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Orioles wild season due in part to strikeout and walk numbers

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The Orioles have had a bit of a rollercoaster ride to begin the 2017 season. Now as the long summer stretch kicks into gear, the entire roster should key into two key areas — strikeouts and walks.

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

If you listen or read baseball analysis on a regular basis, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “three true outcomes” quite a bit more often in recent years. Especially if you follow the Orioles, that phrase has become a staple in every-day team conversation.

These outcomes, of course are the ones that are taking over the sport — home runs, strikeouts and walks. As the game evolves, these are the at-bat outcomes that are increasingly filling the box scores. The “small ball” approach is stale. It’s all or nothing at the plate here in 2017 — that is, unless you can draw a free base courtesy of the opposing pitcher’s fear of giving up a round-tripper.

The power surge is relatively new, but the limiting of strikeouts and taking advantage of walks (vise versa for pitching staffs) has been the key for decades upon decades. And now, as it’s always been, it’s vital to key in on those areas when analyzing the numbers and breaking down the best teams in the league.

For the Orioles, with power numbers sitting very average in 2017 (11th in HRs, 13th in SLG), the elements of strikeouts and walks are perhaps more crucial than ever.

To avoid a consistent downward course, Buck Showalter’s guys must improve tremendously in terms of the three true outcomes aspect of the game, namely the walks and strikeouts on both sides.

Too many strikeouts, too few walks

The Orioles strike out a lot — which, with the current makeup of the roster, makes sense. Chris Davis is striking out in 38 percent of his plate appearances on the year, while the entire lineup has a strikeout percentage of 23.3%, third-worst in the American league behind Tampa Bay and Oakland.

That’s not a number to write home about, but it’s one of the least-devastating in the game in terms of statistical areas that can crush a baseball team. It’s been widely agreed upon that a strikeout is only marginally worse than another out, so a team with high strikeout totals isn’t immediately due for major panic.

However, a team that whiffs must also work counts and earn walks. Both numbers can’t be shifted negatively over an extended period of time, the current most pressing issue with the Orioles lineup.

Batters are walking just 7.3 percent of the time, a number that ranks 26th in a league that averages an 8.7% number. Again — strikeouts alone are OK. Low walk totals are OK. The two together, however, presents a long-term picture in which winning isn’t sustainable without change ... or, an amount of luck that is unheard of.

When taking a deep dive into the numbers, it’s clear to see why the strikeout and walk totals deviate so much from the league average.

The Orioles have the sixth-highest O-Swing% (pitches swung at out of the zone) at 31 percent. The team’s Z-Swing% (pitches swung at in the zone) is just 65.1%, fourth-lowest in MLB. And overall, the lineup’s Contact% (swings that make contact) is at 75.5%, also fourth-worst in the league.

These aren’t trends that can continue for much longer without below-average results, especially if the power numbers don’t return to form.

Too many walks, too few strikeouts

As you probably gleaned from the headline, the Orioles are having similar problems on the pitching side — the numbers are merely reversed.

Orioles pitching just isn’t missing bats this season, allowing a Contact% of 79.9% that ranks second-highest in the American League. With just 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings, the pitchers rank 26th in K/9 with the league average being 8.2, an entire strikeout more.

Again, it’s pretty simple — the pitchers aren’t generating enough swings and misses.

But like on offense, strikeout numbers in the wrong direction is not cause to hit any sort of panic button. Plenty of successful rotations rely on weak contact and impeccable command to anchor their starts, and strikeouts aren’t always necessary to roll through innings on a consistent basis. That is, as long as walk totals are low.

As a team, the Orioles have a 3.67 BB/9 number, second-highest in the American League.

The trends aren’t getting any better, and we haven’t even reached the worst trend of all — first-pitch strikes.

The Orioles rank last in Major League Baseball with a first-pitch strike percentage of 56.9%. The league average is over three percentage points higher at 60.0%. Kevin Gausman (55.3%), Wade Miley (55.5%) and Dylan Bundy (58.8%) all fall significantly behind the average mark.

Is there a quick fix?

It’s early in the year, but with a third of the season wrapped, it’s pretty clear that trends that have played out are here to stay unless significant changes are made.

The Orioles are still in contention for the division, impressive due to their recent skid but ultimately aided by an unsustainable start out of the gate. Only time will tell whether the team can get these numbers shifted in the right direction in time for the stretch run.

Perhaps the roster makeup is set in stone and will have to overcome these challenges.

Maybe we’ll see power spike as the weather heats up and bats (those of Machado and Davis in particular) begin to produce on a regular basis.

Either way, there’s no avoiding what we already know — the Orioles season will follow the path that the three true outcomes end up leading them.