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Orioles prospects have a walks problem

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Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and Keegan Akin all figure into the O’s long-term plans. But all three have struggled with walks, something that Baltimore needs to improve upon.

MLB: MAR 01 Spring Training - Orioles (ss) at Yankees Photo by /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Camden Yards in September figures to be a lonely, low-energy place. Heck, you can get into every game this month for a flat rate of $30! As the O’s barrel towards another last-place finish, you can’t blame fans for staying away. Calling up top prospects when rosters expanded wouldn’t have induced weeknight sellouts, but it certainly would have made me more excited to attend the games I have remaining on the calendar.

But unfortunately for many O’s fans, we won’t get to see exciting, hyped prospects play in an Orioles uniform this month — specifically, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and Keegan Akin. Those three players were not called up when rosters expanded earlier this week.

Of that trio, Mountcastle is most deserving of a promotion. The International League MVP slashed .312/.344/.527 and walloped 25 homers. Hays battled injuries all season and posted a disappointing .248/.299/.464. But he earned a promotion in 2017 when healthy. Akin struggled adjusting to AAA, posting an ERA of 4.73 and a WHIP of 1.51. He did strike out 10.5 batters per nine innings.

When MASN’s Roch Kubatko wrote about the decision to not promote those three players yesterday, there was a common problem that he referenced about each player: walks. Mountcastle walked 24 times this season while striking out 130 in 127 games. Hays walked 18 times and struck out 83 in 87 games. Akin walked 61 batters in 112.1 innings, and Kubatko cites that as a “nitpick” from someone in the organization.

This is an issue that Mountcastle has been told about before. You may remember an odd story former Buck Showalter told when assigning Mountcastle to minor league camp in March of 2018:

“I said, ‘What do you see yourself doing next year?’ ” Showalter said Monday. “I said, ‘I noticed last year that you only walked 17 times. What was that all about?’ He (Mountcastle) started laughing. And I told him, ‘Understand [that] it’s not funny. This won’t work.’ … He said, ‘I’m a free swinger.’ I said, ‘Then you need to correct that.’ ”

That seemed to be a strange thing to say about a 21 year-old player experiencing his first career big league camp at the time. It seems even more strange when revisiting it. Showalter wanted to send a sharp message.

It seems even more odd since Showalter’s teams, while doing many things right, struggled when it came to bases on balls. From 2011 through 2018 (Showalter’s eight full seasons managing in Baltimore), Orioles batters posted a walk rate of 7.1%. That is good for 29th in the MLB. During that same stretch, O’s pitchers walked 3.23 batters per game. That ranked 23rd. Perhaps Showalter was too harsh on young Mountcastle considering the performance of his clubs.

Either way, those statistics indicate that reducing the disparity in free passes is one of the areas that the new front office and field staff need to address. Have they made any progress on that front since taking over in spring training? Comparing the Orioles’ team stats of 2018 and 2019 isn’t exactly a fair comparison because of the drastic amount of roster turnover that happened. But it is worthwhile when trying to make a determination at what the organization is emphasizing.

The 2019 Orioles have an offensive walk rate of 7.3%, ranking them 26th in the majors. Interestingly, that number is up from 7% last season. Last year’s club had the worst walk rate in the majors. The league average was 8.5% in both seasons. 2019 O’s pitchers have walked 3.56 batters per game, good for 23rd. The 2018 pitching staff walked 3.70 batters per game, 26th in baseball. League averages were 3.27 and 3.25 in those two seasons respectively. Interestingly, the 2019 Orioles have made modest improvements in both stats. While the club is still on the way to another 100-loss season, this is a welcome sign.

If the Orioles’ goal is to change the organizational culture, it is also helpful to look at similar comparisons in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, the positive trend does not continue down to the minors.

Norfolk 2019: Offense, 8.3% walk rate. Pitching, 3.8 walks per game.

Norfolk 2018: Offense, 8.4% walk rate. Pitching, 3.3 walks per game.

Bowie 2019: Offense, 8.2% walk rate. Pitching, 3.0 walks per game.

Bowie 2018: Offense, 7.9% walk rate. Pitching, 3.6 walks per game.

Frederick 2019: Offense, 7.4% walk rate. Pitching, 4.9 walks per game.

Frederick 2018: Offense, 8.2% walk rate. Pitching, 3.5 walks per game.

Minor league rosters experience even more turnover from season to season than the Orioles did between 2018 and 2019, so these numbers don’t paint a completely clear picture. Even so, there is not much to be gained from this. Norfolk and Frederick got worse, Bowie got better. The Orioles’ brain trust will surely analyze this data extensively this winter.

Given the overall organizational context, let’s circle back to the three players who will not be joining the Orioles this month. Ryan Mountcastle’s walk rate of 4.3% rates as the worst in the International League among qualified batters. Unfortunately he did not make improvements this season; in fact, he regressed from a 6.1% rate in 2018. Austin Hays posted an identical rate at AAA as Mountcastle this season. Not good.

On the pitching side, Keegan Akin walked a staggering 4.89 batters per nine innings this season. That is the worst rate of any International League pitcher that accumulated 100 innings. Like Mountcastle, Akin is also going in the wrong direction. He walked 3.79 per nine innings with Bowie in 2018.

My remaining dates at Camden Yards would be far more enjoyable if I were watching Mountcastle, Hays, and Akin perform. But after looking at the problems the Orioles had with walks under the last regime, it is clear that this is area that needs to be an organizational priority. This trio of players struggled mightily in this aspect of their games, and perhaps they do need to prove they are capable of plate discipline and command of the strike zone before being rewarded with a promotion. If this is the new regime’s way of sending a message to it’s top prospects, let’s hope it is well received.