By Peter Schmuck
The Baltimore Sun
2:43 PM EDT, June 1, 2013
When Chris Dickerson hit his first career walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday night, all the postgame talk -- understandably -- was about the Orioles and their too-legit-to-quit team chemistry.
That's fine, because there really is something special about the way these guys go about their business in the late innings -- when things aren't looking good -- but there is a more tangible reason for the way they seem to string good at-bats together when there's a chance to steal a game from a good starting pitcher or closer.
This team, as good as it was last year, wasted a ton of at-bats in key situations because five players at the heart of the lineup combined to strike out 672 times, or an average of 134 times each. If you factor in days off, that was pretty much once a game apiece.
In all, the O's struck out 1,315 times last year, or an average of 8.1 times per game. Through 55 games this year, they have combined for 352 strikeouts, which project to 1,036 over the full season, or an average of 6.4 per game.
It should be pretty obvious what a difference two strikeouts can make in a close game, but the question isn't the impact of saving a couple of strikeouts, but the reasons that the Orioles are striking out less, and one of the answers is obvious. The Orioles let Mark Reynolds go during the offseason.
Don't misunderstand. Reynolds was a big contributor last year, both at the plate and at first base, and he worked hard to reduce his strikeout total last season. But he struck out more than 150 times in 135 games and the guy who essentially took his place in the lineup (since Chris Davis was playing regularly elsewhere before taking over first base full time this year) is Manny Machado, who is on pace to strike out about 50 times less and play 25 more games.
Meanwhile, Davis, who combined with Reynolds for more than 300 Ks last year, has reduced his strikeout frequency from once every 3.3 plate appearances last year to once every 4.5 this year, so it's pretty easy to see why the heart Orioles offense seems to be more cohesive.
Let's put it into the context of last night's big comeback. Presumably, since the heart of the lineup batted against Jose Valverde in the ninth, both Davis and Reynolds would have faced him and -- based on last year's numbers -- there was a pretty good chance one of them would have struck out. If so, that rally probably doesn't happen.
Let's throw some credit for this change in offensive chemistry to the front office for making the tough decision on Reynolds, who is having a pretty good year in Cleveland, and to Buck Showalter and Jim Presley for spending a lot of time this spring drilling into the team the importance of maximizing each at bat.
You're seeing the result and it's pretty entertaining.