By just about every metric, the Orioles have one of the worst lineups in baseball. The complete lack of offensive firepower has been the most prominent issue in the team’s early-season struggles. The cause of this inability to score runs can all be traced backed to the tendency of O’s hitters to swing (and miss) a whole lot.
Let’s start with the basics: Baltimore strikes out a ton. Their 226 strikeouts are the second-most in MLB behind the San Diego Padres, who have played one more game than the O’s. As Jim Palmer recently pointed out on a MASN game broadcast, no one’s ever gotten a hit while striking out. That’s part of the reason why the team has a league-low .215 batting average.
Of the 2035 strikes Oriole hitters have faced, 22.5 percent of them have come via a swing and a miss (highest of all 30 MLB teams). Only 25.1 percent of the strikes came looking (27th). Foul balls have made up 27.3 percent of the strikes (13th). While the final 25.1 percent is from balls that were put in play (27th).
Compounding the problem has been the hitter’s struggles to get hits when they do put the bat on the ball. The Orioles batting average on balls in play ranks 28th in the league at .273, well below the typical league average of .300. Perhaps some of that is due to bad luck, but most of it is because they aren’t hitting the ball hard enough. Only 29.6 percent of balls they hit have been classified as “hard contact”, which is one of the five lowest rates in MLB.
The Birds have swung at 47.3 percent of all pitches thrown, no matter where they are in relation to the strike zone —the third-highest rate in the league— just 0.6 percent behind the Tigers in the top spot. Baltimore’s hitters have swung at 32.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone; yet another area where they “lead” the league. They are also fairly high up on the leaderboards in pitches swung at in the strike zone (68.3 percent, seventh in MLB).
Adding to the misery, the Orioles have made contact on just 70 percent of all swings, the worst mark in the league by 1.0 percent. It shouldn’t be surprising that on pitches out of the zone, the O’s have made contact just 57.1 percent of the time (27th). On pitches in the zone, they have hit only 82.4 percent (29th).
It’s not difficult to figure out, based on all of these numbers, why the Birds have struggled so mightily. They aren’t getting hits because they are swinging at pitches that are difficult —perhaps impossible— to square up and drive. That makes for weak contact or just flat out swings and misses.
Ignoring the guys that haven’t gotten much playing time, Caleb Joseph has been the least selective. He leads the team with a 40.8 percent rate of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Adam Jones is second with 39.0 percent, followed by Jonathan Schoop (38.8 percent), Anthony Santander (38.0 percent) and Tim Beckham (35.7 percent).
In terms of contact rate, Colby Rasmus (51.1 percent) has been the worst. Chance Sisco (59.3 percent) takes the silver in ineptitude, Joseph (64.6 percent) gets the bronze. Pedro Alvarez (64.8 percent) and Beckham (69.9 percent) round out the top —bottom?— five.
Conversely, Craig Gentry has displayed the best plate discipline by only swinging at 20 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. Danny Valencia (23.2 percent), Manny Machado (26.6 percent) and Chris Davis (26.9 percent) have also done a nice job.
Here’s the big problem: these trends aren’t anything new. The Orioles have been a free-swinging team for a while now. Rather than adding players that took less big hacks and preferred to just put the ball in play, they have doubled down on these all-or-nothing types.
In 2017, when the Birds were an average offensive team, they wound up third in the league in swinging at pitches out of the zone. They were fifth in terms of swinging at all pitches, no matter their location. And their contact rate was one of the five worst in the league.
The difference has been the amount of damage done on the rare occasion that they did make contact. Baltimore finished last season in seventh place with a 33.6 percent “hard contact” rate, which helped them manage a .306 BABIP (also seventh in MLB).
Rather than being one of the league leaders in home runs, the Birds are languishing in the middle of the pack. Machado has eight long balls, but no one else has more than three, while a few regular starters (Joseph, Sisco, Gentry) have yet to go yard at all.
None of this information will surprise regular followers of the Orioles. They are a team built for power that has played the first month of the season in weather than is not conducive to home runs. It’s sure to warm up in the Charm City, and elsewhere, as the year goes on. Perhaps this is nothing more than a sluggish start that will inevitably turn around.
However, what won’t change, in any meaningful way at least, is the construction of the O’s roster. This is the group that they have to work with. They will either succeed with it or have to tear everything down come July. That, of course, is a major issue. Beyond Machado, and Schoop when he returns, this lineup relies on a mix of hitters that could already be well over the hill and others that are just beginning their major league careers. A jump in temperature may provide a lifeline for the bats, but it’s also possible that they are already too far gone.