Zach Wilt: Checking in on the O’s at the 20-game mark

I’ll be honest, in baseball terms 20 is a pretty arbitrary number. Sure, it’s nice and even, but it’s just 12.3 percent of the way through the baseball season. In fact, if the Orioles weren’t off yesterday, we probably all would have completely ignored the 20-game milestone and moved on without thinking twice about. But they were off, they’re beginning a new series today, and 20 games seems like a great time to take a moment and reflect on what we’ve seen from our O’s so far.

The Birds have 14 wins in their first 20 games, that’s a .700 winning percentage and it’s the second-highest in the big leagues behind the Nationals. Those 14 wins are tied for the most in the American League and are enough for first place in the AL East, where the Orioles have a one-game lead over the Yankees. Though we’re less than a month into the season, it’s fun to note that the Orioles have led their division since opening day on April 3. After 20 games a season ago, they had 12 wins.

Buck Showalter’s club has faced five opponents in 2017 (the four division foes and the Reds) and has a winning record against all of them. They are 5-1 against the Blue Jays and have outscored them 26-14. They were 9-10 against Toronto in 2016. Before the season began, FanGraphs.com projected that the Orioles would finish the season 82-80. After the results of their first 20 games, that projection has increased to 85-77.

How have they had this success? In years past, the O’s offense led the way to their success. They have finished in the top five in home runs six consecutive seasons leading all of baseball in 2013, 2014, 2016. Right now, they are right in the middle of the pack with 26 longballs, ranking 14th in the majors. I don’t doubt that the power is coming, but the Orioles have shown an ability to win despite averaging under four runs scored per game.

Part of the reason they have been able to have that success has been due to the outstanding work from the starting rotation. Showalter’s staff has combined for a 3.77 ERA (11th in the majors) and has done an amazing job keeping the ball in the ballpark with a rate of 1.02 homers/nine innings. All of this without their No. 1 starter, Chris Tillman. Who saw that coming?

To no one’s surprise, the Orioles bullpen has been good yet again. Their 2.81 team ERA ranks sixth in all of baseball. The ‘pen has a combined 1.3 fWAR, tied for fourth. Four Orioles relievers have ERAs of 3.12 or lower this season. Even with elite closer Zach Britton on the shelf, this group continues to dominate as they have for the past several seasons.

Their best player through the first 20 games may come as a bit of a surprise. Manny Machado? Nope, not him. Chris Davis? Negative. Adam Jones? Try again. What about breakout star Trey Mancini? According to FanGraphs’ measure of wins above replacement, it’s Jonathan Schoop (0.7). The Orioles second baseman is slashing .294/.329/.574, is tied for the team lead with five home runs and leads the club with 13 RBIs. There’s still a lot to come from the offense. As I mentioned last week, Machado has run into a bit of bad luck to start the season, while power guys Davis and Mark Trumbo have yet to find their stroke. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the Orioles bats will mash. It’s just a matter of time.

The results have been there through 20 games and this club has given us a lot to be excited about for the remaining 87.7 percent of the season. Everyone’s biggest concern, the rotation, has held the Orioles together even without their top piece. The offense hasn’t homered, but they’ve managed to manufacture runs and win close games (6-1 in one run games). Oh, and the bullpen is every bit as strong as it ever has been. So strong, in fact, that losing the game’s best closer seemed to have little to no effect.

There’s lots of baseball left and already the Orioles have shown a ton of promise. It should be a fun summer in Birdland and we’re all looking forward to seeing how this club evolves as the season progresses.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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