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The Aces of April: Fun while it lasted?

Orioles pitching, so stellar out of the gate, has taken a turn for the worse. The good news is that some of the bad looks temporary and some of the good longer-lasting.

Milwaukee Brewers v Baltimore Orioles
Keegan Akin has had an impressive 2022 season so far.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

So, you’re an Orioles fan. It’s not an easy job. And thus far, 2022 has been an emotional roller coaster, what with the pitching posting the second-best ERA in the AL and the top WAR in baseball, according to FanGraphs, for the first three weeks of the season. Then, in the last week-plus, collapse: the O’s lost their ace for the season and have given up 43 runs in six games. Five homers given up to the Yankees on Wednesday night? Visions of 2019 [shudder].

What gives? If you dig into some of the advanced numbers, a few explanations emerge for the O’s recent pitching competence and even more recent mini-slump.

A Change in Approach

Across MLB, pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs, even in traditional fastball counts, and the O’s are throwing fewer fastballs than any other AL team except Minnesota and Texas. Coincidentally or not, the O’s are also throwing more strikes. They’re among the top MLB teams in strike percentage at around 64% (and before last week, it was north of 66 percent, best in MLB).

Emblematic of this approach is Bruce Zimmermann. Last season, he threw 42% fastballs, which opponents hit .392 against. This year, that’s down to 35.5%, to go with 31.8% changeups, 18.4% curveballs, and a brand-new sinker. Zimmermann also reworked his changeup in the offseason to make it sharper, and he’s hitting the strike zone more often, too, at a 66% rate. An 0.93 ERA through four games is the happy result.

Keegan Akin is also throwing fewer fastballs than ever (he’s replaced them with sliders, up 10% from last season). Meanwhile, he’s throwing an extraordinary 75.6% percentage of strikes and his walk rate has been cut in half (9.4 BB/9 in 2021 to 4.9 in 2022).

Bullpen lefty Cionel Pérez has also benefited from the O’s approach: from a fastball heavy five-pitch mix with Houston in 2018 he’s now essentially a two-pitch (fastball-slider) pitcher, and he’s also cut down his walks enormously.

Sheer stuff improvements

Nice to say, hard to do. But several O’s pitchers seem to have done it. The poster child, obviously, is Jorge López, whom the O’s junked as a starter late last season and has emerged as a revelation in the closer role. As MLB’s Zach Silver put it, Jorge López “throws a LOT harder now.” His sinker, around 94 mph back in 2018-19, is now nearly 98 mph, the largest year-over-year velo jump in baseball. (López also junked his four-seamer, which had a .617 career slugging against, in favor of a sinker/curveball/changeup/slider mix.)

Meanwhile, the farther Dillon Tate is away from being a starter, the more movement (especially horizontal movement) he’s added to his pitches. Check out this filthy changeup and its 27 inches of run against the Yankees on April 18.

Spenser Watkins, who’s maybe the team’s ugly duckling or Little Engine that Could, has changed both his pitch mix and started to throw better pitches. Like Zimmermann, his fastball percentage is now down in the 30’s, replaced by more curveballs, changeups, and a brand-new slider (“the whirly”). Meanwhile, his fastball gained 2 mph of velocity and all his offspeed pitches increased in spin. His batted-ball numbers were really bad last year; now they’re precisely average.

Joey Krehbiel, as well, has developed a cutter with a massive 42.9% whiff rate. That’s helped him up his K rate to 22% and flip his average exit velocity from bottom-barrel in 2021 to top of the league.

Sheer dumb luck

Now the bad news: the Orioles, even when they looked good, weren’t striking out a lot of guys: their K/9 rate is 25th, which usually augurs eventual regression (if your stuff isn’t great to begin with and your control falters, you become extremely ineffective).

Here, I’m talking about guys like Bryan Baker, Chris Ellis, and Jordan Lyles. Sorry, Bryan Baker fans. Batters hit him hard (his xBA and xSLG are .330 and .519, respectively), especially his cutter. Meanwhile, Chris Ellis has a bottom-1% K rate, but unexpectedly, some of the best batted-ball numbers in the League (a 6.3% hard hit percentage and a downright testudine 83.7 mph exit velocity). Jordan Lyles is in the same boat, except that he’s already hit his predicted regression with six earned runs against the Yankees on April 26. His 5.40 ERA is almost identical to his expected ERA (5.43), and that is probably in line with what we should expect from him.

Hiding the weak links

Finally, the Orioles looked better than they were in April because a few guys who are looking terrible didn’t get a lot of appearances: Paul Fry and Travis Lakins Sr. Fry has a new changeup he’s throwing a lot, but the results are just as bad as last season’s second half. His walk rate of 16.7% is, frankly, terrible, and when he does fling something into the zone, batters are creaming it, to the tune of a 60% hard-hit percentage. Lakins, called up on April 15, has a 7.50 ERA in 6.0 innings and some of the worst batted-ball numbers in the league, including a .714 expected slugging. (I actually can’t figure out why Lakins looks so terrible because his spin rates and velocity haven’t changed. But he does look terrible.)

A few cold streaks

So there’s that to explain the recent downturn, plus cold streaks from a few guys we still have plenty of reason to feel optimistic about: Mike Baumann and Félix Bautista. Baumann got off to a hot start but crashed to earth with a run or more allowed in his last four appearances. Advanced stats suggest, however, that he’s actually gotten unlucky: his xERA, xBA, launch angle and hard-hit statistics are all positive and since 2021, spin rates on all his pitches have jumped up a couple hundred rotations or more. Expect a turn for the better from Baumann soon.

Meanwhile, Bautista has dominant stuff—a massive 35.6% chase rate and 96th percentile fastball velocity. But his 8.8% walk rate is concerning (if not surprising). It seems, in particular, like he’s having trouble landing his slider. Still, given Bautista’s dominant stuff and inexperience, the Orioles should forgive some rough patches. If he can cut down the walks down to a 7.5-8% range, his swing-and-miss stuff continues to make him a strong asset.

So there you have it: fewer fastballs, more strikes, stuff improvements, dumb luck, and hiding the dregs of the bullpen while they could. Expect a bounceback from guys like Baumann and Bautista, but don’t hold your breath for Jordan Lyles to suddenly bloom into an ace. The good news, however, is that replacements are on the way: add Kyle Bradish to the mix and we’re almost talking about a competent rotation. That Bradish debut is coming today, by the way, so keep the faith for decent pitching up ahead.