The Orioles have an offensive identity that they’ve worn like a heavy backpack for a few years now. Because it’s a heavy one, it slows them down. It makes them less versatile and only allows them to do so much. They’ve been an offense that relied on free swingers and the three-run homer, or the “Earl Weaver special,” if you will. In recent memory, it has served them fairly well. From 2012-2017, the Orioles ranked second, first, first, third, first and fifth in home runs in the major leagues. That’s a pretty powerful six-year stretch. So far this season, they have fallen to 12th.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Orioles have been an abysmal on-base percentage team. In that same stretch from 2012-2017, the O’s ranked 23rd, 19th, 17th, 24th, 21st and 27th in the majors in OBP, while checking in this year at 28th. They are a swing-for-the-fences team, but when the home runs dry up, you’re left with a team that is only outpacing the Marlins and Royals in runs scored this season. After being shutout for an 11th time yesterday, it’s become obvious why that’s the case. With the trades of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, the power outage from Chris Davis, the injury woes of Mark Trumbo and the potential offseason departure of Adam Jones, the Orioles are in search of a new identity offensively.
The lack of players with strong on-base capabilities is obvious. But there has also been a philosophy within the organization over the last few years to play station-to-station baseball. There’s very little by way of hit-and-run or stealing bases when it comes to the offensive attack for the O’s. This isn’t something that is specific to the Orioles, either. It’s something that’s been spreading throughout the game. Teams aren’t running as much and aren’t taking chances on the basepaths. Part of it is because the numbers say the risk isn’t worth the reward. Another part of it is that there are fewer players that possess that specific skill set. We’ve seen our fair share of abysmal baserunning with the Orioles. Whether it’s being thrown out on the bases because of a mental error or failing to advance 90 feet when the opportunity presents itself, it’s obvious that good baserunning is becoming a thing of the past.
There are still a few players out there that have the ability to change a game with their speed. Dee Gordon in Seattle comes to mind, as does Billy Hamilton in Cincinnati. But the Orioles actually have one now by way of the Schoop trade in Jonathan Villar. It’s become forgotten that Villar led the National League in stolen bases in 2016 with 62. They’ve also brought Cedric Mullins into the fold, who has shown the ability to use his speed at the minor league level. Mullins stole 77 bases against 19 times being caught across four seasons in the minors. We’ve also already seen Mullins’ ability to bunt for a hit when the time calls for it, something that is a lost art in a swing-for-the-fences world.
The Orioles aren’t going to rely on Villar and Mullins to change the entire offensive philosophy of the team. But they can be a start. They can also just be pieces in an offense that still has home run threats. No one is saying home runs are bad, but relying on them alone can bite a team when it counts. Look at the O’s most recent playoff runs as an example. When the weather got colder in October, especially in 2014, the Oriole bats went quiet. The Royals, who had more on-base capability and team speed, went on to sweep them in the American League Championship Series.
Getting more players who are prone to put the bat on the ball, beat out an infield single and swipe a bag or two isn’t going to change the Orioles offense overnight. It’s not going to make them a team that hits fewer home runs either, especially when they play half their games in a small park like Camden Yards. But it could help their offense become more diverse and prevent stretches where they are striking out in double digits each game. It’s just one element of this overhaul and rebuild, but on-base percentage and smart baserunning are keys to putting the “O” back in the Orioles.
Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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.