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The Orioles have a pitch count problem

Orioles starters have pulled themselves out of the league cellar in ERA, but they’re getting killed by shaky command and foul balls.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you caught the last couple of series against Texas, Houston, and Toronto, you might have started to notice a trend: Orioles starters are pitching competent, but short games. Save for David Hess’ mini-meltdown on Wednesday, the starters are giving up 3 runs or less per game, but lasting just 5-6 innings. Orioles starting pitching is no longer plain bad; it’s … elusive.

Some of us (that means me) thought this might be a John Means problem. Far and away the best pitcher on the Orioles staff right now, Means has had exactly one Achilles heel this season, and that is the pitch count. If you caught Means’ start against the Jays on Tuesday, you might have seen one of the following two charts:

MLB Leaders, Pitches/Inning

Most Pitches Thrown Per Inning (min 60 IP)
Most Pitches Thrown Per Inning (min 60 IP)
Reynaldo López (CWS) 18.4
John Means (BAL) 18.2
Homer Bailey (KC) 18.1
Trent Thompson (TOR) 18.1
Tanner Roark (CIN) 18.1
MLB Avg: 16.8

John Means is throwing more pitches per inning than almost any other pitcher in the Majors, but he’s actually not a major outlier on the staff. The Orioles as a whole are eighth in the MLB in total innings pitched, but third in total pitches and first in pitches per plate appearance.

Cue Chart No. 2.

Orioles Starters, Foul Balls/Start

Starter PCT Fouls Starts
Starter PCT Fouls Starts
Gabriel Ynoa 18 56 3
John Means 17.9 179 10
David Hess 16.4 197 12
Dylan Bundy 15.8 205 13
Andrew Cashner 14.3 186 13

Aha! The culprit—the foul ball. Orioles starters are throwing a lot of foul balls—only Cashner clocks in below league average.

Well, there’s a second shooter. The Orioles rank dead last in the league in percentage of strikes per pitches thrown—not even Means is above-average here—and they hover towards the bottom of league charts in percentage of pitches swung at (45.9%), a good indication you’re not throwing competitive pitches. So some of the pitch count woes are self-inflicted, it turns out.

But command problems are definitely only the half of it. You may have heard that the MLB has a pacing problem? Games have gotten longer than ever. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent tinkering—introducing the pitch clock, limiting mound visits, eliminating actual pitches from the intentional walk—has shortened games, but by like 5 minutes, hardly a resounding success.

Again, not to put too fine a point on it, the real culprit is the foul ball. The 2019 season is seeing a record-breaking total of pitches per plate appearance and 3-2 counts, and foul balls. More charts, these two borrowed from a fine piece by Baseball Prospectus’ Matthew Trueblood.

Pitches per Plate Appearance, Season

Year P/PA
Year P/PA
1988 3.58
1993 3.65
1998 3.70
2003 3.73
2008 3.8
2013 3.83
2014 3.82
2015 3.82
2016 3.87
2017 3.90
2018 3.90
2019 3.96

Percentage of At-bats That Go to a Full Count, Season

Year Full count %
Year Full count %
1988 10.2
1993 11.1
1998 12.6
2003 12.2
2008 12.6
2013 12.8
2014 12.6
2015 12.5
2016 13.3
2017 13.9
2018 13.7
2019 15.4

If you take these numbers, and add the percentage of plate appearances that end with a 2-2 count, what you find is that almost 30 percent of the league’s plate appearances this season are taking at least five pitches (and that’s without counting any foul balls) to resolve. Gone are the days, it seems, of Adam Jones teeing off on the first pitch.

So what explains this league-wide spike? FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchick gives a pretty darn good condensed explanation:

Pitching velocity has increased nearly every season since 2008, when pitch tracking began in all ballparks, and more breaking balls are being thrown as fastball usage declines. Generally, hitters perform better — and pitchers perform worse — when fastballs are thrown. The game has never been more specialized, with bullpens accounting for a record 40.1 percent of innings last season. Relievers typically throw with more velocity and strike out more batters, meaning that batters are facing high-quality pitching from relievers even earlier in games.

So the rise in average velocity, plus the decline in fastball usage (especially contact-friendly sinkers) and spike in breaking pitches (especially contact-averse sliders) is producing a lot of weak contact and a lot of strikeouts. But there’s a little more to the story than that.

The period between 2015 and 2016 also corresponds to a couple of other sea changes in baseball: the rise (or more accurately, the revival) of the shift, the embrace of Statcast by every team, and a series of mysterious changes to the official baseball to make it fly longer (we’re not sure what they are, but we know they’re there). In his recent I’m Keith Hernandez (a fun read, which I highly recommend) Keith Hernandez grumbles about the rise of “Statcast era, uppercut swings” that are robbing of the game of its finesse. While it’s not strictly true that groundball percentages are rising, 2017 did break the league record for home runs in a season, and 2019 might top that.

Finally and ironically, new stadiums built to favor offense actually ended up favoring the foul ball. The reason: they shrunk playing surfaces. Comparing 21 current stadiums with their predecessors, FanGraphs found that fair territory had decreased by 1.4 percent, but foul territory decreased by 20.5 percent. Fans may have a better chance than ever at catching a foul ball, but fielders do not.

So what does all this mean for the Orioles? Starting pitching has grown all the more important at a time when the Orioles have a particular problem getting batters out. They’re throwing a lot of balls, and not competitive strikes (as I pointed out, they have the lowest swing percentage of any team in the Majors).

I don’t have the data to back this up, but my hunch is that, command problems aside, pitchers like David Hess and John Means—less so Cashner—also have a problem with the strike-three putaway pitch, and that’s because they lack swing-and-miss stuff. Means has his highest swing-and-miss numbers with the changeup, but without clever sequencing, batters can adjust to it, which might explain the high number of foul balls. The same is true of Dylan Bundy, who, although he has some of the highest swing rates on the team, still relies on deception.

Bottom line: a lot of the Orioles’ pitching woes are piggybacking on a league-wide orgy of foul balls, and the staff’s lack of a true “best stuff” thrower might explain their seeming difficulty with the putaway pitch, but for now, we can agree that there’s an easy partial fix: throw more strikes!