Zach Wilt: Strikeouts are sapping early Orioles offense

The Orioles are in a rut and are watching the losses pile up as they slide down the standings in the American League East. You can only keep telling yourself, “It’s early,” for so long. Here on April 20, it is still true, but the hole keeps getting deeper and deeper and digging out of it only gets more difficult as time goes on. There have been some gut-wrenching losses, like Wednesday’s 6-5 defeat in Detroit, and other times the Orioles just have been outplayed by their opponents, like yesterday’s 13-8 loss.

As far as fans are concerned, I have always considered myself to be on the optimistic side. I try to keep the big picture in mind as much as possible and I constantly remind myself that the 162-game grind is a marathon. You don’t win the race in April. When I see the signs of hope, I cling on to them until they finally blossom into that winning streak that the Orioles so desperately need. I’m ready for that streak to start now.

When the Orioles go cold, I find myself searching for that optimism by diving head first into to the spreadsheets. I look to stats for any signs of a pending breakout and watch eagerly each night for the that turnaround to start. The O’s were just swept in Detroit and return home after an 0-6 road trip to face a tough Indians team. The bright spot is, their offense scored 13 runs the last two games after scoring just seven in the previous three. Can we expect this trend to continue at Camden Yards?

Entering yesterday’s contest, I was convinced that Baltimore’s offense was a bit unlucky. Previous seasons have indicated that they were better than the results were showing so far this season. So I started by examining the team’s batting average on balls in play. Last season, the league average BABIP was exactly .300. Entering Thursday’s contest, the Orioles offense recorded a .283 BABIP, ranking 24th in baseball. That’s sure to go up, right? Let’s see what StatCast thinks.

I took a deep dive into the world of weighed on-base average (wOBA) versus expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). FanGraphs defines wOBA as a statistic that “combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.” xwOBA uses Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle to “remove defense from the equation.” My thought was that I would find that the Orioles have a noticeable gap between their xwOBA and wOBA based on their low BABIP this season. That would be an indication that the O’s have been well defended by their opponents.

What I found was that nine of the Orioles 15 hitters tracked by BaseballSavant.com had higher a xwOBA than wOBA, but only one of them (Chris Davis) had an xwOBA that was at least .100 points higher than their wOBA (.317-.210). Davis ranked 26th in baseball in that category among hitters who have seen at least 50 pitches. Adam Jones was the second Oriole on that list, ranking 41st. Coincidentally, both Davis and Jones were big contributors in the team’s eight-run effort yesterday, but there still wasn’t much a noticeable divide to indicate that the O’s have been unlucky.

The conclusion I drew after spending time with the spreadsheets is that this offense is a bit too strikeout prone. No team has a higher strikeout rate than the Orioles (28.4 percent entering Thursday). While strikeouts have increased throughout baseball and teams have proven that they can win while still racking up record-high strikeout totals, no team has been more undisciplined at the plate than the Birds. Their 13.3 percent swinging strike percentage is the highest in baseball. The Orioles offense has swung at 32.4 percent of the pitches they have seen outside of the zone, the highest percentage among all 30 teams.

If the Orioles can get the type of pitching they had earlier in the season with the scoring totals they have had over the last two games, they’ll be just fine. Until they cut down the strikeouts, though, I predict that the offense will continue to be unpredictable and go through swoons like the ones we have seen early in 2018.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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