used has been meaningful. If they were traded, other areas of the roster might be improved, but there would be undeniably worse options for the bench outfield spots and thus less upside potential for whoever is in that role to grow into something more, as Kjerstad seems to be doing right now. I can’t really speak to or justify how little either played up to this point. I can say fairly confidently that they’re better than the alternatives, and that depth is what makes the Orioles really good.

Being really good means long leashes. As Hays struggled in April and Mullins struggled through May, it was tough for everyone — for the former All-Stars and core Orioles themselves, for Hyde, for the team’s staff and for anyone watching. The reality was that the Orioles weren’t worse for it, and letting them play and work through it to get to where they are now has paid off significantly. Maybe the Orioles could have won a game or two more with a hotter-hitting outfielder in the lineup instead. They’ll probably win far more down the line for how they handled those cold spells.

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There are no right answers as to who plays when, especially now. Depending on one’s perspective of Cowser’s form, and whether O’Hearn is considered an outfielder on a particular day, Hyde has at least four and often six legitimate options to start every single night across three, maybe four, outfield spots. He and the front office likely use all kinds of methods to decide, but I think given the quality of the options, you’d have to strain pretty hard to say whatever they arrive at on a given night is wrong as opposed to just not what one might hope for.

Ballpark chatter

“What do you think they’re going to do?”

– Literally everyone I talk to

I continue to think the Orioles will be as measured and reasonable as they always have been under Mike Elias when it comes to adding at the deadline, but that’s not stopping anyone from doing their homework. Other teams are starting their pre-deadline pro scouting meetings and as such, I’m hearing more and more from scouts on their plans and players (what I send in reply is basically a version of this column; imagine reading that in a text message bubble). But it’s interesting who they’re asking about. There’s been questions on the Orioles’ minor league outfield talent but also (naturally) the young pitchers, which is probably going to be a theme of this deadline. If the Orioles want to move arms (of which they have relatively few, compared to position-player prospects), they can probably get a lot done. If they don’t, they … could possibly avoid the issue of having to trade for pitching in the future by just keeping and developing these guys.

The Talent Pipeline

The Orioles’ farm system has been so full of fast movers in recent years that it’s easy to forget about those on different trajectories. Outfielder Reed Trimble is in the second camp. He’s played just 106 games in the minors since being the 65th overall pick in 2021 due to several long-term injuries, and 2024 was affected by one as well. But he returned to High-A Aberdeen with a hot bat, homering twice with a .999 OPS and 11 walks against six strikeouts with eight steals in his last 14 games. The Orioles were intrigued by his athleticism and upside at the time of the draft, and given the need for him to improve his swing decisions and add strength for harder contact, this spell is probably an exciting one for the organization to see.

By the numbers

.065

Grayson Rodriguez generally hasn’t used his change-up against righties much, but he did show it a bit more often in his last two starts with great results. He used it against righties 12 times on his way to shutting down Seattle, and 16 times Sunday against Oakland. Between the two starts, opponents whiffed on 70% of the right-right change-ups they swung at, striking out three times, with just one ball put in play for an out. Righties are batting .065 with a 43.5% whiff rate on the pitch this season. His slider will probably always be his go-to weapon for righties, but the change-up adds another dimension he’s showing he’s not afraid to utilize.

For further reading

In my newsletter days (not this one, the other one), I wrote about how the Orioles’ minor league coaches were trying to throw the nastiest batting practice possible to challenge their young hitters. It included tales of pitch design work, Ryan Fuller and Anthony Villa learning to throw left-handed during the pandemic and much more. Buck Britton noted in that story how it used to be hard enough to just throw fastballs down the middle for sluggers to hit out of the park during BP. I’m glad to see he’s going to get the chance to throw old-school batting practice to Henderson in the Home Run Derby, as Andy outlined here.

The FanGraphs top prospect lists are always interesting, but this year’s edition of their Orioles top prospect list is especially intriguing. Brandon Young joining Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott among the team’s top pitching prospects has to be exciting to some people I know in the organization.

Jon Meoli

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

Inside the Dugout: What the Orioles’ outfield success should teach us (2)

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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