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Orioles swinging at more first pitches, but still finding success there

Baltimore Orioles' Adam Jones follows through on a solo home run against the Washington Nationals in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Baltimore.
Baltimore Orioles' Adam Jones follows through on a solo home run against the Washington Nationals in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Baltimore. (Gail Burton / Associated Press)

With the Orioles laboring through a stretch where they're averaging 3.4 runs per game and struggling to hit with runners in scoring position, it's worth looking at whether an old talk-radio bugaboo — going up hacking at the first pitch — is part of the problem.

This year's edition of the Orioles, through 91 games, have swung at a higher rate of first pitches than they have in decades, and more than all but three other major league teams this year. There's not a lot to suggest that's the root of the offensive struggles, though.

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The Orioles entered Tuesday swinging at 33.2 percent of first pitches, behind only the Washington Nationals (34.6 percent), Cincinnati Reds (33.9 percent) and Houston Astros (33.7 percent).

Around baseball, the league-average first-pitch swing rate is 28.9, putting three Orioles regulars above the middle mark.

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Center fielder Adam Jones swings at the first pitch he sees in 47.1 percent of his at-bats, second behind only Oakland Athletics outfielder Billy Burns, who swings at 48.5 percent of his first pitches.

Jimmy Paredes is sixth-highest among qualifiers with 45.8 percent, and Chris Davis is at No. 24 in baseball at 38.4 percent. Only the Nationals have more ranked that high, with four players among the top 21.

As a team, the Orioles are swinging more early than ever before. Last year's team swung at 28.1 percent of first pitches, 11th-most in baseball and just above the league average of 27.4 percent.

The 2013 Orioles swung at 26.4 percent of first pitches, better than league average and 19th-highest in baseball. Over the last two decades, their first-pitch swing rate has been in the high-20s.

However, what the Orioles do to open at-bats doesn't seem to be the problem with their recent run-scoring woes.

The Orioles hit .346/.352/.563 with 19 home runs, 24 doubles, and 67 RBIs when putting the first pitch in play. The league-average on first pitches is .334/.342/.533, and while those rates go up as you get into hitters' counts for both the Orioles and the rest of the league, the Orioles don't get cheated early.

They also have a nearly identical OPS in at-bats when they swing at the first pitch (.734 in 1,054 at-bats) as they do when they take the first pitch (.735 in 1,995 at-bats). That equilibrium holds true across the league, too.

Where their difficulties scoring runs might arise are in their on-base percentage in those situations. Like the rest of the league, the Orioles have an OBP around 30 points higher when they don't swing at the first pitch than when they do. More base runners equals more runs, but the Orioles slug 30 points higher in at-bats where they swing at the first pitch than when they take.

That could be because the only fastball they get in a given at-bat might be the first pitch. The Orioles see 56.1 percent fastballs, according to FanGraphs, fifth-fewest in the league.

Manager Buck Showalter frequently talks about how players come out of advance meetings on opposing pitchers armed with information about the starter's pitch mix, but are told to expect more breaking balls than normal.

So if you find yourself in a fastball situation, whether there are runners in scoring position, and whether it's the first pitch you see in an at-bat or fifth, it might be best to swing. Considering the Orioles' predilection for chasing breaking balls late in counts, the first pitch might be the best one they get.

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