If you take baseball players at their word, the difference between success or failure seems to hinge on nothing more than “staying within my approach.” Broke out of a batting slump? “I’ve just been trying to stay within my approach.” Improved command of your secondary pitches? Must be the approach. Improved velocity? Control? Stamina? OBP? Exit velocity? Home runs? Walks? You guessed it: he just stayed within his approach.
So what about an Orioles team that gets swept at home in three games with a tragic -23-run differential, then, a week later and on the road, outscores the same team 27-12 in a sweep of its own? There’s a lot I don’t know about baseball, but I do know that the Orioles’ 5-23 record in May, and their ignominious run at a league-historic consecutive road-loss record for most of June, were not solely the result of a bad approach. Nor was their unexpected sweep in Houston this week powered by a good one.
Did the O’s get lucky this week in Houston? Underperform the week before in Baltimore? Somewhere in between?
Let’s start with the pitching. In the first series, the Orioles allowed 26 runs, 38 hits and walked 18 batters. Game 1 saw three Orioles pitchers giving up 10 runs combined: Keegan Akin pitched briefly and badly, followed by a shaky Travis Lakins and Mac Sceroler, hit hard right before he got DFA’d. In Game 2, Jorge López and Tanner Scott allowed just 3 runs combined, but the Birds scored just one run against Zack Greinke, so the effort was wasted. In Game 3, Eshelman got rocked (6 ER, 4 IP), but the inflated 13-3 final score fell mostly on poor Mickey Jannis in his very short Orioles stint (7 ER, 3.1 IP).
In the second series, meanwhile, the Orioles allowed 12 runs, 22 hits, and 22 walks total. This is obviously a lot better, except for the walks. In Game 1, Eshelman allowed just two runs in 3.2 innings, but the bullpen lost its marbles (5 ER, 7 BB, 5.1 IP) and nearly the game. Then, in Game 2, four pitchers—Lakins, Plutko, Wells (Alex), and Dillon Tate—combined to defy expectations by allowing just three runs (while walking nine, however) in a bullpen game Orioles fans fully expected to lose. Finally, Game 3 was an unexpected team effort with Matt Harvey just managing to navigate through 4.1 innings with two runs allowed, with Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, and Cole Sulser nearly perfect for the rest.
Besides the obvious difference that two pitchers (Jannis and Sceroler) were no longer on the Orioles by the time of the second series, the most important difference were the greatly fewer hits and the greatly increased walks. With 19 walks in the first two games—three with the bases loaded in Game 1—it was possible to think that Astros hitters were being so patient they took walks instead of hits. That was my theory, at least, during the first two games. However, the data doesn’t support it. Astros hitters swung at Eshelman’s pitches just as often as in his prior start, for instance. The difference was that he managed to miss more bats the second time.
In fact, this was true for all Orioles pitchers. Houston had 11 barrels total in Series 1 but just four in Series 2. In the Matt Harvey start on June 30th their barrel percentage was 0.0%. Similarly, their wOBA (a measure of overall production) in Series 1 was .405. This is really high. In Series 2 it was .296, which is a significant drop. Houston’s season average wOBA: .345. So Orioles pitchers were obviously doing something right in Series 2.
As for Orioles hitters, their improvement was even more dramatic. Their expected batting average in Series 1 was .198 and in Series 2 it was .282. Their weighted OBA (wOBA) in the first series was .287, which Fangraphs literally rates as “Awful.” But in the second, it was .407 (“Excellent,” says Fangraphs).
Was this the product of good hitting or bad Houston pitching? A bit of both, but here’s a hint: everybody’s spin rates are way down. In general, the worse a pitcher’s stuff was on that day, the better Orioles hitters looked in Houston, but there wasn’t a clear effect the whole way through. For instance, in Game 1, Greinke brought pretty good stuff, the decreased spin notwithstanding, and the Orioles took competitive swings to score three runs off of him. Brandon Bielak, however, was not throwing well that day, and the Orioles blew open the game against him in the ninth. In Game 2, Brooks Raley and Ralph Garza Jr., who allowed a run each, were both working with diminished stuff. Ryne Stanek, on the other hand, who allowed five runs, was pretty much working with what he normally works. In Game 3, the entire crew, including Luis García, who surrendered four runs in the first inning, was basically throwing their usual stuff, with only small-to-moderate drops in spin.
(Don’t Orioles pitchers show a similar drop in spin rates, by the way? Yes, they do. Especially Paul Fry, you might be interested to know. But somehow, it didn’t hurt them in Houston as much as it did the Astros. Why this would be, I have no idea, except that baseball is weird sometimes.)
Anyway, the other part of the Orioles’ hitting success is streakiness: a few Orioles hitters are heating up of late, as a lot of people know. Nobody should be surprised that Cedric Mullins is hitting .444 with a 1.183 OPS in the last seven days. But Ramón Urías has a .989 OPS in that stretch, too. Ryan Mountcastle is slashing .280/.438/.560 with a .998 OPS. Austin Hays has a .414 average and a 1.057 OPS. Even Maikel Franco is hitting .333 in the past week, albeit with not much power. (DJ Stewart is hitting .250, up for him on the season, but slugging just .256. Not sure what to say there.)
So did the O’s get lucky this week in Houston or underperform the week before in Baltimore? Both. In Baltimore, they had a lousy team ERA of 8.67 and an expected batting average of .198. Impossible to win that way, and even they are usually not that bad. In Series 2, however, they had an ERA of 4.00 and an expected average of .282. Those are obviously not mind-exploding numbers, they’re just good. This team is, overall, not good, so they probably won’t keep that up as a group. But some players might, and we fans can keep an eye on them to make things a little more fun this season.