Pitching has developed into a nice story for the Orioles this young season.
A team that the last few years has been among the worst pitching teams by any metric has, this time, been pretty solid. Baltimore ranks 16th in baseball with a 3.60 ERA, which is a dozen points better than the league average of 3.72. It’s also a far cry from the 5.84 number the team’s staff posted last year.
The Orioles are 12th in homers allowed with 20 so far, right in line with league average (the new dimensions at Camden Yards, which has seen the fewest home runs in baseball at seven, is undoubtedly a factor in this). Their ERA+, which measures the team’s ERA adjusted to the park in which they play, is 108, better than the league average of 104.
The O’s are doing this, however, without blowing hitters away. They rank 24th in Major League Baseball with only 171 strikeouts. Their strikeouts-per-nine number of 7.7 stacks up even less impressively, coming in only 26th in the big leagues.
Simply put, the Orioles are dealing with hitters the old-fashioned way: Letting them put the ball in play and hit into outs.
This doesn’t apply to everyone on the team. Bruce Zimmermann, off to the best start on the staff, has seen a considerable pickup in his ability to strike batters out. He fanned only 56 hitters in 64.1 innings last year, a rate of 7.8 per nine. This year, he’s up to 9.8 with 21 in 19.1 innings, just one of several areas in which he’s impressed en route to a 0.93 ERA through four starts.
Baltimore’s second-best pitching story in Spenser Watkins, however, has been the best example of being effective without relying on strikeouts. Watkins has impressed with a 2.55 ERA through four starts, but his eight strikeouts in 17.2 innings is a ratio out of the dead ball era.
He hasn’t torn it up across the board in various metrics, either. According to Baseball Savant, he’s in the 26th and 28th percentile in expected slugging percentage and batting average, respectively, and in the 29th percentile in average exit velocity. But he’s been able to find consistency to this point (granted, it’s early), and he’s done it without being a creation of the Camden Yards changes (three earned runs in 10 innings on the road, two in 7.2 at home).
If there is a number that reveals how Watkins has been able to do it, it’s his ground ball percentage. His number was at 34.2 last year while he compiled an 8.07 ERA; it’s at 52.5 now, and he’s enjoyed the results. The more balls hit on the ground, the fewer go over the fence, the easier it is to keep offenses at bay.
In the bullpen, the trend has continued with some of Baltimore’s best pitchers to this point. Dillon Tate has a 2.45 ERA across 10 appearances, but has whiffed only eight in 11 innings. Instead, he’s excelled at the simpler aspects of pitching, namely limiting walks and staying away from the barrels of bats.
Tate is in the 94th percentile in both average exit velocity and walk percentage. He’s making the hitters do the work. He’s not going to overwhelm you — his fastball spin rate is incredibly low, only in the first percentile of MLB pitchers — but he’s not going to give you free bases, and you’re not going to be able to do all the damage you need in one swing. You’re going to have to piece together hits against him to score, and so far, few have been able to.
Keegan Akin has only nine strikeouts in 14.1 innings, but has a 1.26 ERA thanks to a 90th percentile hard-hit percentage and a 95th percentile chase rate. His fastball clocks in at a below-average 93.2 miles per hour (45th percentile), but hitters are driving half of the balls they hit off of him into the ground.
Joey Krehbiel has a 0.90 ERA across 10 appearances, with nine strikeouts in 10 innings. Batters are making contact off of him, the ball just doesn’t go anywhere. His expected ERA, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage are all 87th percentile or better, indicating that there’s no accident about the success he’s had. Hitters haven’t been scoring off of him because they haven’t been hitting the ball well enough to.
As the season continues, we’ll see how much of this is just early success that burns off, and just how much Orioles pitchers can keep this up. But so far, it’s been encouraging that they’ve been able to pitch well enough to keep the team in most games without having to rely on swings and misses to get the job done.