A walk is as good as a hit...or to be more accurate, a walk is as good as a single with no one on base.
Yet walks are valuable nonetheless, especially in the mind of a Moneyball fanatic such as myself. And I’m talking about Moneyball the book, not the movie, just to be clear.
The ability to earn a base on balls affects a game in more ways than one. Per SB Nation, “there were 1.39 home runs hit per team game in 2019, a whopping 11 percent more than the previous record, and 20 percent more than any other season in major league history.”
With the way homers are spiking league-wide in baseball, its important to get men on base to set up those two-run, three-run and grand slam home runs. Those can be the difference between an average offense and an above average offense.
Not to mention, the best lineups always work the count in order to tire out the opponent’s pitching staff. A keen knowledge of the strike zone is an invaluable skill that exhausts the other team’s pitching depth and can lead to more pitcher mistakes, i.e. home runs.
It’s been quite a long time since the Orioles were known for working the count. Even when they were bashing the ball out of the park during the prime years of the Buck Showalter era, they weren’t exactly lighting things up in the OBP department.
Last year the major league average OBP was .323 and Baltimore ranked 24th out of 30 teams with a .310 mark in that category. Subsequently, the Orioles ranked in the bottom third of the league (22nd) in runs scored with 729.
Looking back at last year’s hitting stats, the Birds had ten players with more than 300 at-bats and only three of them had an OBP above the league average of .323.
Trey Mancini led the pack at a .364 clip, which included 66 walks and 143 strikeouts in 602 at-bats. Jonathan Villar — who will be moving from the middle infield to center field for his new team, the Marlins — had the second best OBP on the O’s last year at .339 and Hanser Alberto came in third at .329.
But Alberto’s figure was buoyed by a .305 batting average that included drastic splits of .398 against left-handed pitchers and .238 versus righties.
One of the few surprises of 2019 for the Orioles when he put up a .740 OPS and 95 OPS+, catcher Pedro Severino had an OBP just under the league average at .321. There were only other O’s with more than 300 at-bats and an OBP over .300: Renato Nunez (.311) and Rio Ruiz (.306).
For comparison, AL East competitors Boston and New York ranked third (.340) and fourth (.339) in OBP out of all 40 teams last year. Tampa was 13th at .325 and Toronto actually underperformed the Orioles, logging the fourth worst OBP in the league at .305.
So how do the Orioles attempt to make gains in this area?
We can hope that the current Orioles general management increased emphasis on plate patience across all levels of the minors as soon as they came onto the scene in late 2018.
And after less than two years in Baltimore, Mike Elias has the farm system improving rapidly even though most of his draft additions — though promising — are just starting out in the low minors and are not expected to join the big league club that soon.
That leaves young guys who are expected to have an expanded role this year.
For example, if Austin Hays can lock down the starting center field job in spring training, maybe he can put up something similar to the .373 OBP he put up in 68 at-bats at the end of last season. He has a .327 career minor league OBP.
With more experience, maybe Anthony Santander can make strides getting on base. He only had a .297 on-base percentage last year, but his career minor league mark in that category is .335.
The Birds have a young team that short on experience, so while they have the potential to get better they are also going to be prone to swinging freely and chasing pitches. Whether its because are still stuck early in a rebuild or for whatever reason, there isn’t a high priority placed on this part of the offense. So it would be better off to manage expectations for the Orioles’ performance this year in on-base percentage.