Sorry to be a downer, but … we have some questions. The Orioles just took three of four games against the Athletics—but was it really necessary to allow 24 runs in four games to one of the AL’s worst offenses? Together, O’s starters have a 6.39 ERA, with only five rotations throwing fewer innings. The relievers are comparatively better, but not great: a middle-of-the-pack 4.20 ERA.
Speaking of the middle of the pack, it’s been the middle relievers who have been some of the worst offenders, none more so than Austin Voth, the right-handed swing man who was so versatile for this team last year. In 2022 Brandon Hyde used Voth all the time and anywhere: he made 17 spot starts, threw 83 innings, and put up a 3.04 ERA/3.96 FIP. He had one of the best curveballs in the game, and he could always be trusted to eat innings and provide a little length.
This year, it’s difficult to express what a comedown it’s been. Voth already has a -0.4 WAR in just five games. His ERA is 10.50, his WHIP is 2.000, and he’s a perfect 5-for-5 in dongs-per-appearance, meaning he’s allowed a home run each time he’s come out of the bullpen, often to disastrous effect (see Tuesday night’s five-run fiasco). It’s starting to feel weird.
It’s a real shame Voth has struggled this year after Baltimore pitching coaches effectively revived his career last season.
What gives? Here are a few possibilities.
1. It’s the sticky stuff ban.
Ever since MLB started seriously enforcing its sticky substance ban in June 2021, there’s been evidence of decreased spin among pitchers and fewer strikeouts, not to mention more walks.
The ban affected some pitchers, including some Orioles. As for Voth’s stats, it’s tougher to say. His cutter, curveball and fastball don’t show a decrease in RPM dating to June ’21, although his fastball spin is down 80 RPM and his curveball by 72 PM since 2022. Is this a lot? There’s evidence to suggest that for each 100 RPM increase in spin rate, the odds of striking out increase by 11%. But Voth’s K and BB numbers are better this year than last year. So this doesn’t seem to be the culprit.
2. It’s the ball.
The ball is flying out of the yard in 2023, and some speculate it’s—yet again—been doctored. There was evidence of several different balls in circulation in 2022, including some homer-friendly ones. It’s a little early yet, but so far signs point to another juiced baseball—not 2019 “height of Orioles pitching misery” juiced, but up there:
Are the balls more juiced in 2023?— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) April 6, 2023
This chart by Baseball Savant measures how much “drag” a ball has. The higher up the chart, the less it flies. 2023 is trending lower than last year.
2019… those were some juiced balls. pic.twitter.com/TBuSFNYgOi
This might explain some of Voth’s woes. His flyball percentage is exactly the same as 2022 (30.4%) but his home run percentage has quadrupled. On the other hand, batters are crushing him, not just in the power categories, but also average, BAbip, and expected average. This isn’t just about a juiced ball.
3. It’s the rule changes.
The shift is banned, the pitch clock is strict, and the bases are bigger. There’s some evidence that this is making a difference. Offense is up this year all across the league. The most affected categories thus far: runs per game (a 9.8% increase), homers (up by 8.4%), stolen bases (wow—up by 35%), and walks (a 14% increase). Pitcher WHIP: up by 6%.
This one is tough to determine. Voth certainly hasn’t been helped by whatever is going. But his patterns aren’t quite matching the MLB-wide trends: his home run rate has veritably exploded (from 1.1 last year to 6.0 now). But his walks are down. And his barrel rate has doubled (from 8.5 to 17.4%). To me that sounds, not like squeakers are getting through the infield so much as that Voth is allowing contact that is harder.
4. Getting a grip on new stuff?
One difference that’s probably important here is big changes in pitch usage from 2022 to now. Last year, Voth’s most common pitches, in order of usage, were: fastball (41%), curveball (31%), cutter (26%), sweeper (5%). Now he’s essentially switched out his cutter for a sweeper (28% to 26%), the same pitch announcer Ben McDonald said Kyle Gibson had just added to his arsenal.
For Voth, the sweeper first appeared in July 2022 and kept getting more used through the end of the year. It had promise, with batters hitting just .158 against it in Sept. 2022. This year, however, hitters are averaging .375 against it—but also .333, .429, and .500 on the rest of his offerings. It’s also coming in a mile slower than last year (at 82.8 mph on average, although the spin rate stayed consistent).
I’m truthfully not sure what to make of this Voth data. He’s getting hit more but walking fewer people and whiffing more of them? He’s allowing the same number of flyballs but four times the home runs? His spin rates are down around 70-80 RPM on his fastball and curveball, but it’s not clear how significant this is. He’s mixed up his pitches differently, although his new pitch is far from his worst.
At this point, it feels like there are two options: Voth gets better, or Voth gets DFA’d. With the starters providing such little length, his spot in the bullpen is becoming an important, high-leverage one. But his record thus far gives little reason to hope he’ll be ready for it soon. With no options left, then, Voth would have to be put on waivers and see if he makes it back to Triple-A Norfolk. I’m not necessarily in favor of banishing Voth forever, but at present I can’t see him occupying a roster spot. Let’s hope very much that this is temporary, and stuff-related. If the Orioles’ season is be any more than a mirage, they will need more from players like Austin Voth.