HOUSTON — The Orioles are currently in a tailspin, and there are a lot of reasons to worry about this club as it has fallen into third place in the American League East after losing 12 of 15 games.
The starting rotation isn't getting deep enough into games and the team's bullpen has been patched together of late, but ultimately the biggest reason why the Orioles aren't winning is because they aren't hitting.
"It's kind of hard to pinpoint," outfielder Mark Trumbo said. "I think everybody's probably got something different going on, but I think we're swinging at a lot of pitches we probably can't do much with. We need to do a better job capitalizing on the good pitches and laying off some of the ones that are in the dirt and so forth."
The Orioles' 5-2 loss to the Astros on Saturday at Minute Maid Park was the latest example. The Orioles struck out 13 times, which might seem like a lot but isn't a ridiculous number by their free-swinging standards.
It was the Orioles' continued susceptibility to the breaking chase pitch that made those strikeouts stand out.
When the Orioles had a runner at first with two outs in the seventh, catcher Caleb Joseph swung through a slider. And with Manny Machado on third base with two outs in the eighth, Mark Trumbo chased a slider. Chris Davis, who also struck out three times, flailed at a slider way out of the zone to complete a strikeout in the fourth.
Trumbo, who struck out three times Saturday, swung and missed at four of the eight sliders he saw on the night. Joseph missed two of the three. Machado whiffed at two sliders in the dirt in separate at-bats.
"They pressed in game one," manager Buck Showalter said. "That's what we do. You push. And you're always trying to find that fine line between pushing and playing with some control, too. Because you bring emotion into at-bats, really good pitchers take advantage of that."
This isn't a groundbreaking discovery. The Orioles are a fastball-feasting team, and opposing pitchers know that. So there's no secret that they aren't getting many fastballs to hit, especially when opponents know they struggle handling breaking balls out of the zone.
And as the Orioles' frustration mounts, they're expanding the strike zone by flailing at breaking pitches that aren't strikes.
So if the Orioles are going to break out of this slump, it's going to be by doing the opposite, by laying off chase pitches in order to get pitchers to get back in the zone. And that will be difficult, because it will break from their norms.
The Orioles' swinging-strike rate – their swing and misses compared to the pitches they see – is 11.2 percent, third highest in the AL, but is actually lower than last year's season mark of 11.6 percent.
But the Orioles are swinging at 30.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, third highest in the AL, and make contact on just 65.1 percent of those swings, which is fourth-worst in the AL. Last season, the Orioles made contact on just 60.9 percent of their swings at pitches outside the zone, which was the worst swing rate in the AL. Overall, the Orioles are making contact with 75.9 percent of their swings, compared to a 75.5 mark last season.
So this is basically what the Orioles are, right? And while we know they are prone to these sort of lapses where they can collectively look lost at the plate, and high strikeout totals are a part of their identity, Saturday's game was the perfect example of how the Orioles helped their opponents out.
As they try to avoid a sweep in Sunday's series finale, the Orioles can expect another heavy dose of breaking balls. Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. is throwing more curveballs (45.4 percent) than fastballs (41.4 percent) this season.
"We're going to play better," Trumbo said. "When, those things are sometimes too hard to say, but we have too much talent to struggle for too much longer. It could be tomorrow. It could be the next series. But we're going to start to do better."