How many times under Dan Duquette’s leadership did we hear that the Orioles were going to address their on-base percentage problem? How long did we hold out hope that the Birds were going to diversify their offense to order to move beyond being simply a power-hitting team?
This is a team, under Duquette and manager Buck Showalter’s leadership, that slotted Chris Davis in the leadoff spot the first handful of games last season. Davis ended the season with a .243 on-base percentage.
It begs the question, were the Orioles debating whether Davis was a table-setter or run producer? Because if they were, it just goes to show how mixed up the whole Davis situation has become. But I digress — this is an article about improving team OBP, not CD.
The irony of the situation is that the Orioles would have been a much more dangerous offense the past couple of years if they could’ve gotten more men on-base ahead of their power hitters. How many times in the Showalter/Duquette era did the Orioles have multiple solo home runs in a game, only to be outscored in the end?
In baseball there are only 27 outs in a game. Put simply, one of the most valuable things about a hitter is his ability to not make outs. Other than getting a hit, the main way to not make an out is by taking a walk, thereby adding more value to players who know the strike zone expertly and have the ability to work the count.
Need more proof? Read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. And do yourself a favor, just skip the movie. The book has a lot more substance.
Last season, the average MLB on-base percentage was .318 and the Orioles ranked 29th out of 30 teams with a .298 figure, according to ESPN.com. In 2017, the average OBP was .324 and the Orioles stood 27th in the league at .312.
For comparison, let’s look at the Astros — Elias’ former team — over the past couple of years. Last season, they ranked 7th in the majors with a .329 team OBP. In 2017, they were first in the league with a .346 OBP.
Of all the Orioles last season who had more than 400 at-bats with the team, Adam Jones had the highest on-base percentage at .313, per Orioles.com. That doesn’t include players like Manny Machado, who were traded away midseason, or Jonathan Villar, who was acquired midseason.
According to Houston’s official website, the Astros’ on-base percentage leader last season was Alex Bregman. In 594 at-bats, he had a .394 OBP. Bregman even had more walks than strikeouts — 96 versus 85. Jose Altuve was a close second in the OBP department, coming in with a .386 mark in 534 at-bats.
In a 2014 Q&A with Fangraphs, then Astros Director of Amateur Scouting Mike Elias said the following regarding how he goes about selecting hitters:
We like to target certain hitters – not always, but when it makes sense in the draft – who display advanced pitch recognition skills as amateurs and a willingness to be disciplined in their approach. It’s not just that those guys draw more walks, but more that they tend to possess the hand-eye skills necessary to tangle with better and better stuff as they climb the ladder and then play in the big leagues.
So it makes sense that players with upper-echelon on-base skills also tend to be superior hitters. Just take a look at the aforementioned Astros hitters.
Last season, Bregman’s .394 OBP was buoyed by a .286 batting average and his career triple slash line is .282/.366/.500. Last season, Altuve’s .386 OBP came along with a .316 batting average. For his career, Altuve is hitting .316/.365/.453.
Stars like these are few and far between, but with Mike Elias in charge of the Orioles, there is hope that he can find a few more players like this to be part of the next great Orioles team.
It starts with accurate player identification, but it continues with the proper minor league environment to foster and promote the right approach. This is another area where Elias should excel, making sure the same points of emphasis are clear from the lowest level of the minor leagues all the way to Camden Yards. That’s how you reestablish a farm system with hitters strong enough to feed the major league roster for years.