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How did the 2020 Orioles solve their home run problem?

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This was a better team, talent-wise, but individual adjustments by the bullpen seem to be the answer.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles
This is not the Shawn Armstrong of 2019.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry to dredge up bad memories, but in 2019, the Orioles had a home run problem. A very bad one.

Last season, as a unit, Orioles pitchers served up 305 four-baggers—the worst number in Major League history. Nowhere was the team’s futility more on display than against the New York Yankees, whose 61 long balls against Baltimore in 2019 were the most by any team against a single opponent ever, while Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres hit 13 of his own against Baltimore to break the single-season record for a single player against a single team. It was, in short, embarrassing.

This season was different. Halfway through the season, the Birds were still solidly in the playoff hunt, and even though they fell out of contention in the final weeks, every now and then you could squint and see a decent team.

Significantly, between 2019 and 2020, Orioles pitching went from last in the class to middle of the pack in almost all major categories: ERA (4.51, 16th in the MLB), hits (18th), runs (16th), walks (12th), and WHIP (13th). Oh yeah, and home runs (17th). With 79 allowed in 60 games, the 2020 Orioles’ 162-game season total would have been 213—quite a dip from 305.

Some might chalk this up to a league-wide offensive slump, but the data don’t quite bear this out. There definitely was a dearth of hitting in 2020: MLB hitters’ cumulative batting average of .245 was the twelfth-lowest ever going back to 1871, with hits difficult to come by. As expected, hitters were striking out at historic rates. Yet weirdly, there was no drop in home runs, in which category 2020 clocks in second highest (on a rate basis) of all-time, after the record-breaking, homer-happy, juiced-ball 2019 season.

Is this the “three true outcomes” theory at work? Sort of, except that 2020 isn’t even in the Top-30 seasons in walks allowed. It seems that pitchers did have an advantage over hitters this year, but cutting down on the long ball wasn’t one of them.

Whatever this means, it’s good news for Baltimore fans because, in moving from last in home runs allowed to 17th this season, the Orioles made strides that not every team did.

Obviously, part of that has to do with roster turnover, not unusual during a rebuild. Mostly said turnover was a good thing. For instance, if you look at walks/hits allowed per inning (WHIP), every one of the team’s ten worst offenders from 2019 was gone before the 2020 season began: Pedro Araujo, Sean Gilmartin, Tayler Scott, Luis Ortiz, Matt Wotherspoon, Ty Blach, Mike Wright Jr., Dan Straily, Yefry Ramirez, and Nate Karns.

This season, the five worst WHIPs belong to Cody Carroll, David Hess, Evan Phillips, Asher Wojciechowski, and Wade LeBlanc—all pitchers on the bubble or already separated from the team. The only one left on the 40-man roster is Hess. Standards are getting higher at Oriole Park, it seems.

This season, roster turnover figured to work against the Orioles as they lost several arms to mid-season trades: last-minute rotation addition Tommy Milone, longtime closer Mychal Givens, crafty lefty Richard Bleier, and the flamethrowing Miguel Castro. Yet somehow, this lost production was replaced, with the team ERA lower after the trade deadline than before. When it comes to the home runs that weren’t allowed in 2020, then, the most important changes, it seems, are going on in-house.

At first, it’s a little hard to see what’s changed. Like the rest of the league, the Orioles’ team walk rate stayed about the same in 2019 and 2020 (3.5% and 3.3%). However, like home runs, hits allowed per nine innings went down a considerable amount (9.6 in 2019 to 8.5 in 2020). Likewise, strikeouts increased (7.8% in 2019 to 8.5% in 2020). Fewer hits, more swings and misses—a watertight plan.

It looks like what’s driving this story is evolving stuff at the individual level. Guys like Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, and Paul Fry, relievers who took big steps forward this season, are representative of these changes, with major adjustments made, although each in his own way.

Of the three, Paul Fry may have had the least spectacular 2020, but that’s OK, because the numbers show that he made important refinements. The biggest: adding an inch of vertical and horizontal drop to his slider, now his deadliest pitch, with a 48.4% whiff rate, up from around 30% the year before. As you’d expect, Fry’s ERA dropped from 5.34 to 2.45, and he’s in the 94 and 96th percentile in the MLB in expected average and slugging because he draws such weak contact.

The Shawn Armstrong of 2020 might as well be a different pitcher from the guy who pitched for the Orioles the year before. From a 2019 ERA of 5.13 and a HR/9 rate of 1.2, those stats are down to 1.80 and 0.6, respectively, a year later. Armstrong completely revamped his slider in 2020—with 4 inches of new vertical movement— in the process upping his whiff rate on the pitch from 11.6% to 30.8%. That allowed him to start using that slider, not his fastball, as his putaway pitch, and with great results.

Same with Tanner Scott. Scott was finally able to throw more strikes than balls in 2020, but in addition he, too, carried different stuff. Essentially a two-pitch pitcher, Scott retooled a sinker he throws occasionally, but he’s gotten the most mileage out of adding more break and spin to his slider and fastball. The fastball in particular seems to keep getting better and better, a pitch that now clocks in in the 98th percentile in spin and the 91st in velocity. Like Fry and Armstrong, Scott’s whiff rate has jumped up, too, into in the top 10 percentile in the MLB.

Although 2020 was a down year for offense across the league, home runs continued to sail out of stadiums at historically high levels. Surprisingly, though, after a disastrously pitched 2019, the Orioles defied that trend this season. For this, we probably have to thank a new coaching regime continuing to refine its pitchers’ tricks of the trade. That is definitely hopeful news to build on.