As the occupants of practically every spot in the Orioles’ lineup have struggled through the season’s first 20 games, manager Brandon Hyde has continually said those players are “pressing,” putting too much pressure on themselves to overcome their slow starts.
Hyde said the offense’s pre-series meeting before matching up for three games with the red-hot Oakland Athletics focused on “strike-zone discipline, management, taking one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time.” But through the series’ first 18 innings, the Orioles have managed only three runs while drawing two walks to 19 strikeouts.
“We just have a lot of guys that are trying to make up for the start of the year with one at-bat,” Hyde said before Saturday’s 7-2 loss, “and that’s not how it works.”
The Orioles have been one of the baseball’s most aggressive and least productive teams through the season’s first three-plus weeks. Entering play Saturday, they swung at 51% of pitches, the most of any team, according to MLB’s Statcast data. While they had swung at the third-highest rate of pitches in the strike zone, the Orioles also made contact on the fourth fewest such pitches. Only the Boston Red Sox had chased a higher proportion of pitches out of the zone than Baltimore’s 30.5%. Yet Boston’s 125 OPS+, an all-encompassing offensive statistic that takes league and ballpark effects into account, was the highest in baseball as of Saturday, while the Orioles’ sat at a league-low 80; the average is 100.
“Pitchers in this league, if you show that you’ll expand, they’re just going to keep expanding on you until you bring them back into your strike zone,” Hyde said. “Hopefully, we can get back to that as a group and put some good at-bats together collectively.”
The struggles are not exclusive to one player. Even Cedric Mullins, who recorded a hit in the season’s first 11 games, went 6-for-his-next-33 since and saw his OPS drop from 1.161 to .866 in that time. Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco and DJ Stewart were the only other Orioles who had an OPS above .703, the league average through Friday’s games.
In explaining the early troubles, Hyde has often pointed to the lineup’s inexperience, noting that Galvis, Franco and Trey Mancini are the only Orioles position players with multiple full seasons as major league starters.
“Everybody else, they don’t have the thousands of at-bats like a lot of guys have in this league,” Hyde said. “So you are still feeling your way through, and guys are pitching you a little bit differently, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy to hit major league pitching already and then when your confidence goes down a little bit and you’re trying too hard, then you kind of do some things that you’re not accustomed to and dealing with some adversity for the first time.”
But it was Galvis who popped up on Oakland reliever Yusmeiro Petit’s first pitch in Friday’s 3-1 loss after he entered with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning. Rookie Ryan Mountcastle, who had one hit in his previous 24 at-bats, was visibly frustrated after striking out against starter Cole Irvin behind the three straight singles that opened the frame, though Pedro Severino’s subsequent single got one run in. The inning ended when Ramón Urías popped out on the second pitch he saw from Petit.
“Everybody was just trying to be the guy, trying to be the guy to really get us over the hump offensively,” Hyde said.
They’re also trying to get themselves over the hump, and they haven’t necessarily been unlucky in attempting to do so. Statcast’s expected batting average metric, which uses quality of contact and not actual results, had the Orioles at .229, the lowest in baseball but only slightly above the .222 mark they actually entered Saturday with. Their expected slugging percentage of .388 was narrowly the league’s second worst; it was .029 above their actual slugging percentage, baseball’s seventh-lowest differential. The Detroit Tigers were the only team that began Saturday with a lower on-base percentage. Baltimore’s 17 home runs were the fewest in the American League.
Hyde said the cause-and-effect relationship between no longer pressing and beginning to have success likely goes both ways, meaning that even as he and his coaching staff repeatedly mention to players the need to relax, that possibly won’t truly start happening until their hits start falling and their averages begin to rise.
The players, though, believe that will happen.
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“Honestly, in the clubhouse, it hasn’t seemed much different from if guys were getting a lot of hits,” catcher Chance Sisco said. “Obviously, everyone would like them to fall a lot more, but the clubhouse has been fine. We’ve been playing good baseball, and we’re just trying to keep that up. The hits will come. There’s a lot of good players in this clubhouse and everyone can swing it that’s on this team. They’ll come.”