NEW YORK — As the Orioles navigate their treacherous early-season schedule, checkered with all five American League playoff teams from a season ago plus division rivals, they've been immediately confronted with a challenge that will define their season.
Put aside the starting pitching, and whether the outside reinforcements of Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner can supplement what the Orioles hope will be improvements from Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman. And forget the bullpen, which has to cope without closer Zach Britton for at least two months.
Any success for the Orioles hinges just as much on whether their one-trick offense can solve the game's growing trend of pitching backward and adapt its free-swinging approach to a style of pitching meant to exploit it.
"That's kind of the world you live in," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There are no fastball counts anymore."
"It's always been the M.O. of the Orioles to be an aggressive team that hits homers and everybody's been fine with striking out," hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh said. "I think the challenge that I present to them is that we're more than that, and that we can have the ability — and do have the ability — to be hitters and not just so-called sluggers by most critics.
"That's one thing that I'm trying to get across to them, understanding that we are going to face some teams and we are going to face some philosophies where the breaking-ball-heavy teams are going to be throwing at us. If we don't get to the point where we can control the strike zone and slow things down and get a good pitch to hit, then we're going to run into their strength. And it's going to be tough."
Over the past few years, the Orioles have seen their diet of fastballs shrink at a faster rate than the rest of the league. In 2015, they had the sixth-lowest percentage of fastballs seen in the American League at 56.2 percent, according to FanGraphs. The AL average that year was 56.4 percent. They saw the lowest percentage of fastballs in the game in 2016 at 53.3 percent, and tied for last in 2017 at 52.7 percent. Across the AL, the averages fell to 55.2 percent in 2016 and 54.4 percent in 2017.
This year, albeit in a miniscule seven-game sample entering Friday, the Orioles have seen a heavier dose of off-speed pitches than they have fastballs. They'd seen just 47.9 percent fastballs, with the league average at 54.6 percent.
"It's just how the game has changed," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "People are spinning the ball more often than throwing the four-seam. I'm not a pitcher. I don't know the philosophy behind the new evolution. I'm just a hitter who has to deal with it."
Coolbaugh was quick to point out that two of the Orioles' first three opponents — the Houston Astros and New York Yankees — are two teams notorious for pitching backward. And with only seven games of data, Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka throwing 36 fastballs on 172 pitches is sure to bring any data set down some.
But looking at the teams that threw the lowest percentage of fastballs last season is instructive to laying out the daunting task standing between the Orioles and the postseason.
In the AL last season, five teams threw less than 50 percent fastballs. Three — the Yankees, Astros, and the 102-win Cleveland Indians — represented the class of the league, and beat the Orioles 23 times in 34 games. The fourth is the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays, who went 11-8 against the Orioles. The fifth, the Los Angeles Angels, beat the Orioles four times in six tries.
Those teams also boast offenses that feasted on a struggling pitching staff, but the book is out on these Orioles, with the core of the lineup back for another year. If they want to get back to the postseason before four All-Stars in Jones, Manny Machado, Britton and Brad Brach hit free agency, that's the competition. And more and more teams are finding the value of throwing secondary pitches.
"That's part of the game that is evolved now." Coolbaugh said. "Teams are going for a lot more weak contact and swing-and-miss-type things because the power is such a big theme. Power arms are using that as the ambush-type thing, and using the off-speed because you're sped up on the fastball and want to get to the power. Pitchers are exposing that, and hitters are having to adjust."
The adjustments that Coolbaugh asks of the Orioles are more in-game than game to game. They still do most of their damage on fastballs, and a hitter's first job is to be on time for the heater. Different teams call for different approaches, too. The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, for example, boast staffs that come heavy with their fastballs.
But if their early scouting reports are effective and the Orioles bats get to a pitcher early, they need to change along with him and not stick with the original plan. And if the original plan doesn't match what they expect, or something else starts working, they need to adapt as well. Coolbaugh said that as a unit, that's an area where the Orioles most need improvement.
Starting with the seventh-inning rally against Tanaka on Thursday, plus the ensuing hit parade off reliever Chad Green that came when the Orioles worked themselves into fastball counts and took advantage of them, that improvement is starting to emerge, Coolbaugh said.
"The last three days, I've seen a lot better approach, a lot better offensive ability to slow some things down and get some pitches to hit," Coolbaugh said. "You see that in some of the at-bats, where maybe some guys who were struggling are kind of getting back on track now.
"Trey Mancini [on Thursday], a two-out hit. Jonesy hit a breaking ball out for a home run, a two-run homer to put us up. Consequently, the bats have gotten better and that's what we have to do. We have to make our adjustments and we have to make them quicker than we have done in the past."
Through seven games, this amounts to very little in terms of data behind it. But entering Friday, the Orioles were hitting .165 off secondary pitches and .221 off fastballs, according to BaseballSavant.com. Last season, they hit .280 on fastballs and .232 on off-speed pitches.
One of their best breaking-ball hitters, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, said it's something the Orioles know full well will be a challenge they need to meet this season.
"You've always got to be ready for it," he said. "Pitchers know we're a dangerous lineup, but we've got to get used to it. That's just baseball. We've got to make the adjustment, because they're going to throw us a fastball. We've got to sit on whatever pitch they're going to throw. We've just got to make adjustments and try to beat them."