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Why the Orioles are the kings of the double play this season

We’ve found the magic formula: lots of hits allowed, lots of ground balls, decent fielding.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

It feels like every Orioles game you watch, the announcers are talking about it: the Orioles have turned a Major League-leading 61 double plays in 57 games, equating to 1.07 a game. It’s a statistical oddity for sure, and it’s still unclear what to make of it: it is a bad thing because it means the Orioles are allowing lots of baserunners? Or a sign that their infielders may be … good? It feels like when you walk away from a conversation and aren’t sure if somebody just gave you a backhanded compliment or not.

Backhanded or not, I was curious what explains it. The only other team in the majors to turn more double plays than games: the Colorado Rockies. (Well, they do say the ball travels farther there—nope, not a theory, just kidding.)

So there’s your first clue: both teams allow a lot of runners on base. Colorado ranks first in the majors in hits allowed (this is to say, they give up a lot of hits) and third in WHIP. Baltimore is fourth in hits allowed and eighth in WHIP. Neither gives up a ton of walks, but with all of the hits it’s still enough. Both are poor at striking out hitters, too: Colorado is second-to-last in K% and Baltimore fourth-to-last.

The Orioles and Rockies have nearly identical records, but one important difference between the two: the Orioles actually have a pretty good team ERA (4.07) and the Rockies have a lousy one (5.20). You could take from this that the Orioles have gotten a little lucky in outcomes given they’re giving up lots of hits.

Right? Not so fast. Perhaps contrary to expectations, Orioles pitchers are not sitting ducks, because they turn out to be good at drawing weak contact from hitters. Unlike Colorado, which has the worst hard-hit percentage in the league (33.5%), Baltimore, at 29.9%, ranks middle-of-the-MLB in hard contact and behind only New York, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Chicago in the AL.

The team, also perhaps unexpectedly, has turned into a machine for turning out ground balls. Baltimore’s 45% ground-ball percentage is tied with the Yankees for second highest in the AL, while their flyball percentage is second lowest. (In fact, the only flyballs the Orioles are giving up a lot of are of the infield variety—a sign of weak contact— in which category Baltimore ranks behind only Tampa Bay, Houston, Boston and New York.)

Propelling these elevated groundball stats for the Orioles are, in descending order, Jorge López, with an astonishing 80.0%, followed by Dillon Tate (53.3%), Spenser Watkins (48.9%), Keegan Akin (47.2%) and Cionel Pérez (46.7%). These are mostly guys who have had success this year, and last I checked, I’d rather give up ground balls than homers.

This brings us back to the backhanded compliment part, however. Every time the Orioles infield turns another double play, the MASN broadcast team seems to beam with pride. Is it deserved?

Unfortunately not. The Orioles cannot be considered good fielders at this point. They have committed more errors than any other AL team (41 in 57 games) and have the third-worst fielding percentage (.981). Data suggests this is mostly Rougned Odor’s fault. I’m not even kidding: in terms of defensive runs saved, Baseball Reference sees the Orioles basically breaking even at first base, with plus contributions at shortstop and third base, thanks to Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías. But they consider second base essentially a travesty, with -5 runs there so far, on pace for -13 runs over the full season.

The problem is a lack of range: Fangraphs has the Orioles at fourth worst in the AL in range factor. At least for now. I mean, Odor might improve on his April/May performance: he’s not ancient and he does seem to have a great arm.

Anyway, that brings us back to why the Orioles and the Rockies stand alone in double plays turned, and why the Orioles have more double plays than the Rockies, albeit on fewer hits: the Rockies are the worst-fielding team in baseball, when you consider outs above average (-23). All those batted balls at Coors Field, they’re not quite turning into outs. The Orioles aren’t great by this metric (-8), but they’re getting to a lot more of them.

One more stat fills in this picture, and it has to do with the staff’s value in pitching WAR as a unit. A great pitching unit (unfortunately) is that of the Yankees, worth 10.7 wins above replacement right now. A garbage one, in Kansas City, clocks in at 0.4 wins. The Orioles sit just above the middle of the pack, at 5.0. With all the injuries this rotation has sustained, and with all the dark horses out there performing, I’m kind of happy to be middle-of-the-pack in pitching, truthfully.

So let’s recap. An inability to strikeout hitters: check. Lots of hits allowed: check. Lots of ground balls, on relatively weak contact: check. Sometimes getting to those ground balls: check. Not stellar, but also not offensive, and also, with plenty of fun highlights associated. Consider it the 2022 Orioles in a nutshell.