In what’s been a magical 2023 regular season for the Orioles, filled with many incredible performances, the “Most Valuable Oriole” decision is a harder one than it’s been in years past. Adley Rutschman was the runaway winner last season and Cedric Mullins won the award unanimously in 2021, but this year’s choice is more compelling.
Before I get into my Top 5, some honorable mentions:
Just missing out on my top 5 but still deserving some recognition for impressive seasons are Yennier Cano, Austin Hays, and Grayson Rodriguez. Cano has been absolutely pivotal to the O’s bullpen and would come in 6th in my rankings had I extended it one more spot. Hays carried the Orioles’ offense for much of the season, especially early on, and despite cooling off a little bit over the course of the year, is still one of the most important players on this team. While Grayson Rodriguez’ slow start keeps him out of the Most Valuable Oriole discussion in my mind, he absolutely deserves some recognition for being dominant since being recalled from Triple-A in July. The scary thing for other teams in the MLB is neither of these lists included Ryan Mountcastle and Cedric Mullins, both of whom have missed significant time this season with injuries.
Let’s get into my top 5 rankings:
5. Anthony Santander
Had you told me after the first month of the season that Anthony Santander would even be a consideration for MVO, I wouldn’t have believed you. Going into May, Santander was slashing .213/.280/.362 with a strikeout rate just shy of 30% and a wRC+ of only 75. Santander was having a really tough time making any contact and looked fairly lost at the plate. Yes, we have seen Santander be great in the past, so I don’t think anyone expected him to continue to struggle so mightily, but to turn the season around and hit .264/.336/.502 with a 130 wRC+ from May 1 on certainly exceeded my expectations for him at the time. There have been moments of the season where it felt like Santander was carrying much of the O’s offense singlehandedly. Santander’s 3.0 WAR is the highest of his career, and on a team filled with youth and lacking experience, Santander remains a steady force in the middle of the O’s lineup.
4. Felix Bautista
This is where it got really hard for me to determine the order of these rankings. I went back and forth for a while on the 4,3, and 2 spots, but ultimately landed on Felix Bautista slotting into the #4 spot. It doesn’t feel fair to put a legitimate AL Cy Young contender for most of the season as the 4th most valuable player on his own team, but ultimately his late season injury gives the 3 other guys ahead of him a slight edge. Now, where to begin with Felix Bautista. In what has been the most dominant season from an Orioles reliever since Zack Britton’s otherworldly 2016 campaign, Bautista has solidified himself in the eyes of most MLB fans as the best reliever in the game. There is no doubt that Bautista has been instrumental to the Orioles’ success this season; they undoubtedly would not come into today at an AL best 93-56 without him. As we saw in past Orioles seasons, being able to shorten the game from 9 innings to effectively 7 is immensely valuable and starts with having a dominant closer. This season’s Cano and Bautista duo is very reminiscent of the Brad Brach & Zack Britton duo from 2016 – in both years the set-up man and closer were All-Stars, with the closer having one of the better statistical seasons ever put up by a closer. Bautista’s current absence can really be felt right now; while Cano has been great all season, he has had some struggles particularly in the 9th inning. The hope is that some combination of Cano, Fujinami, Lopez and company can lock down the final three outs, but Bautista’s absence makes it that much clearer how valuable he has been to this Orioles team. It remains to be seen if Bautista will be able to return from his injury and be a contributor for the Orioles in the playoffs, but regardless, his 33 saves, 1.48 ERA and 46.4% strikeout rate over 61 IP will go down as one of the best reliever seasons in MLB history. Bautista was undeniably one of the most valuable Orioles of the season, and I would have no problem with him winning this award.
3. Kyle Bradish
Bradish has been the biggest surprise of the season for the Orioles. After starting slowly, pitching to a 6.14 ERA in April, he then went on to pitch to a 2.76 ERA in May, a 3.54 ERA in June, a 2.25 ERA in July and a 2.12 ERA in August. In other words, he has been a clear front-of-the-rotation starter for almost the entire season. In recent weeks, he has even begun to pop up in the AL Cy Young discussion – no, he won’t win it, but it’s great to see. Given the lack of success Orioles starting pitchers have had over the last decade, it’s exciting that Bradish is getting mentioned in the same breath as the top pitchers in the American League, and deservingly so. This season, the Orioles’ starting pitchers have largely been ‘good enough’ but not necessarily exceptional for long stints. Outside of Bradish, nearly every Orioles starter has had fairly long stretches of both great and poor performances. Kyle Gibson pitched to a sub-4 ERA the first 2 months of the season only to then pitch to an ERA north of 6 across June, July and August. Dean Kremer has largely fluctuated month to month in his performance (but has been significantly better as of late). Tyler Wells was the Orioles’ best pitcher through June before hitting the proverbial wall in July, and Grayson Rodriguez, while being absolutely dominant since his second call-up in July, really struggled to start the season. Without Bradish, these inconsistencies from other starters would have been magnified, the bullpen would have needed to eat up more innings, and the Orioles would have without a doubt found themselves trailing Tampa Bay at this point in the season. In fact, a strong case can be made (I think fairly easily) that Bradish’s 2023 season was the best single season performance from an Orioles starter in the last decade.
2. Adley Rutschman
Coming in at #2 is Adley Rutschman. While Adley has struggled a little bit at the plate in September from a batting average perspective (.192), he continues to do what he always does, get on base at a torrid pace and handle the pitching staff spectacularly. As of today, Rutschman is tied with the Dodgers’ Will Smith for first in the MLB among catchers with a .365 OBP, leads all catchers in walk %, and comes in 4th among catchers in fWAR. Rutschman ranks in the 90th percentile in xBA, 95th percentile in Whiff%, and 85th percentile in Blocks Above Avg (Baseball Savant); once again, Adley swings at good pitches, he gets on base, he plays great defense, and he has been the centerpiece of the new look Orioles and their winning culture. By now I’m sure most of us have seen the incredible 87-series sweepless streak the O’s have put together since early 2022, and it’s no coincidence that this streak began with the call up of Adley Rutschman.
1. Gunnar Henderson
Coming in at #1 is Gunnar Henderson. Henderson’s slow start to the season (.197 batting average in April) feels like a distant memory, as he has been nothing short of spectacular ever since. Henderson is slashing a strong .260/.330/.503 with 27 HR and 79 RBIs with 2 weeks to go in the regular season. Henderson is truly all you can ask for as a cornerstone piece to a franchise; elite in every facet of the game from hitting for power to getting on base to elite defense and baserunning. Henderson enters today ranked 9th in the MLB in rWAR at 5.9, and ranks in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive rWAR individually…as a rookie. Henderson ranks in the 100th percentile in baserunning run value and 96th percentile in Hard-Hit % across the MLB according to Baseball Savant. Based purely on the eye test this checks out; Gunnar hits the ball hard with more consistency than just about any other MLB player, creates extra runs for the O’s on the basepaths, and saves runs while in the field. Henderson has also moved back and forth between Shortstop and Third Base all season long and has been an elite defender at both. Maybe it’s the energy Gunnar brings to the field, maybe it’s the Sweet Escape walk out song, but Henderson has had O’s fans singing “woo hoo, yee hoo” all season long.
As a Baltimore native, Zach is an avid Orioles and Ravens fan. After interning for the Baltimore Orioles, he currently works as a Senior Quantitative Risk Analyst for OneMain Financial and is a part-time graduate student studying Data Science at the University of Michigan.