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The Orioles can’t hit left-handed pitchers. What is that about?

The Orioles have struggled all year long to touch up lefties, yet the talk of the off season was that the lineup needed a left-handed hitter for balance. With so many right-handed hitters, why have the Orioles struggled against lefties?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The talk of the Orioles off season was that the lineup needed more balance. With J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and others the Orioles lineup was, and still is, predominately right handed. Usually, it is assumed--and for the most part correctly assumed—that a right-handed hitter will fare better against a left-handed pitcher. The opposite is also true. This is called splits. For some the splits are relatively close to even, for others the split is much larger. For hitters and pitchers, handedness is the primary split used for analysis.

So far in 2016 the Orioles have been about the worst team against left-handed pitching. Here's some proof in no particular order: they have the 27th ranked wRC+ in baseball against lefties (worst in the AL), they have the 26th ranked wOBA (2nd worst in the AL), they have a .275 BABIP against lefties (2nd worst in the AL), they have the highest rate of Soft contact in baseball against lefties.

Significantly for the Orioles, being the extreme home run hitting team that they are, they only have 40 home runs against left-handed pitching which is the 19th most in baseball. This offense has been a different offense in 2016 against lefties

The reason for that struggle is harder to determine. As I stated, they have a low BABIP, but their overall contact and batted ball profile against lefties does not indicate that low BABIP is all from bad luck. The dive, as it often has to, needs to go deeper.

Something that is not talked about as much are reverse splits. This is when a hitter actually gets better results against the same-handed pitcher or when a pitcher gets better results against an opposite-handed hitters. Reverse splits are often seen as an aberration. Over time, splits tend to normalize. Pitchers  are more successful against same-handed hitters and hitters are more successful against opposite handed pitchers.

However, some pitchers and hitters beat these odds. Some pitchers, especially one’s with exceptional change ups, have a lot more success against opposite handed hitters. Kevin Gausman is a grade A example of this phenomenon. On the hitters side, it’s harder to suss out exactly why a hitter is a "reverse split guy." Also, it often takes multiple seasons of data for the noise in split data to go down. But, I am going to try.

The Orioles have six right-handed hitters that have over 300 plate appearances in 2016. Schoop, Hardy, Jones, Machado, Trumbo, and Wieters. I am including Wieters because he bats from the right side against left-handed pitchers.

There is a not often used statistic available on Baseball Reference called tOPS+. Much like the normal OPS+ number, 100 is the average. As with OPS+, anything above 100 is above average and anything below 100 is below average. However, tOPS+ is used for splits. So, the baseline OPS number is the player’s OPS number for the season/career. Then, anything above or below 100 for that particular split tells you whether that hitter has been better or worse than his overall OPS for that split. Rather than looking at an overall line in a certain split, this gives a clear picture with only one number about how a hitter fares in certain splits.

Below is a table with those six right handed hitters I mentioned before. I have included their career tOPS+ against left handed pitchers, their tOPS+ against lefties this year, and a third and final column giving you the difference between the two numbers.

Player Career tOPS+ 2016 tOPS+ Difference
Matt Wieters 115 58 -57
Jonathan Schoop 71 81 +10
J.J. Hardy 111 105 -6
Manny Machado 92 106 +14
Adam Jones 89 62 -27
Mark Trumbo 105 53 -52

Interestingly, Schoop, Machado, and Jones all have reverse splits for their careers. Those three hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching. In fact, this year Schoop and Machado have produced better against left-handed pitchers than they have for their career. However, other than that, the Orioles right-handed hitters are having some years way off normal against left-handed pitchers.

Wieters and Trumbo lead with way with over 50 point drop each against left-handed pitching. In their careers they have both been major mashers of left-handed pitching, but not this season. Also, even though Jones has struggled against southpaws in the past, this year is well below his career mark. Lastly, J.J. Hardy has been about the same overall as his career mark.

The Orioles do have some reverse splits guys. A rarity, but not exactly like seeing a unicorn. Jones, Machado, and Schoop all have hit right-handed pitchers better in their careers. The call for more balance in the lineup was one made of habit and not necessarily reasoning. The other right-handed hitters that do hit left handed pitching well, have all had years against left handed pitching that are way below their career norm.

That is how you end up with a team that is predominantly right-handed yet is near the bottom of the barrel against left-handed pitching. Baseball is weird, never forget that.