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Something foul going on with struggling Orioles rotation

After Dylan Bundy's shortest start of the season on June 3, a game in which the Boston Red Sox fouled off 29 pitches through five innings, Orioles manager Buck Showalter's curiosity sent him online, where he uncovered that at that point his pitchers led the majors in pitches fouled off.

For the Orioles rotation — a group that has struggled to get deep in games all season — the number of foul pitches they've allowed provides a glaring example of why they're laboring through deeper counts and leaving games early as a byproduct of high pitch counts.

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"I just saw it happening a lot and started looking at it, and I was right," Showalter said. "It's another thing that your eyes see one thing and you have it verified by numbers."

It's a particularly interesting revelation, especially considering the current stretch in the Orioles' schedule. After several early-season off days allowed Showalter to give starters extra rest when he deemed necessary, the Orioles are five games into a run of 20 games in 20 days. That stretch will test the rotation and a bullpen that would have to throw extra innings if the starters don't pitch deeper.

"I can't tell you how many times there's been a pitch fouled off up here by their guys and our guys, and I say, 'That's strike three in Triple-A,'" Showalter said. "They tick off that tough pick and they force you to make it again and again. It's like a war of wills; who's going to win that battle? But you know, when there's 27 of those a night, it wears on them. … Sometimes the hitters don't cooperate with you and when its five, six, seven pitches every time, you can control the time in between it, but also some guys just aren't equipped to pitch through that."

Short starts

Heading into Saturday night's game at Yankee Stadium, Orioles starting pitchers averaged 5.4 innings per start, which trails both of the teams they're behind in the American League East. The New York Yankees and Red Sox both average 5.9 innings per start.

"It's a continued process that we work on in a daily basis whether it be bullpens or conversations or mental approach to pitching," Orioles pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "All those things go into it, and that's kind of the mindset [we have to have]. Today is the day we move forward and hopefully we don't get deep counts, we don't get aggressive in the zone, we get first-pitch strikes and eventually good things will happen."

Four of the Orioles starting pitchers were near or above the average percentage of pitches fouled off (18.25 percent) heading into Saturday, according to MLB Statcast numbers: Bundy (20.22 percent), left-hander Wade Miley (18.27), right-hander Chris Tillman (18.20) and right-hander Kevin Gausman (17.35).

“There’s a couple of ways you can look at it,” Bundy said. “You can look at it like your stuff is really good because they’re missing barrels and just fouling it off. Or you can look at it like I do and think that you’re stuff’s not as good as it needs to be to miss the bat completely. There’s just different ways to look at it.

"You either have to make your stuff move more so you can miss the barrel of the bat completely or make it less good so it can hit the bat more and get an out. So it's hard, and when you face a team multiple times -- four, five, six times a year -- they're going to know you and there's not going to be any secrets. It's tough."

Not only do these long at-bats escalate pitch counts and lead to shorter starts, but there's a mental strain added to the physical one.

"I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we're trying to get a guy out in four pitches or less," Gausman said. "And that's the goal. Sometimes it happens in one pitch, sometimes it happens in 12. So you just have to keep battling. I don't know. That's a tough question. … It's definitely frustrating sometimes. Sometimes you feel like when you get to the 10th pitch, it's almost like either take your base or just get out. So it's frustrating, but you just have to keep focused and make your pitches.

"I think the deeper count you go into generally, the more foul balls you're going to have. I know speaking for myself personally, when I'm not around the strike zone and I'm getting behind guys 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, you're trying to get back into the count and then it's just kind of protect mode."

The easy was to look at it is to say the Orioles starters lack an "out pitch" to end at-bats more quickly, but this rotation's strength is pitching to contact and letting the team's defense — particularly the infield — make plays behind them, and that's how they've been successful in the past.

The Orioles rotation entered Saturday with the lowest strikeout rate in the American League and the third lowest in the majors at 16.9 percent. But it's not much different than last year's 19.3 percent. Also their whiff rate — the percentage of swing-and-miss strikes out of total pitches — was 8.2 percent this season, ranking 27th out of 30 major league clubs while last year's 8.5 percent was 29th in the majors. Orioles starters allow base runners, but their 74.8 percent left-on-base percentage was sixth best in the AL.

