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The Orioles are coming up small in big spots

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The 2015 Orioles have been hurt by miserable offense in high-leverage spots.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles through Sunday had a 19-22 record and were sitting in third place in the AL East. That’s what they’ve actually done; however, the two most-used win modeling systems (PythagenPat and BaseRuns) say the team’s record should be 21-20. The two-game difference can be attributed to sequencing; specifically, that the Orioles are failing to hit well in high-leverage spots.

A quick review of leverage: using the score, the number of runners on base, where they are on the bases, the inning, and the number of outs, we can get a sense of how important a certain plate appearance is for a team. If the Orioles are leading 10-1 in the 8th inning, it doesn’t matter much what happens at the plate, because their lead is so large and the game is almost over. But if the Orioles are behind 3-2 in the 7th inning, each plate appearance is very important, because the next run will tie the game. The importance only increases as runners get on base and as "time" (measured in outs remaining) ticks away. You can read more about leverage here.

Using leverage data from FanGraphs, here are the Orioles’ wOBA splits on both offense and defense:

2015 Orioles wOBA splits

The pitching and defense have been a tad worse in medium- and high-leverage situations, relative to low-level ones. That’s going to cost the team some wins. But it's the offense that's hurting the team the most. Look at that large gap in offensive performance between low- and medium-leverage spots and high-leverage ones. The team’s offense is failing to do its job when games are on the line.

Here are the numbers, with MLB rank in parentheses:

  • Low leverage: 813 PA, .319 wOBA (9th)
  • Medium leverage: 556 PA, .341 wOBA (4th)
  • High leverage: 152 PA, .231 wOBA (30th)

Wow. Just ... wow. Orioles batters are choking. Hard.

Who's to blame? Here's who has come up the most in high-leverage spots and what they've done:

  • Chris Davis: 19 PA, .047 wOBA
  • Adam Jones: 17 PA, .404 wOBA
  • Steve Pearce: 17 PA, .297 wOBA
  • Manny Machado: 14 PA, .063 wOBA
  • Caleb Joseph: 12 PA, .305 wOBA
  • Delmon Young: 12 PA, .311 wOBA

It's nice to see that the team's best hitter (Jones) is getting a lot of reps in high-leverage spots. That speaks partly to good fortune but partly to Buck's lineup construction. And in terms of projected performance, it's good that hitters like Davis, Pearce, and Machado are also getting lots of reps in high-leverage spots. These hitters are projected by Steamer and ZiPS to have good seasons.

But man oh man, look at what Chris Davis has actually done to this year's team. That's not a typo, his wOBA in high-leverage situations is a putrid .047. It gets even worse when you consider that in those 19 PA, he's struck out nine times, not even making the opposing defense work.

Here's how his five highest-leverage plate appearances have gone:

  • April 13th: Facing Dellin Betances with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 7th, Orioles behind 6-5. Struck out swinging.

  • May 6th: Facing Jacob deGrom with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the 5th, Orioles behind 3-1. Struck out swinging.

  • May 20th: Facing Fernando Rodney with runners on the corners in the bottom of the 9th, no one out, Orioles behind 4-1. Struck out looking.

  • April 25th: Facing Koji Uehara with a runner at third base and no outs in the bottom of the 10th, Orioles behind 4-3. Hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game.

  • May 3rd: Facing Xavier Cedeno with runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the 6th, Orioles behind 2-0. Struck out swinging.

That's two bases-loaded strikeouts on his resume and two strikeouts with a runner in scoring position and fewer than two outs.

/facepalm

Machado hasn't done much better. Despite his overall offensive improvement this year, his .063 wOBA in high-leverage spots is barely better than Davis'. At least Machado is putting the ball in play a little bit more, giving him a chance. His five highest-leverage situations go strikeout, flyout, GIDP, strikeout, single.

Here's a full graph of who has done what in high-leverage spots. Keep in mind that the major-league average this year (in high-leverage spots) is around a .301 wOBA.

2015 players high-leverage PA

The only possible good news is, fans shouldn't expect this offensive misery to continue. 19 PA is about five games of offense. Would you say that a player is doomed because he's gone 1-for-19 recently? No; everybody slumps. And before you say that something is inherently un-clutch about Davis, consider his high-leverage wOBAs from recent years: .543, .459, .419, .412. Those are amazing numbers. Would you believe 19 plate appearances over four years of data? To do so would be to discount all of Davis' past performance.

Similarly, fans shouldn't expect Machado to continue to be this bad. His high-leverage wOBAs over the past three years are .427, .298, .224. Those aren't great (except for last year) but they're not .063. No, fans should expect Davis and Machado, as well as the other players, to regress to the mean. But that can take awhile. Data from 2004-2014 shows that players average one high-leverage plate appearance for every 4.7 low-leverage ones. In that dataset, covering a decade, the average player had 418 high-leverage PA. That's less than one season of performance over ten years.

So there is hope, but it unfortunately doesn't change the fact that Davis, Machado, and others have been incredibly un-clutch for the 2015 Orioles already. Let's hope they turn things around sooner rather than later.

All data from FanGraphs.com.