After the Orioles were nearly no-hit by the Houston Astros on Monday night at Camden Yards, manager Brandon Hyde lamented how undisciplined some of the hitters in his lineup are and how badly that needs to change.
“Just a lot of passes at the baseball on pitches that we couldn’t drive, and that’s just an area that our younger players especially really need to improve on to be able to hit good pitching in this league,” Hyde said.
Down below on the Orioles’ farm, that’s the singular focus of a reimagined hitting program that has created improvement for their batters on par with the transformative changes to the pitching side in 2019.
Combined with an increase in the overall talent base that executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias promised when he took over three years ago, the first seven weeks of the minor league season are showing signs of progress.
“We’re using a lot more tech than we did, but we’re using it more in a baseball way than we used to,” Double-A Bowie manager Buck Britton said. “The swing-decision thing, I think that’s the most important thing that’s overlooked in minor league baseball, guys’ ability to swing at pitches that are over the middle of the plate, not just pitches that they can hit.
“You can have a guy that has really good bat-to-ball skill that hits .350 in A-ball, and exit velocities are low, and you’re not getting a full grasp of what this player is. We have guys that might have a lower batting average but it’s showing up [in] OPS, they’re driving the ball out of the ballpark, because their swing decisions are getting better.”
Through Monday’s universal day off, the overall improvement for the Orioles’ minor league hitting is as stark as it was on the pitching side in 2019, albeit in a smaller sample. The four full-season affiliates are scoring 5.58 runs per game, up from 4.33 for the full-season teams in 2019.
The batting average collectively is down to .245 from .253, but for those four affiliates, a bump in on-base percentage from .327 to .348 and a jump in slugging percentage from .380 to .410 has the overall OPS up to .759 from .707. The jump in walk rate from 8.3% to 11.9% is accompanied by an increase in strikeout rate from 21.2% to 26.2%.
Much of the swing-decision work that drives this improvement is reinforced with data-driven evidence daily.
Ryan Fuller, the hitting coach at Double-A Bowie and the Orioles’ full-season minor league hitting coordinator, is part of a new wave of coaches brought in by director of player development Matt Blood after the 2019 season to help remake that program. After a year of remote work because of the pandemic, with limited in-person workouts for the players, they’ve installed plenty this season to help bring about improvement for the team’s pivotal prospect base.
Among those changes are the swing-decision scores that players receive each night based on whether they swung at or took pitches they can do damage on. It’s a tough mindset to instill in a player, especially with the traditional notion of protecting the zone with two strikes to prevent a strikeout. Hitters are regularly told that doesn’t matter anymore.
“We know anybody can look it up, BaseballSavant[.com] or anything that’s online, the balls that are hit hardest are the balls over the plate whether it’s fastball, slider, changeup,” Bowie hitting coach Ryan Fuller, who is also the organization’s full-season hitting coordinator, said. “So, we’re really looking to do damage over the heart of the plate. If it’s a slider 0-0 or a slider 3-2 and they put it in an area we feel like we can get a good swing off of, they’re being rewarded for that.
“If it’s a pitch … a ball or two off the plate and you get punched out, we’re saying, that’s not what we deal with. We’re not preparing you for Low-A, Double-A. You’re being prepared for Yankee Stadium, Game 7, ALCS. The zone is going to get better as you go up; we need to refine that zone with our swing decisions here in Bowie.”
Some players can get to balls that others can’t, but generally, Fuller said, the data shows that the damage comes in the middle of the plate.
“You go through [Astros star] Alex Bregman, [Washington Nationals star Juan] Soto, all these guys, the percent of their swings are really over the heart of the plate, where they do the damage it’s going to be a little deviation lower or higher, but for the most part it’s going to be those middle-middle pitches,” Fuller said. “We look at all that, but the message is if you’re looking middle, your misses are going to be smaller, rather than looking in, the ball runs in a little bit more, we swing, and now we’re swinging at balls.
“It’s kind of setting our expectations on where we want to look and having our misses be really small so we can still do damage on those pitches.”
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Joey Ortiz, one of the breakout hitters in the Orioles’ farm system this year, said the players can access the data on their phones through an app and frequently find themselves comparing swing-decision scores. Fuller said players love to share them with one another on a weekly or seasonal basis, which shows they’re paying attention to what they should be.
“It’s exciting,” Fuller said. “They’re focusing on the right things. We always say you get what you focus on, and when you focus on getting good swing decisions you get hard contact.”
Adley Rutschman, the organization’s top hitting prospect and the No. 2 overall prospect in all of baseball, said such evaluations are “a big part of what we do.”
“We want to obviously give ourselves the best chance to hit and do damage and controlling the strike zone is a big part in that,” Rutschman said. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
Ortiz said such work and the process Orioles hitters are trained to attack pitches over the heart “just helps you focus.”
“We have a good idea of what we want to swing at, what pitches we can drive, and that’s the main focus, get a pitch you can drive, don’t miss it, and just kind of take pitches that are borderline, take pitches that are off,” Ortiz said. “An away pitch that you might not be able to get a good swing off on, take it, and be OK with taking a borderline pitch and getting a strike called. It’s just, I feel like, being OK with the pitcher getting away with a pitcher’s pitch.
“As a hitter, you look for your one pitch, and don’t miss it.”