One of the reasons that the Orioles rebuild is trending in the right direction is the steadfast nature of the team’s front office. Mike Elias and his crew have a plan, and they are intent on following it to its conclusion. But just because something is working does not mean it’s perfect. Much like a mechanic can always find a thing or two to fine-tune on your car when you take it in for an oil change, a baseball team in the midst of a stellar August can still be improved upon.
The Orioles offense is more solid than it is “good.” They are 18th in MLB in runs scored, 21st in batting average, 22nd in walk rate, 14th in slugging, and 18th in wRC+ with a league average 100. But a slightly bigger problem arises when a lefty is on the mound. As a team, they drop into the bottom third in the league in most categories, and their wRC+ dips slightly to 98.
It is not a substantial drop off, but it is apparent. And if we look under the hood there could be more to cause concern.
Adley Rutschman has been the stimulant of this team’s turnaround. The Oregon State product has been terrific in all facets of the game, and he’s going to get quite a few first-place votes for Rookie of the Year. But that success does not extend to facing left-handed pitching, apparently. Against southpaws this year, Rutschman owns a .159/.298/.232 batting line with 14 walks and 19 strikeouts. Could the switch-hitter be due for a Cedric Mullins-esque ditching of his right-handed swing? Perhaps that is a bit early to decide.
Speaking of Mullins, the gains he made against same-sided hurlers after becoming a full-time left-handed hitter a season ago have regressed in 2022. His numbers against southpaws aren’t any better than the rookie: .203/.267/.291 with 11 walks and 42 strikeouts. It has gotten to the point that Brandon Hyde now gives Mullins the day off against lefties, preferring to start Ryan McKenna in his place.
Those two have the most drastic splits on the team. But they aren’t alone on the roster when it comes to preferring right-handed pitching. Ramon Urías, Jorge Mateo, Austin Hays, and Rougned Odor are all a bit better against righties.
Hyde also seems prepared to keep rookies Terrin Vavra and Kyle Stowers away from lefties whenever possible. It makes sense for Vavra, whose OPS against southpaws in the minors was 200 points lower than against righties. But Stowers actually had reveres splits, which gave him an impressive .982 OPS against left-handers down with Norfolk this season. Evidently, the manager was unaware of this, saying this after Stowers’ recent promotion:
“We’re facing the majority of right-handed starters going forward here in the next couple weeks,” Hyde said. “That played into it, also. And we feel like he’s ready to go.”
Down in the minors, we could see the issue compounding. Gunnar Henderson, the team’s top prospect and a potential September call-up, has had some trouble with left-handed pitching. Elias even mentioned that as a reason he is still in Triple-A earlier this week.
“His numbers, righties versus lefties, are not ideal for his long-term development.”
Henderson’s .225/.333/.383 line against lefties is a bit ugly, and it looks paltry in comparison to the .323/.445/.592 line he has versus righties. Is that enough to keep him off the 40-man roster ahead of the August 31 deadline to be eligible for a potential playoff roster? Only Elias and his lieutenants know that.
Colton Cowser, the team’s top pick in 2021, has had similar trouble against left-handed pitching. He is batting .196/.309/.250 against lefties this season across two levels.
Heston Kjerstad, the number two overall selection in 2020, owns a .678 OPS against southpaws this season. His OPS is .897 against righties.
There is something of a pattern here. The Orioles have made a few moves to indicate that the organization is going to prioritize left-handed hitters in the near future. That is how Elias has spent almost every first-round pick he’s had. Rutschman, a switch-hitter, is the lone exception. Then there is the movement of the left field wall at Camden Yards. The evidence seems quite clear that it has dampened the power output for right-handed hitters this season. It doesn’t make righties unplayable at the Yard, but it certainly tilts the field in favor of players swinging from the left side of the plate.
Sporting a lineup that is heavy on left-handed hitters has the expected consequence of being less potent against left-handed pitchers. Overall, MLB hitters are batting .245 against left handed pitching with a 103 wRC+. If you narrow that down to left-handed hitters facing left-handed pitchers, the numbers drop to a .225 batting average and 86 wRC+.
But just in case you are worried that the front office forgot about the existence of left-handed pitchers when assembling, you can rest easy. There have been about 40,000 total plate appearances involving a left-handed pitcher this season at the major league level. Right-handed pitchers account for over 100,000 plate appearances. So, the math checks out in the Orioles favor.
And the Orioles do have players that can handle left-handed pitching. McKenna has a .904 OPS against them this season, further strengthening his case as the perfect fourth outfielder. Anthony Santander, another switch hitter, owns a .299/.372/.543 line against them in 2022. Ryan Mountcastle’s OPS is nearly 70 points higher against southpaws. Each of those players could be in Baltimore for years to come.
On top of that, the prospects mentioned should improve against lefties. They are undoubtedly seeing pitchers from the left side more and more often as they climb the professional ladder. That will help. Henderson’s numbers have improved in the regard since jumping from Bowie to Norfolk. Something similar could be in store for Cowser, Kjerstad, and others. As with any young player, there will be some growing pains. It’s all part of the process.
That’s not to say the Orioles should not explore options to create a balanced lineup day-to-day. Maybe that means seeking out a backup catcher that excels against lefties. Or perhaps it improves the argument that a right-handed hitting infielder is the exact type of free agent the front office should approach this off-season. There are at least two pretty good options hitting the market in the winter.