Big for O's offense: Team now ranks near top of MLB in plate discipline stats

When Boston lefty Chris Sale, one of MLB’s all-time best strikeout pitchers, failed to strike out even one Oriole earlier this week, maybe he was indeed tipping some pitches. But maybe something else was at work. Maybe a team and organization that for years lagged in plate discipline skills was just showing everyone, including Sale, their big improvement in this area.

Improvement that for some Orioles really was enhanced and escalated in their time on the O’s farm and they now put those skills to use in the big league lineup.

Outfielder Austin Hays preferred to credit the Baltimore hitters for gains they have made in this area after that win over Boston on Monday.

“That was a prime example of us showing up, building a plan, training, and then one through nine executing the plan all the way through. And I felt like he was in a groove early and we got to that fourth inning and just continued to battle. Fouled off tough pitches. A one through nine relentless mindset of just all buying in," said Hays.

On the stat sheet, the Orioles have gone from a team not good in plate discipline stats, to one of baseball’s best. In pitches per plate appearance they ranked 24th last year. But as their latest road trip was set to begin Thursday, they were second in MLB at 4.05. The Orioles’ 97 walks was tied for first in the American League. Their team OBP of .336 ranked fourth.

Sometimes a team can put up impressive stats early in a season in a small sample and there will be regression later. But O’s manager Brandon Hyde believes his team, so much improved in this plate discipline department, can remain that way.

“I think those are sustainable stats,” he said during the last homestand. “That is an offensive mindset and approach that we can continue throughout the entire year. Whether results are happening or not, there will be some good moments and some not. We’ll have players going well and some not well. But you can control your at-bat by controlling what pitches you are swinging at. Being aggressive in the right moments.

“Continuing to improve our strike zone discipline, I think that is a huge focus of ours this year. We’ve gotten a lot better at it and we can continue to improve with it.”

Hyde has pointed out in the past that it’s tough for especially young hitters to make plate discipline gains at the big league level. They are what they are, kind of thing. But Hyde said some O’s players are doing that too.

“I think (this improvement process is going) as well as it possibly can and it’s because of the resources and the people involved. Think it’s really hard to change players when they get to the big leagues. Usually, if you didn’t walk in the minor leagues, you are not going to walk in the big leagues. Or if you didn’t walk (much) out of the draft, you usually don’t pick it up in pro ball. But I think we’ve done as well as we possibly could with that. We have guys that didn’t walk much in the minor leagues and they might not be high walk guys in the big leagues, but they are swinging at better pitches and getting in better counts. That is a huge factor for me.”

It’s been huge for his team and as the road trip was set to begin the Orioles average of 5.21 runs per game was sixth in the majors. They were 20th last season at 4.16 runs per game.

The Orioles lineup features two shining examples of young hitters now that work counts, take their walks and know their way around the strike zone like a hitter with more experience in catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson.

Henderson believes he came to the Orioles via the draft out of an Alabama high school with decent plate discipline. But it got better on the O’s watch.

“I feel like it was kind of both,” said Henderson. “I feel like I had a good idea of the strike zone but then also, just learning at each level. It changes at each level and kind of gets better as you go up. And then being able to just hone it in with the hitting coaches and they put the medicine balls behind home plate (in batting practice). It kind of gives you an idea of the heart of the strike zone and you learn to take pitches that are borderline. You take enough of them that you learn what is and isn’t a ball and I feel like that has been a big thing.”

“If it hits then that (medicine) ball it is usually in the heart of the zone, but if it’s around it, that is usually going to be the edge of the zone. That helps with letting you know what the edge of the zone is.”

On the Baltimore farm, the term “swing decisions” and making good ones has been big under the regime of Mike Elias and director of player development Matt Blood. Coaches throw more challenging batting practice pitches and don’t just lob in all fastballs. The pitching machines, medicine balls and other technology they have available adds to the process.

“Even now (during early season struggles), I am taking my walks and starting to hit the ball better,” Henderson said. “And taking those walks early and when are you struggling, but not chasing, that can help you. When you do start hitting, your average, OBP and OPS it all stays up. That is a big thing. When not hitting good, don’t get frustrated and start chasing pitches. Take the walks when they give them to you. When your hitting comes around you will start hitting pitches you might be currently fouling off.”

Henderson used his time on the farm to become elite at times with his plate discipline skills – his walk rate shot up to 19.7 in 2022 during his breakout at Double-A Bowie – and his pitch recognition got better too.

“That gets better as you learn the strike zone. And also having an idea of what the pitchers are trying to do. Knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. Know they will always attack your weaknesses. As you begin to learn the zone, those pitches that start at the bottom of the zone will probably end up out of the zone.

“On the farm the Orioles and our hitting staff have really harped on that - good swing decisions lead to better at-bats and more barrels (and loud contact). So, hitting the right pitches and taking the balls will lead someone to being a better hitter.”

Coming tomorrow: Rutschman has perhaps the best plate discipline skills on the Orioles. Tomorrow in this space he talks about what that means for him and his team.

O's leaders, pitches per plate appearance:

4.33 - Adley Rutschman
4.28 - James McCann
4.24 - Adam Frazier
4.21 - Ryan O'Hearn
4.20 - Anthony Santander
4.19 - Gunnar Henderson
4.13 - Cedric Mullins

Nice start to road trip: The O's winning ways continued as they overcame 10 walks last night and a short start from Kyle Gibson to beat Detroit 7-4. They are 4-0 versus the Tigers and 17-8 on the year.

In his big league debut, Joey Ortiz went 1-for-3 with a two-run single and three RBIs. He added a sac fly. Ortiz and Don Baylor are the only Orioles to drive in at least three runs in their MLB debuts. Baylor did so in an 11-inning game on Sept. 18, 1970.

Holliday homers: High-A Aberdeen shortstop Jackson Holliday tripled for the IronBirds in the first inning at Wilmington last night for his first hit in his third game at that level. Then an inning later, he hit a two-run homer to go 2-for-5 with two RBIs as Aberdeen won 7-2. Holliday is 2-for-12 (.167) in his first three Aberdeen games.  


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