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The Orioles offense will get better—because it’d be hard for it to get much worse

Recent struggles at the plate may speak to a dearth of talent, but for many hitters, this stretch of bad luck and even worse hitting will pass.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After the Orioles swept the Boston Red Sox in three games to start the 2021 season, Baltimore faithful were riding high. In that three-game series, the offense put up a lively 18 runs, and the lineup looked far stronger than the worst preseason predictions suggested.

Well, as the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times… well, I guess that makes me an Orioles fan.

On Thursday, the Seattle Mariners swept the Orioles in a daytime doubleheader where, in support of starters Matt Harvey and Bruce Zimmermann, who gave up two runs to the Mariners each, the Birds put up a grand total of three runs in fourteen innings.

Unfortunately, that “somnolent” offensive performance is coming to seem more typical of this team than the first Boston series, which, in the rearview mirror, now looks like a random outlier.

On April 8, Baltimore became the first team in MLB history to strike out 13+ times in five straight games. Yes, one of those was against the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole. But the other starters were Garrett Richards, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Eduardo Rodriguez. That’s not exactly the ’98 Braves.

The Orioles lead the majors in strikeouts (135) and also lead the majors in percentage of at-bats that end in a strikeout: 29.6%. That’s a lot of K’s.

As BirdsWatcher’s Arrick Joel pointed out a week ago, with strikeout-heavy hitting strategies the default in MLB now, we might as well get used to the Three True Outcomes: home runs, walks, and strikeouts. The problem is, while the Orioles are walking a fair amount (8.7% of at-bats), they don’t have a lot of power. Their team ISO is .136, fifth-worst in the league. They have an AL-worst .353 slugging and .641 OPS. Out of AL teams, only the Royals have hit fewer home runs.

It’s true that, through 13 games, this team is just below average in runs scored (t-19th in MLB), hits (t-19th), and above average in doubles (12th). The bad news is that those statistics are inflated by the 17-hit spanking of the Red Sox on April 4th, and a team batting average of .218 looks good only compared to truly ice-cold offenses like Cleveland (.198 AVG/.275 OBP) and the Cubs (.163 AVG/.254 OBP). Plus a team BABIP of .307 suggests, if anything, the team is batting about as well as it deserves to.

The good news, if some is to be found, is in the statistical concept of regression to the mean. It’s been Struggle City for most of the lineup, with the shocking exception of Cedric Mullins, who went for 0-for-6 in Thursday’s doubleheader and is still hitting .388 with a 1.026 OPS. Like it or not, Mullins will settle back down to earth (though he could definitely outplay a .243 career average weighted down by an awful 2019). Two other hitters doing well are Pedro Severino, with the second-highest average on the team at .241 (sigh), and Maikel Franco, whose .217 average is 30-40 points lower than his career average, but is one of the few sources of pop at the plate lately, with a team-leading 12 RBIs.

For all the others, just outlasting the current slump should translate into automatic improvements. Anthony Santander is whiffing at a 26% rate—significantly above a 20% career rate—and walking at a 2.4% rate—significantly below his career average of 4.8%. Rio Ruiz is hitting .143 and slugging a lowly .219. Maybe don’t expect a full revival, but .219 is right around his career batting average. Freddy Galvis, meanwhile, who’s hitting .167 with a .255 OBP, should stabilize somewhere closer to his career marks of .246 and .291, respectively.

Besides, if there are two pillars of shocking futility on this team due for a statistical bounceback right now, it’s Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini. Mountcastle leads the team with a shocking 40.9% K percentage, while Mancini is sitting on a .163 average with 14 K’s himself. You never want your team’s worst hitters to be your 1B and DH, but that’s the uncomfortable spot the Orioles are in.

The good news is: just like hot streaks, for these two, such pronounced cold stretches are unsustainable. If you’re secretly wondering if maybe Mancini isn’t quite “back” from Stage 3 colon cancer, his peripherals—especially hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage, and max exit velocity, all top two-thirds of the league—should put those worries to rest. A better explanation for his struggles might be that he’s seeing fewer pitches in the zone (41.3%, compared, say, to 49.5 in 2018), and chasing more. The good news is: there’s nothing wrong with Boom Boom’s strength.

Mountcastle’s woes seem more the result of pitchers adjusting as they read his scouting report. A natural fastball hitter, he is being fed more offspeed and breaking stuff as he earns respect from pitchers in his sophomore year, which is normal for young hitters. In 2020, Mountcastle hit a monstrous .356 on fastballs, which he saw 53% of the time. But he also hit .327 on breaking balls, and .267 on offspeed pitches for good measure. This season, he’s seen a breakdown of 43% fastballs, 47% breaking balls, and 10% offspeed. He’s hitting .294 on breaking balls, but—ouch—.227 on fastballs and .000 against offspeed pitches (a total of 17 of them). The last two averages are going to change, obviously.

Brandon Hyde seems to agree: pressing young hitters and groaning fans need to just ride this one out.

Well, you heard it here. As the Orioles head off to Arlington, Texas, for a three-game series against the Rangers, let’s hope that Texas pitching, with an AL third-worst WAR of 0.2, might be the shot in the arm this offense needs. At some point, something is going to work. Because it has to.