When Will The Position Players Show Up?

The Baltimore Orioles have a 2-13 record that is easily the worst in all of baseball, and despite surprisingly strong pitching* that nobody had any right to expect. One of my favorite commenters – Mark Smith – asked yesterday:

“Just curious, but did the pitching staff pull a prank on the position players during ST? This is just ridiculous.”

The way things are going, that looks like a valid question.

* They’re second in the majors in K/BB at 2.59, 8th in FIP^ at 3.79, and 15th in xFIP^ at 4.26. The 4.51 ERA is largely the result of a crazy-high .341 BABIP^, though they’ve benefited the other way from an unsustainabley low 7.9% HR/FB^ rate. You can’t complain about the pitching this season though (overall).

Orioles’ batters are hitting just .223/.286/.365. The team’s 45 runs scored are worst in the AL and second worst in the major (to the Astros). Their .287 wOBA^ is worst in the AL and second worst in the majors (to the Astros again). And, correspondingly, their 48 wRC^ is second worst in the AL (to the Indians, who have played one fewer game) and third worst in the majors (guess ahead of who). The problems are on multiple fronts.

First off, are the injuries. Brian Roberts has played in just four games, and he didn’t hit especially well when he was in there (.143/.250/.214). Felix Pie was hitting well – .400/.455/.650 – but he’s out for half the season now. And – just throwing it out there – I’m a little worried about Matt Wieters, who’s a big guy for a catcher and has only gotten one day off this year. He’s caught more innings than anyone in baseball thus far, and I think it would behoove them – in the future interests of the franchise – to at least DH him once in a while if they want to keep his bat in the line-up. So that’s certainly not good, but it’s not as if one of the top 3-4 projected hitters is missing time.

Bad luck is also playing a part. The O’s batting average on balls in play is just .252 – the second lowest in the majors. Even with a ML worst 15.7% line-drive rate – if you’re not hitting the ball hard, it’s less likely to fall in for a hit – that number is still low. Using the xBABIP tool found here – and assuming it gives a reasonable estimate for teams in addition to players – I got that the O’s BABIP should be more like .290. If you assume that hits were to fall in the same proportion as the currently are (ie, the ratio of singles to doubles to triples stays the same), then adjusting the team’s BABIP up would improve their batting line to .252/.314/.404. The batting average there is almost exactly what the major league average is right now. The bad luck has been especially noticeable with men on base general (.206/.274/.338 with a .222 BABIP), with runners in scoring position (.150/.244/.243 with a .157 BABIP), and with runners in scoring position and two outs (.089/.177/.161 with a .087 BABIP). With RISP and two outs, Orioles’ batters have put the ball in play 46 times (not counting HR) and have 4 hits. Four! That’s absurdly bad luck.

Even with a normalized batting average though, the offense would still be well below average. I understand that with the team scuffling to score runs, some guys might be pressing a little and not staying as patient as they otherwise would. A 7% walk rate – third worst in the majors (Astros and Royals) – just will not get the job done. Why the lack of walks? Looking at the research done here, one can get an idea of expected walk rate based on how many pitches a player sees in the strike-zone, and how often he swings at pitches outside the strike-zone. The O’s batters are getting a lower than average 47.8% of pitches thrown in the zone, but are chasing a higher than average 28.7% of balls. Here are the individual player walk rates and expected walk rates, plus the percentage of balls swung at (which is how the table is sorted):

BB% xBB% Diff O-Swing%
Tatum, Craig 0.0% 16.5% -16.5% 0.0%
Reimold, Nolan 8.7% 10.6% -1.9% 17.3%
Wieters, Matt 8.6% 10.0% -1.4% 20.0%
Markakis, Nick 16.7% 11.0% 5.7% 22.5%
Scott, Luke 10.4% 10.2% 0.2% 24.2%
Roberts, Brian 12.5% 6.6% 5.9% 27.5%
Atkins, Garrett 3.8% 6.0% -2.2% 28.7%
Pie, Felix 9.1% 8.9% 0.2% 30.2%
Izturis, Cesar 2.4% 3.7% -1.3% 32.8%
Wigginton, Ty 7.1% 5.2% 1.9% 33.3%
Jones, Adam 1.5% 3.3% -1.8% 38.3%
Tejada, Miguel 2.0% 1.6% 0.4% 39.3%
Lugo, Julio 7.1% 3.2% 3.9% 42.6%
Montanez, Lou 0.0% 0.4% -0.4% 42.9%
Turner, Justin 0.0% -8.0% 8.0% 50.0%
Total 7.0% 6.6% 0.4% 28.7%

As you can see, the model really breaks down at the extremes; like when Justin Turner swings at half the pitches out of the zone thrown to him, and so is expected to have negative 8 walks per 100 plate appearances.

Reimold and Wieters “should” both be walking more than they are, going from below average to above average (which is nice to see, especially for the latter). Markakis will need to swing less to sustain his currently fantastic walk rate. Atkins – who has shown the ability to work a free pass in the past – is done as a player if he loses that ability. Jones is amazingly chasing more balls than he did last season, and will be relegated to being just an average player if he can’t fix that somewhat. Tejada is also chasing way more balls than he has in recent history. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs, since the most important component of scoring runs is getting on base. Even if their luck on balls in play evened out, the lack of patience – if it continues – will doom this offense.

I’d also like to point out that the position players are failing on both sides of the ball. Small sample size, yes, but their -6.9 UZR^ is fourth worst in baseball. The outfield has been bad, with Markakis (-1.6 runs), Jones (-2.9 runs), and Reimold (-2.6 runs; -3.2 runs on range) all having below average marks. The only strength on the defensive end has been on the left side of the infield, with Izturis (+1.1 runs) and Tejada (+0.8 runs) both coming in above average. To be mean*, I’ll also point to Atkins’ -0.3 runs at first-base. Again, take these with a grain of salt, but I’d rather they be plus than minus so far. (By the way, the +/- system likewise rates the O’s out as one of the worst defensive teams thus far – though they’ve been plus on preventing stolen bases.)

* $4.5 M, ladies and gentlemen. Well, probably mostly gentlemen. Well, probably mostly guys, and a few gentlemen.

So to answer Mark’s question; I don’t know if the pitchers did something to the position players in Spring Training, but if they did they should apologize forthwith.