"When you get yourself into certain situations, you want to have that put-away pitch," Tillman said. "But I think the notion of a put-away pitch is kind of stupid, because I want to get a guy out on the first pitch. I guess a lot of times, if you need to have a put-away pitch, it's not necessarily a good position to be in. I'd rather get two outs and not let a run score than try to put a guy away and then put another guy away."

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Working counts

Showalter said it's a byproduct of an evolving game that's placing more of a premium on lengthening at-bats. And there has been an incremental increase in foul balls over the years — the major league average of pitches being fouled off this season was 18.25 percent entering Saturday compared to 17.78 in 2008, when the Statcast database was born.

"I think it's a product of the whole industry," Showalter said. "People are really putting a premium on working at-bats, working counts. It's what they're teaching them as hitters. But also, let's stop and think. What really drives walks? How does a guy who strikes out 200 times get 80, 90 walks? It's the fear of power, the fear of damage, and there's so much more fear through batting orders of damage. The seven, eight and nine hitters are hitting 20 home runs."

In the AL East, there are 11 opposing players who foul off at least 17 percent of the pitches they see, led by Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro's 21.78 percent. But it's not exclusive to this division. The Kansas City Royals have three players who foul off more than 20.87 percent of pitches, and it's no coincidence that they had 30 foul balls against Bundy in a game last month.

"These guys are good, too," Tillman said. "I think the ultimate goal is to get somebody out. My goal is in three pitches or less, but a lot of times they don't want to get out in three pitches or less. So you've got to make better pitches, get ahead, stay ahead. I think where a lot of it comes to is when you're trying to strike guys out and throwing not like they say, letting the defense work. You're trying to pitch to contact, but a lot of times when you're trying to get out of it, a lot of times you try to throw strikeout pitches a lot of the time. With some hitters, it works. With the aggressive hitters, you can do that, but with the other ones it can turn into seven-, eight-, nine-pitch at-bats.

"I think for me, it's all about getting strike one. I think when you get ahead of a guy and you start making your pitches, it's a lot harder for them to foul it off because you're kind of in control. I'd say most of the time that's what it boils down to. The other day with [Bundy], he got a lot of first-pitch strikes and they still fouled off a lot. Those, you kind of take them back a little bit, but when you're getting ahead and making the pitches you need to make, most of the time that doesn't happen. Most of the time, it's when you fall behind when your pitches are so-so, not great, not bad, but kind of on the verge, where they get fouled off. The real frustrating ones are where you executing good pitchers' pitches and they're still finding a way to foul them off. But that's what a lot of good teams do."

Bundy said it’s part of the job having to face teams like the Red Sox and Yankees — and previously the Royals — that will work counts and foul pitches off. He said that’s why it’s important to have a lower-velocity “batting practice” fastball that a pitcher can locate and induce quick contact outs early in the game. 

“If you get one early and can locate it, [it’s like], ‘Here’s it is, hit it,’ but hopefully not too far,” Bundy said.

McDowell said it's difficult to identify how to overcome the high number of foul balls, especially given the Orioles' philosophy of pitching to contact. But he said the most important key is continuing to emphasize getting ahead in the count and attacking the strike zone.

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"What do we have to do? Continue to attack," McDowell said. "This game is somehow, it seems cyclical, where sometimes you make good pitches and you make foul balls. Sometimes you make good pitches and good things happen and hopefully that's the mindset we continue to have. Just go ahead and continue to strike the zone. There's a big importance on strike one, getting ahead of hitters so that we can get into our counts and be aggressive over the course of the game — into the zone so that we do limit pitches per at-bat, limit pitches per inning, and hopefully limit pitches per game and allow us to get deeper in the game."

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Stifled starters

Orioles starting pitchers entered Saturday tied for the fourth-fewest innings per start (5.4) in the majors. Below is a look at innings per start and pitches per plate appearance for the mainstays in the Orioles rotation. The league average for pitchers per plate appearance was 3.90 entering Saturday.

Pitcher; IP/GS; Pit/PA; ERA

Dylan Bundy; 6.4; 4.10; 3.05

Wade Miley; 5.3; 4.18; 3.27

Kevin Gausman; 5.1; 4.02; 5.86

Chris Tillman; 4.8; 3.99; 5.59

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