One Does Not Simply Walk into Birdland

(Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)

One of the things I've noticed lately when watching the Orioles is that Mike Flanagan has made mention a few times about how the Orioles are not a good walking team. And that's absolutely true. The Orioles walk just 7.6% of the time they step to the plate, which is fifth worst in baseball this season. And it gets worse: including the 2001 season onwards, the Orioles' walk rate is 7.8% which is third worst in baseball.

I was very glad to hear Flanagan note the way the Orioles don't walk, although that enthusiasm almost instantly disappeared when the follow-up comment from the broadcast booth was that hitting coach Jim Presley "likes his hitters' aggressive approach", which sounds an awful lot like the previous Orioles' hitting coach's philosophy. It is also basically the worst possible response to the revelation that, as fellow CamdenChatter James F. put it, eight years after Moneyball the Orioles are still (perhaps stubbornly) refusing to build a team that, like the wildly successful Red Sox and Yankees (who are almost always in the top three), understands and utilizes the value of the walk.

Why do the Orioles walk so little this season? Why have they never walked much over the past ten years? That is a complicated question with a murky answer. We can look at player acquisitions, or how players might seem to have their walk rates dissipate during their time in Baltimore (the scariest candidate for that conversation right now is Nick Markakis), or we could even talk about something simple and obvious and somewhat pointless like why Nolan Reimold, whose strong walking skill is a big part of what makes him a good player, can't stay in the lineup in favor of the decidedly weak-hitting and barely-ever-walking Felix Pie.

But, as I said it's all murky, because we're talking about a time period that has seen seven different managers and four different general managers. Looking at Nick Markakis' walk rate doesn't show an obvious trending pattern, and anyway looking at one facet of the offensive game in isolation will never tell a coherent story. But after 10+ years of being a team that doesn't draw walks and because of that is in the bottom ten teams of getting on base - the most basic and important facet of an offense - what we can say without hesitation is that the Orioles do not value walks properly.

There is another part of this story, however, that is easy to skim past in a righteous outrage over the Orioles' perennially low walk rate.

The buzz word is "aggressive". The hitters are up there trying to hit their pitch. The most hittable pitch might be the first one. They need to focus easy and stay on the ball. I've heard before that the unofficial motto of the international free agent market is that you don't walk your way to the big leagues, you hit your way there. The Orioles are trying to make good contact and put pressure on the defense. When you put the ball in play, good things happen.

Sabermetrically speaking, that last bit makes sense. A normal expected ball in play average is about .300, so the only things that would bring a high-contact hitter's batting average down is bad luck or strikeouts. So it follows that if you cut down on your strikeouts, your batting average will go up. And, as it happens, the Orioles have the 11th lowest K-rate in baseball this season, and from 2001 onwards they have the second lowest strikeout rate in baseball.

The problem is that in practice, cutting down on strikeouts doesn't usually work. Power often disappears when a low-contact approach is changed. The Orioles - or at least their broadcast booth - seem to think that walk rate also disappears with the strikeouts. Last year, in my favorite quip of the season, the broadcast booth admired Cesar Izturis for being "one of the hardest hitters in baseball to strikeout", to which guest broadcaster (and man whose baseball card is currently on my desk at work) Brady Anderson replied "Well, it's hard to strikeout when you don't see three pitches". Well, the Orioles see 3.79 pitches per plate appearance (8th worst in baseball). And it's hard to walk when you're being aggressive and don't see four pitches.

Are the Orioles truly making an explicit philosophy to cut down on strikeouts at the expense of walks? Well, again, it's a murky area. We can look at Mark Reynolds, brought into the organization despite his high K-rate, who has (predictably) lowered his strikeout totals while upping his walk rate and his power. Or we could look at J.J. Hardy, another Oriole whose batting season is hard to complain about, whose Ks are up and BBs are down. Or any number of other examples. It's muddy, and hard to draw definitive conclusions.

But we do know this as a curiosity: the Orioles do not walk, have not walked, and they do not strikeout, and have not struck out. And their offense is always behind the big boys in the division.

Earlier this week the Blue Jays made a monster trade that looks really good for them. It was done excitingly and creatively. Meanwhile, the Yankees and the Red Sox are crushing the rest of the American League in a race to 100 wins. And the Rays, while tailing off somewhat this season, have in the recent past shown both front office deftness and the fruits of their monster player development system with strong playoff teams. Meanwhile the Orioles seem to subscribe to outdated theories about the offense, and the sense around the team seems to be to merely shrug and talk about aggressiveness.

And so, when I heard about the Blue Jays big trade for Colby Rasmus, this was my reaction, and I still totally feel this right now: "This is why the Orioles simply stand no chance whatsoever with their current philosophies".

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