Barely a week into this season, when the Orioles played the New York Yankees for the first time, the fact that the Yankees — and before them the Houston Astros — didn't throw Orioles hitters many fastballs was seen as an anomaly caused by those two teams' philosophies.
Whether it's because it worked so well that week, or because the Orioles hitters have proven more susceptible than anyone else to nonfastballs this season, that trend has continued up to now as their second series with the Yankees began Friday at Camden Yards. Considering it’s worked for the Yankees since then, too, the Orioles are ready for more of it now.
"I think people miss, they're a real indicator of what's going on in the game," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They throw the least percentage of fastballs than anybody in baseball. They've got some really big arms down there. That shows you the command of the breaking ball that they have. It's not that they're trying to throw a higher percentage — they're throwing what pitches get hitters out."
Fastball percentages have steadily fallen for both the Orioles and the league over the past few seasons. But no team has seen a more dramatic change in how they’re pitched than the Orioles, who entered Friday having seen the third-lowest percentage of fastballs this year at 50.6 percent. That’s just two-tenths of a percent behind the the Astros, according to FanGraphs.
Mark Trumbo, one of the more thoughtful hitters in the Orioles clubhouse, said it’s something the players began to recognize at some point last season.
“Our team, especially with the way we're built since I've been here, has always seen a lot of off-speed and probably a lot more than some other teams, just based on roster construction and the guys that are up there taking the at-bats are all guys who can do a lot of damage for the most part,” Trumbo said. “I think pitchers generally gravitate toward a different approach.”
Part of that has to do with the team’s power, but it’s also as simple as a hard slider or cutter being an effective right-on-right pitch in a league where a majority of the starting pitchers are right-handed and so is most of the Orioles lineup.
But the Astros get a lot of breaking balls and off-speed pitches because they can hit anything — they went into Friday ranked fourth in the majors with a .247 average on nonfastballs, according to MLB Statcast data from Baseball Savant. The Orioles rank 23rd in that category at .205 — however they're 24th on fastballs with a .250 average.
The last time the Yankees exploited this, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh said it was more a Yankees and Astros thing while conceding the aggressive nature of the Orioles roster has made teams more willing to pitch on the edges of the strike zone and make pitches look like strikes to get the batters to chase.
“It probably depends on what the strength of the pitcher is, too,” Trumbo said. “If it's a guy with a lousy breaking ball, he probably won't rely on that quite as much. But if a guy has got a good one, then the numbers say it's probably in his favor to throw it as much as possible. I don't think that the explanation behind it is something super secret. It's just harder to hit a quality breaking ball than it is a fastball, at times. I think pitchers are kind of understanding that, but at the same time, it's also harder to control, so I think it's up to the hitters to try and pick out the balls from the strikes if the pitcher chooses to keep spinning it and spinning it for balls.”
That’s been a particular challenge for the Orioles. Through Thursday, no team has swung and missed at nonfastballs more often than the Orioles. Such whiffs account for 8.3 percent of total pitches, with the next highest team at 7.9 percent. That contributes to the league’s highest overall whiff rate at 12.8 percent.
Part of that comes down to individual problems as much as team ones. Manny Machado is hitting .319 on nonfastballs, but Jonathan Schoop is traditionally the team's best breaking-ball hitter, and missed time with an oblique injury that has caused him to not find his form yet. He’s hitting .197 on nonfastballs.
Left fielder Trey Mancini hit .254 on nonfastballs last year, and that's down to .217. Many of the Orioles' fill-ins for injured players — such as Mark Trumbo, Schoop, Tim Beckham and Colby Rasmus — are minor league/Four-A types for whose problems with breaking balls is what's keeping them from being regulars.
Whatever it can be ascribed to, though, it's clear it's not just a couple of teams who are pitching backward against the Orioles, as was previously thought. Some on the team say you can tell early in a series when a team is following the scouting report on what’s worked against the Orioles this season versus what worked for that particular team in the past.
This weekend, the Yankees' plan will be the same either way.