The Orioles have only played 11 of their 162 regular season games so far, just under 7% of the season. With more than 90% of the schedule still to be played, it’s far too early to make any big statements that say that because the Orioles have been like so-and-so up until now, that they will continue to be like this for the whole season.
That’s good news for the Orioles offense, because there are two big problems that they have shown in their early games that, if they do continue near this level as the season goes along, will become big problems that they will not be able to avoid addressing any longer.
The first early problem is that the Orioles are striking out a lot. Just saying “a lot” does not sufficiently convey the problem. The Orioles actually have an MLB-worst strikeout rate at this point, with strikeouts in 28.2% of their plate appearances so far this season. No Orioles fan who has spent the past couple of seasons watching Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo will be surprised to know that the strikeout rate is not a new problem for the Orioles.
What’s new is the degree of the problem relative to the competition - and we haven’t even seen Trumbo yet. Last season, for instance, the Orioles batters struck out in 23% of their plate appearances. That was still a bad number relative to their peers, but it wasn’t this bad, either. If last year’s O’s had struck out 28.2% of the time instead of 23%, that would have meant an additional 319 strikeouts for the whole season.
The second problem for the Orioles is that, on top of hitting the ball less often than literally any other team in MLB, when they are hitting the ball, they aren’t hitting it very hard. At present, the Orioles rate near the bottom of the league in their rate of hard contact. One stats provider, Sports Info Solutions, put them at a second-worst-in-MLB 19% hard-hit rate before yesterday’s game. That’s a little better on Fangraphs, with 27.7% of balls being hard-hit - but still fifth-worst in MLB and second-worst among AL teams.
Unlike the strikeout thing, this is a new problem for the Orioles. For all of their faults, last year, when they hit the ball, they hit the ball hard. As a team, Fangraphs put them at 33.6% hard contact, which ranked 7th-best across the whole league. That’s no surprise for a team that’s home run-reliant, but it’s about more than just home runs. This can be grounders or liners or anything else.
The modern baseball world is somewhat obsessed with exit velocity. It’s mentioned often on the TV broadcasts because the information is made quickly available thanks to Statcast. This ball was off the bat at 95mph; that home run came off the bat at 110mph.
A harder-hit ball does not guarantee that there will be a hit, but it’s a relatively easy high school physics-level math calculation to figure out how much time a fielder standing at a certain number of feet away from home plate will have to react to a ball that is hit Y miles per hour, and how much less time he has to react if the ball is hit 10mph harder than that.
Gary Thorne and the MASN broadcast truck aren’t doing this math on the air any time soon, but the basic concept is still there. Even if the difference between the two is a fraction of a second, it’s in that fraction of a second that a line drive right into the third baseman’s glove can turn into a double down the left field line.
When you start talking about balls that are elevated more, how hard it’s hit can determine whether it lands in an outfielder’s glove on the warning track or whether it goes over the stands. Adding launch angle and wind resistance and such makes it a more complicated math calculation, but again, the basic principle remains: The harder the ball is hit, the farther it goes before it lands.
Right now, the Orioles aren’t hitting the ball hard. This is not everything. Last year’s world champion Astros, who nearly scored 900 runs, were “only” 12th on Fangraphs’ hard-hit rate at 32.3%. However, they combined a good hard-hit rate with an amazing low strikeout rate, with strikeouts in just 17.3% of their plate appearances.
Compare that to last year’s Orioles and it’s almost unbelievable. If the 2017 Orioles had struck out in just 17.3% of plate appearances, that would have meant 350 fewer strikeouts. If they continued to get hard contact 33.6% of the time, those 350 disappearing strikeouts would have turned into another 118 hard-hit balls. There is a lot of offense in that gap. The Astros were amazing even before you got into their pitching. The Orioles were not.
It is early to panic about this stuff. After just 11 games, players have not yet settled in to the level at which they are capable of performing this season. The mantra this early is “small sample size.” Or if you asked Buck Showalter, he’d say something along the lines of, “We’ve got players who have a track record we know they’re going to get back to.”
Showalter is not wrong in a general sense, but problems arise if this statement must still be deployed in June or August. This happened last season as he continued to use the same bad veteran starting rotation - perhaps because, sad as it is to say, they were his best options. The track record does you no good if the player is not capable of reaching the level of that track record due to injury, age-related ineffectiveness, or something else.
Chris Davis has been very, very bad up to this point. It would still be a surprise if he is this bad for the whole season. Even a pessimist about Davis before the season would not have expected a .088/.225/.176 batting line. Other Orioles who are still in the dumps offensively also: Caleb Joseph, Jonathan Schoop, and Tim Beckham. Those guys have made a lot of outs.
Unless performance-sapping injuries are being hidden, they are going to start doing better, and when they do, the Orioles will score more. As the struggling players find their 2018 groove a bit more, they will be striking out less - we hope - and hitting the ball harder, and hopefully the Orioles don’t have to worry about these problems by the time the sample sizes stop being so small.