For the Orioles, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t getting brighter. That’s actually a train headed for them.
After another night of free-swings, misses, lame-duck ground balls and warning track yawns, the O’s were rear-naked choked into submission by none other than Clay Buchholz, who hasn’t been a real thing for like six years.
For the third consecutive night, the Orioles had a chance to pull the rope on the AL East tug-o-war a little bit closer in their favor. For the third night in a row, they saw the Red Sox out-muscle them with better defense, better pitching and a sound offensive attack, with a little bit of luck to boot.
As of now, the Orioles are skating on thin ice with dull blades. Any more missteps, and a team that coasted for most of the way is sure to fall into the freezing abyss that is a game-less October. And with that perfect segue into the cold bats...
At the start of the year, there was nothing else for any discernible fan of of this team to do but accept the impending consequences of a free-swinging but powerful lineup. Proceeding to add Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez to the mix seemed to mean more of the same.
But as ugly as some plate appearances would be, the reassurance of home run induced amnesia would eventually even out the dooziest of hacks. At first, it worked.
The O’s closed out the first-half of the season at 51-36 with a two game divisional lead, almost all to do with the prowess of the lineup. Naturally, the Orioles led all of baseball with home runs (137) and ISO (.195), while trailing only the Red Sox in team OPS (.800) and wRC+ (111).
While the overall strikeout rate hovered at a nearly identical pace in comparison to a year ago, the Orioles were walking a little bit more, and chasing off the plate that much less. The Super Smash Birds proved that a lineup of their qualities could balance the good and the bad.
Remember when I said it worked? Like past tense? Yeah, that’s because it did. Like it did in the before time. In the long, long ago.
In what is now the third consecutive month of average or less offensive production, the Orioles have managed to debunk their own hypothesis. The strange thing is, the numbers hardly suggest such a mystifying drop-off. Where the Orioles first-half run differential of +41 has fallen to a second-half -25, the initial returns are blurry.
The O’s have continued to hit the home run, leading all of baseball with 101 dongs over their last 65 games. The team’s first-half strikeout rate has managed to fall from 22.4% to 20.7%, and though the walks have dropped a tad (7.9% to 7.2%), the retreating frequency of bases on balls aren’t alarming. The team’s batting average on balls in play has been, however.
Orioles' hitters also have a collective .258 BABIP in the second half. No other team is below .277.— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) September 21, 2016
Camden Depot’s Matt Kremnitzer raises a brilliant point, even for those who may find BABIP to be an overthought metric. How is it that the Orioles, a team loaded with purveyors of exit velocity, a group that had been so productive in their contact, suddenly turn balls in play into outs. How do you go from having the league’s second-highest team wRC+ to the fifth-lowest (88)? Well, we have evidence.
Here’s Manny Machado in last night’s game, doing well to work the count into his favor. This being the Orioles biggest problem over the current stretch of offensive misery, Machado does what all good hitters do by manipulating Buchholz to pitch to him on his terms.
Even so, Buchholz dots a really good two-seam fastball down and in. Machado sees a fastball over the plate, grounds out, and ends the inning. Sometimes a batter does his job, and a pitcher does his a little bit better. That’s baseball. That’s forgivable.
Swinging at a 0-0 changeup riding up in the zone with a chance to break the game open? Unforgivable. Buchholz had been struggling heavily with command in the 3rd inning, leaving one with the opinion that Machado very well could have worked the count again, forcing Buchholz back over the plate. But that isn’t how the Orioles operate.
This is the kind of pattern Machado has been on since the break, and though his .277/.319/.526 second-half slash isn’t a cause for much concern, his wavering becomes that much more noticeable when your first half .944 OPS drops by a hundred points over the last three months. To the larger point, this is what happens when you’re green-lit on every pitch. You take these kind of risks.
Speaking of first-pitch outs, no one has mastered the craft like Matt Wieters.
Here we are again, a slight ray of hope with runners on first and second, and a chance to pad the lead. A first-pitch fastball is obviously the goal, and if he gets one, he’s certainly going to attack it as he’s seemed to willing to do over the last few weeks. But no, he gets a changeup fading away to outer-half of the plate, and he does the only thing you can do with such a pitch. Plunk a harmless rainbow into right field.
Just as Machado showed, there’s no plan in mind, willingness to adjust, or even a slight hint at taking surefire pitch out of the zone. When giving the freedom to swing at will at bad pitches, this kind of result is proper justice.
Down 5-1, Wieters does about all you can ask for in this scenario. The O’s need baserunners, and Wieters primes himself to either draw a walk or coax Buchholz with a fastball over the plate. He does get a fastball, and the ball in play proves yet another folly in the Orioles philosophical approach to hitting.
Buchholz throws a hittable fastball, but on the outer-half of the plate. Wieters doesn’t take a pitch he doesn’t have to swing at, nor does he even make an effort to hit the baseball to left field.
Wieters, like most of his teammates, doesn’t go with the pitch and a pull-happy swing results in the only possible outcome.
Adam Jones has actually been pretty good hitting at the top of the order, but where he provides immediate pop to kick off the game, he also does things like that ^.
It isn’t that swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat is a bad thing. Sometimes the first pitch you see may be the only one you like, but you have to really, really like it in order to justify the swing. Jonesy sees fastball, Jonesy swings and Jonesy tosses his bat farther than the baseball.
Again, wanting a fastball and getting a fastball doesn’t always translate to common sense. You’re not looking to drive a fastball to right field, as the location of the pitch dictates, on the first pitch you see. You hope Eduardo Rodriguez makes a mistake on the inner-half of the plate, allowing that pull-crazy swing to maximize its purpose. This swing encapsulates all that is wrong with the Orioles current state of mind.
Of course Mookie Betts’ absurd numbers at Camden Yards are glorified by the eight home runs he’s hit in only eight games at “Fenway South”, but this swing from Tuesday night is as impressive as all the others. In what proved to be the action inning for Kevin Gausman, Betts shows his .318/.358/.542 slash is not a fluke.
Earlier in the at-bat, Gausman showed Betts a fastball and missed, but came back with a floating splitter for a strike. Betts then pulled a fastball down the third base line foul, putting Gausman in the driver’s seat. Gausman proceeds to move Betts’ eyes to the outer-half of the plate, but the very serious MVP candidate doesn’t panic. He waits, doesn’t over-swing, and lines a base hit to right field.
Fundamentally sound, Betts’ sets the table for David Ortiz’s eventual game-winning home run by not trying to hit the rare 10-run home run or hit Boog Powell at his beef stand. He takes what he’s given, and does what good hitters do. He gets on base.
That’s the big difference between the 2016 Red Sox and the 2016 Orioles, and that’s why one team hasn’t skipped a beat on offense while the other wonders why people don’t want to watch them play.
The BABIP situation with the Orioles is probably at least some bad luck, but looking back at this series with the Red Sox, a lot of it can also be pointed directly back at themselves. The Orioles swing at crap, and the results can turn into such. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and right now at the worst time of the year, it isn’t working.
Expecting a lineup to change how they’ve played for 152 games is a dry wish, and at this point of the year, hoping for the best is about all anyone can do. But even then, their best may not be good enough.