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As Orioles fail to convert grounders into outs, onus is on fielders, not pitchers, to change

All season, Orioles pitchers have been executing their plan to put the ball on the ground, and too often, it has not resulted in the easy outs it did when the team was at its best.

Manager Buck Showalter said Sunday that it's not on the pitchers the Orioles have invested $72 million in this offseason — ground-ball pitchers Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb — to adapt to defensive problems. The defense has to meet the expectations of the team and that day's pitcher.

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"Oh, it's on the defense," Showalter said. "All of a sudden, [to say], 'Hey, we're not playing well defensively, Alex. We need you to strike out more guys.' I don't think so. I don't think that's fair [to the pitchers].

"You look at even Cash [on Saturday] night, he got a little more power-oriented as he got a little more frustrated with the command. I don't think that's good. You've got to stay with it. When he's right, there's a lot of ground balls and weak contact, you've got to be able to catch them, throw them, and catch them again when they get to first."

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The Orioles’ 2-4 week started with another wasted quality start and featured rough outings by two pitchers. But this still isn’t about the pitching, even if the offense has shown signs of coming out of a monthlong slump.

The Orioles' infield defense has been a constant problem — and defense overall is seen by some inside the clubhouse as a bigger problem in the team's 8-20 start than the offense. Defense used to earn lineup spots for hitters who were waiting for their bat to come around. There's been little by way of earning spots in April.

At second base, with Jonathan Schoop in his third week on the disabled list with an oblique strain, the team tried Tim Beckham, Engelb Vielma and Luis Sardiñas before claiming Jace Peterson off waivers from the New York Yankees.

At third base, with Beckham taking over for Manny Machado this season, they've had to use Danny Valencia there. On Sunday, Pedro Álvarez filled in at third with Beckham out after groin surgery and Valencia needing a day off. Machado is still growing into shortstop, and Chris Davis can still scoop at first base, but has shown limited range.

Their efforts have added up to 12 errors and minus-16 defensive runs saved (DRS), according to FanGraphs, but the raw numbers tell a more revealing story at this early stage in the season.

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Orioles pitchers have coaxed ground balls on 41.7 percent of batted balls in play, ninth-lowest in baseball, making a total of 332 ground balls off Orioles pitching. Of those, 102 have not been converted into outs — 30.7 percent. Almost one in three ground balls off Orioles pitching haven't produced an out (stats courtesy of Baseball-Savant.com).

Counting ground balls that are hits or errors, Dylan Bundy leads the way with 16 grounders that became hits, one more than Cobb, who has made three fewer starts than Bundy's six. For Cobb, 6.58 percent of his pitches are ground balls that aren't outs. Cashner and Kevin Gausman have 11 apiece, and Chris Tillman has seven.

The pitchers have not aired their frustrations. Cashner said a pitcher couldn't change his plan. Cobb, who in his past two starts has allowed six and eight ground balls not turned into outs, has said the same.

That the Orioles' .283 batting average allowed on ground balls is well above the .254 league average isn't all on the fielders, though. It's not always weak contact that produces a ground ball. Orioles pitchers are allowing ground balls hit at an average exit velocity of 87.1 mph, third highest in baseball.

"We've got to catch the ball better, whether it's by improvement of what we have or changing things," Showalter said.

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