When the philosophy was first explained to Robinson Chirinos, the catcher had to manually correct himself. The 37-year-old has been in the majors since 2011. He’s caught over 600 games for six different teams. He has a way of doing things, an understanding of how to set up behind the plate.
Yet, all of a sudden, that changed when he arrived at spring training for the Orioles this year. He was presented with a new philosophy, centered around presenting a friendly target to his pitching staff. Instead of setting up on the edges, Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom are setting up in the middle of the plate.
Chirinos has adopted that measure for certain pitchers in his career. With the Houston Astros in 2019, he used that approach with Framber Valdez, giving the left-hander’s sinker and curveball more room to play. With the Chicago Cubs last year, Chirinos did it for one arm, too, “‘cause he was a little bit everywhere.”
“But the whole staff, completely?” Chirinos said. “It’s different.”
For a team without an established group of veteran arms, different can be good. The new approach to the way Chirinos and Bemboom set up has set off a ripple effect, leading to more strikes than usual — albeit amid a small sample size.
Entering Sunday, the Orioles threw 52.9% of their pitches in the strike zone — the highest rate in the league and the club’s highest since pitch tracking data became available through Statcast in 2008. The previous high came in 2013 (50.2%), when Baltimore won 85 games. And in the three preceding seasons, the strike rate sat as low as 47.3% in 2019 and hovered a tick below 50% in 2020 and 2021.
“The whole idea is getting ahead. Get ahead, get ahead, get ahead, and we’ll be in better spots,” Bemboom said. “As a catcher, that’s what we have to focus on, is giving our guys the best chance of each pitch being in the zone — or at least starting in the zone.”
When pitching coach Chris Holt analyzed his staff this offseason, he first looked at what each pitcher does well. Next, he tried to identify how each hurler does that thing well before diving into when they do it well.
What he noticed piqued his interest. The pitchers under Holt’s direction often struggled when attempting to pick out a corner of the zone. There was a tendency to be too focused on a specific location, causing overthinking and resulting in misses.
“So the initiative right now is to have them attack through the zone more,” Holt said, “as opposed to aim at corners.”
Especially for a bullpen full of pitchers with power fastballs and/or ample movement on breaking pitches, establishing the center of the plate early in the count makes it tougher on batters. And if the ball is put in play, manager Brandon Hyde emphasized there are fielders for a reason.
“You are going to give up possibly more hits, but you also have eight defenders,” Hyde said. “We’re playing defense with forcing action with guys to swing the bat, not being in deep counts, behind in the count, nibbling. We’re trying to eliminate the nibble and trying to go after guys.”
The catching change doesn’t make Baltimore’s pitchers throw down the middle of the plate, although 8.3% of their pitches have wound up in that location, the fourth-highest rate in baseball. It’s merely the initial target the catchers will set, a way for pitchers to concentrate on the first priority: getting the ball over the plate.
With Bruce Zimmermann on the mound Sunday, for instance, Chirinos set his glove down the middle before dropping it during the left-hander’s windup. The changeup — which Aaron Judge whiffed on — cut to the outside of the plate.
Later, right-hander Dillon Tate hurled a changeup past Anthony Rizzo. Chirinos did the same, placing his initial target in the center before shifting late, snagging the outside pitch.
“It’s a difference between trying to throw down the middle versus having a target that’s down the middle,” Holt said. “You can still have the intention to hit a location, but the target that gets them there is more centralized, so they have more room for error.”
Another benefit Holt saw was to reduce a tendency from pitchers to alter their delivery based on location. Those tweaks — sometimes infinitesimal — can have major repercussions, impacting command or reducing movement.
But the largest benefit has been noticeable early this season, even if it’s different from what Chirinos is used to. The Orioles wanted to throw more strikes, and they have.
“In more cases than not, you’re not going to throw it right over the middle,” left-hander Paul Fry said. “Just gives us more breathing room, I’d say. And it seems to be working so far. We’re throwing more strikes, attacking hitters and putting the pressure on them.”
What’s to come?
After beating the Yankees on Sunday, 5-0, to win their first series of the season, the Orioles (3-6) are boarding a cross-country flight to begin a three-series road trip. A win will help make that flight a little better.
“Always does,” Hyde said.
Baltimore begins with a four-game set against the Oakland Athletics before traveling south to play the Los Angeles Angels. The road trip will wrap up with a visit to New York to face the Yankees again. That stretch will test a pitching staff that has largely impressed, given the pitch count limitations on starters as they ramp up after a shortened spring training.
Hyde hasn’t officially announced who will start Tuesday’s game, but a roster move could be in order before first pitch. Right-hander Spenser Watkins, who lasted three innings earlier this week in a loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, will take the bump again Monday. Right-handers Jordan Lyles and Tyler Wells will also appear that series, but a bullpen that has covered a glut of innings so far will be charged with covering even more without left-hander John Means for a significant period.
What was good?
While there will be intrigue ahead as to whether the bullpen can maintain its workload for large stretches, the work the group has done so far stands out. For the first time since 1992, the Orioles pitched multiple shutouts within their first nine games of a season.
Barring a late collapse against the Rays in the final game of the opening weekend, Baltimore’s relievers gave up one earned run in 11 1/3 innings. The success continued against the Brewers and Yankees.
Across six games, the bullpen allowed eight runs across 30 2/3 innings, and five of those came against Mike Baumann and Travis Lakins in the 5-2 loss to the Yankees on Saturday.
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“Our whole pitching staff has been doing unbelievable, and not just today, but since day one, we’ve been pitching well,” Chirinos said. “I think if you look back, we pretty much have a chance to win except that last one in Tampa, maybe, when we lost 8-0. I think if we keep pitching the way we’ve been pitching, we are going to win a lot of games.”
Before Rougned Odor strode to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth inning Sunday, the Orioles were 7-for-82 this season with runners in scoring position. But Odor’s drive up the middle that plated two runners was the start of a breakthrough. Kelvin Gutiérrez followed with a two-run double before Jorge Mateo hit on a one-run single.
The relative cloudburst brought Baltimore’s batting average with runners in scoring position from .085 to .116.
“That’s what good teams do,” Hyde said. “It’s a relentless, all the way through the order, make pitchers work, not-give-in attitude, and we’re getting there. I hope guys watched that. Guys did watch that, and there’s gonna be — we haven’t had a ton of that in four years, honestly, is to be able to put together at-bats like that throughout the game. That’s when you get really good.”
The Orioles have a long way to go before reaching that level, even after breaking through Sunday. The strikeout numbers in those situations are still troubling, with four more in the series finale against New York bringing Baltimore’s season total to 41. Of the team’s 86 at-bats with runners in scoring position, 47.7% have ended with a punchout.
On the farm
The start to Kyle Stowers’ season wasn’t ideal. He was hit in the hand by a pitch on opening day and missed about a week of action. But the outfielder, who plays with Triple-A Norfolk, returned to the lineup Wednesday and quickly made his mark.
In six games this season, Stowers has collected five doubles while blasting two homers. He’s also driven in seven runs, slashing .381/.519/.905 in the process.