Once again in 2023, the Baltimore Orioles have been exceeding expectations. In the preseason, Caesars Sportsbook set the team’s Over/Under win total at 78 games.
The O’s were fresh off a surprising 83-win campaign in 2022, a season in which they had improved their win total by 31 games and clinched the franchise’s first winning season in seven years, but external optimism seemed to be scarce.
While Baltimore was not regarded as a contender in the American League East for 2023, starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, who is second on the pitching staff with eight wins, said that inside the organization and the clubhouse, there was much confidence that outside observers weren’t on point.
“I don’t know who would consider themselves surprised inside the organization, but I know around baseball, people thought the Orioles were still a year or two away,” Gibson said. “Everybody on this team had no doubt that we were going to be a pretty good team.”
The 35-year-old right-hander, speaking to The Game Day to share information about the Orioles’ upcoming Big League Impact Topgolf event with fans to benefit City of Refuge Baltimore, said that he saw a lot of promise for the team as soon as he arrived in spring training and perceived a strong sense of internal enthusiasm.
“When I got around this team for the first time and started seeing the talent that we had, I started to realize why there was so much excitement about the Orioles,” Gibson said. A member of the 2022 National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies, he had left one of the top contenders in the NL to return to the AL on a one-year contract in Baltimore because he saw the Orioles’ potential to build on their 2022 finish.
“I definitely expected to be on a winning team when I signed here. It was a team that was already really good, and was looking more and more to make themselves better,” he said.
The Orioles certainly regained respectability last season, and startled many prognosticators. Heading into the finale of a four-game series with the New York Yankees on Thursday, Baltimore had once again overcome expectations with the third-best record in baseball at 50-35, and a two-game lead over Houston for the top wild card spot in the AL.
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In 2022, Baltimore didn’t reach the 50-win mark until its 99th game. As of Thursday, they were three games ahead of the Yankees for second place in baseball’s best division. “It’s not a coincidence that all five teams are over .500,” Gibson said.
The Orioles were heading into the All-Star Break in obvious solid position in the standings despite fashioning a 15-14 record in June and July. Winning 18 of the first 27 games of the season helped boost the team to a spot in the midseason AL wild card watch.
“When we kicked the season off, these guys were playing so well at the beginning, it gave us the realization that the ceiling for this team was closer than we thought,” Gibson said.
The former Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers starter played in his first World Series with Philadelphia last season, and knows what winning looks like. He said while the Phillies had a superb veteran core with a few younger players, the 2023 Orioles have the opposite sort of balance, which is working well after the front office brought in some key veterans to work alongside and with the rising youngsters.
“In the offseason, they traded for [James] McCann, signed [Adam] Frazier, signed me, and then they picked up [Aaron] Hicks, and they traded for Danny Coulombe, so they’ve done a very good job of bringing in the right kind of veterans for the guys that they are around, and Cedric Mullins was such a good leader already,” Gibson said, noting that the more experienced players have helped guide some prominent young players to positive results.
“They’ve got a lot of young guys that are pre-arbitration, or in their first year of arbitration, that have done a really good job the last year and a half establishing themselves or have done a really good job this first 60 or 70 games of really showing who they are,” he added.
Baltimore’s hitters have an average age of 27.4, which is the fourth youngest in the American League. Four of their current key offensive starters are 25 years old or younger.
Adley Rutschman, the oldest of that group, is the first Orioles catcher to make the All-Star team since Matt Wieters in 2016. Third baseman Gunnar Henderson was the AL Rookie of the Month for June and was named the AL Player of the Week on June 12.
The Orioles also recently promoted two top prospects, infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Colton Cowser, and popped them into the starting lineup right away. While Baltimore has continued to win this season, Gibson sees the core forming for even better times ahead.
“I’ve told people that there’s something in the player development here that gets these guys ready for the big leagues mentally. Everyone that comes up has such a great mindset and it makes them very approachable when it comes to on and off the field,” he said.
“You give these guys a couple of years, you’re going to be looking at a team that has a similar number of All-Stars, and a similar amount of players that everyone is talking about like the Phillies had last year. In two to three years, you’re going to be saying, ‘Those are stud All-Star players.’”
Gibson was not just referring to just the four young players previously mentioned when he was talking about the central offensive makeup of the team. Outfielder Austin Hays is also a first-time All-Star this season, and underrated outfielder Anthony Santander ranks fifth among MLB switch-hitters in slugging percentage (.478).
“Anthony Santander doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, “ Gibson said. “Ramón Urias can be a Gold Glover at three different infield positions and nobody really knows him. I just don’t think they’ve had the time to get that recognition.”
The 2021 All-Star with the Phillies prefers to point the spotlight at others and made sure to highlight that an unheralded starting pitching staff has helped to steady the team, while the bullpen, which is top 8 in MLB in ERA (3.82), has been especially strong at the back end.
Among the starters, Tyler Wells is atop the MLB leaderboard with a 0.90 WHIP. Dean Kremer is tied for third in the AL with nine wins and Kyle Bradish had a 2.98 ERA in his last 11 starts leading up to Thursday. Gibson may be able to break his previous career best of 13 victories this season.
“Those guys have been fairly solid and fairly consistent,” Gibson said of the rotation. “That’s really what a starting staff can do, add some consistency day in and day out. Especially when we have the four to five [relievers] at the back end of this bullpen that are lockdown guys,” he said.
Both Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano were named to the AL All-Star team. Bautista has won the AL Reliever of the Month Award twice this season, and Cano is tied for fourth among MLB relievers with a 1.4 fWAR.
Gibson also mentioned Coulombe and Bryan Baker (.203 opposing batting average) as essential parts of the bullpen crew. Coulombe had seven consecutive scoreless appearances from June 17 to July 1.
“Our offense knows that if we can get three or four runs early, and if the starting pitching throws well, we’ve set ourselves up for a really positive game script those last two innings,” he said. The Orioles have a 42-5 record when leading after seven innings.
Those fans who want to get closer to the ascending Orioles for a great cause can join Gibson and several of his teammates for Big League Impact’s Topgolf Baltimore event on Aug. 6.
Founded by Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals, BLI, which can be found at bigleagueimpact.org, is a charitable organization that partners with professional athletes to fundraise through unique, sports-related events.
“It gives fans a chance to be in a different environment with their favorite players. They get to see us in a different light,” Gibson said of the Topgolf event.
Proceeds from the event will benefit City of Refuge Baltimore, a faith-based organization that helps individuals and families transition out of crisis. Gibson first became involved with City of Refuge in Atlanta.
“They have a full, wide-ranging holistic approach to helping people and giving them the skills they need to lift them and their entire family out of poverty.,” he said. “They’re located in a neighborhood where nearly 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.”
After the event, the fans will continue to cheer on the Orioles as they attempt to make the playoffs after a seven-year drought. Gibson believes that a team that has 30 comeback wins and has played in 23 one-run games (14 wins) this year, will be well-prepared for the postseason, and has already offered advice to his teammates on the expected environment.
“I think one thing that is hopefully going to help us is that we’ve been in so many close games. We’ve come back in a lot of them or nearly had the tying run up most every time,” Gibson said.
“What I’ve told guys in the locker room is that if you can bottle up that feeling of that type of night right there, that’s what the playoffs are like.”