With the Orioles bringing back most of the same team compared to last season, it’s not much of a shock that they might have carried over some of 2016’s big problems. Though the season is only about 10% over, it already seems like the O’s struggling against left-handed pitching is going to be an ongoing concern.
There was not a team in the American League that had a worse batting line against lefties last season. The Orioles with a .692 OPS were at the bottom. The only good news about that is that there’s nowhere to go but up. The bad news is that the prior sentence is not actually true, because unless you’re batting .000/.000/.000, you can always do worse.
Up to this point in the season, at least the Orioles aren’t last again. They entered Sunday’s game 11th of 15 AL teams in OPS against lefty pitchers with a .647 OPS. That OPS didn’t improve after they did nothing good against Eduardo Rodriguez in Sunday’s loss. They’re better compared to the league, but worse compared to themselves.
How much this will end up mattering remains to be seen. Though the 2016 O’s struggled against lefties, they made it work enough to get by. Last year’s team was 23-23 in games started by lefty pitchers.
Early on, the 2017 Orioles are making it work, too, with a 5-3 record in those games to go along with their 12-5 record overall. That’s a good thing, because they’ve faced lefty pitchers more than any other American League team up to this point.
With the Red Sox, a key division rival, rolling with a lefty-heavy rotation, the Orioles are going to need to find a way to keep that up if they are going to have the best chance of succeeding. The Jays and Yankees each opened the season with two lefties in their rotations, as well.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way again. After all, much has been made of the Orioles operating with a platoon set up in both left field and right field. Two left-handed corner outfielders, Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim, have been buried against lefty pitchers.
We’ll never know what the original plan was because one righty-batting outfielder, Joey Rickard, got hurt after playing in four games with only one start. Maybe he would have played more. Instead, it’s been Craig Gentry in one corner and mostly Mark Trumbo, with some Trey Mancini, in another.
That trio has not come through against lefties so far. Gentry, with a .587 OPS for the season to date, has not yet done much hitting against anybody at all. Trumbo, batting .227/.271/.318, remarkably has an even lower slugging percentage than Gentry. It’s not exactly what the Orioles had in mind when they re-signed him for another three seasons.
With Mancini having a .960 OPS so far this season, nobody’s going to complain about him. He’s slugged as well as could have been hoped, but that hasn’t come against lefties as much. He entered Sunday’s game with a .726 OPS against lefties and went 0-3 against Rodriguez. One would guess this will even out. Probably.
There are other strugglers. J.J. Hardy is only batting .224/.237/.328 for the season. He’s like Gentry and Trumbo in that he is having a tough time against everyone. Is that likely to get any better? Maybe not. Hardy was about that bad two years ago, and at 34, it’s possible that’s just who he is now.
Or how about catcher Welington Castillo? With the departed Matt Wieters batting a paltry .229/.302/.343 against lefties last season, that seemed like an area for improvement. Castillo batted .278/.346/.522 when facing lefties, giving even more hope for an improvement.
Nice theory, but it also hasn’t materialized yet: Castillo had just a .550 OPS against lefties heading into Sunday’s game.
It’s too early in the season to make any final pronouncement about Castillo’s or anyone else’s hitting against lefties, or against righties, for that matter. April and even May slumpers can improve.
For one example, look no further than one of last year’s Orioles. Nobody was very excited about Pedro Alvarez when he had a .644 OPS at the end of last May, yet by season’s end, he was up to an .826 OPS.
That doesn’t mean all struggling players will get better, but it is too early to dismiss them. If anyone had a three-week slump in June, we would just shrug and move on. Here in late April, the first three weeks of the season are the only three weeks we have to talk about, so that makes poor results seem more dire than they actually are.
Even in baseball, where being left-handed is a sought-after trait, there just aren’t that many lefties. That’s why if you’re going to suck against one type of pitcher, it might as well be lefties. The numbers are on your side. Better still if a team can be good against both, but we can’t always get what we want in life.
Are the Orioles going to manage to get better against lefties? You can find a reason to believe either way. Trumbo is going to hit better eventually, although he wasn’t good against lefties last year either. Castillo should get better against lefties. And if you believe either Hardy or Gentry will improve, you probably think the O’s will manage to figure it out.
Maybe the Orioles will even give Kim a chance and he’ll work out OK. No, I know, I shouldn’t suggest anything too crazy like that.
If things hold the way the schedule looks to play out right now, the Orioles will only face one lefty starting pitcher in their next six games, so this question won’t start to get much of an answer over the next week.
So far, though, things are looking like last year against lefties and that is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.