If it looks to you like the Orioles are showing more plate discipline than they did during last year’s unprecedented competitive cataclysm, it is not your imagination.
The young hitters in the O’s lineup appear to be getting the message from their new analytics-fueled braintrust, and they’re starting to look more like the successful team that general manager Mike Elias came from than the one everybody around here is trying to forget.
OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It figures to be quite a while — if ever — before the Orioles evolve into anything comparable to the highly successful Houston Astros teams that Elias helped build, but it’s pretty obvious that the hitters are having more competitive at-bats under new hitting coach Don Long despite their lack of experience.
The series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night was a good example, at least for the first few innings. The Orioles were facing red-hot pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who was undefeated and had allowed just one run on 11 hits while striking out 21 batters in 17 innings over his first three starts.
He was the kind of pitcher who might have rung up 12 strikeouts against last year’s Orioles offense, but this year’s lineup clearly came into the game with a plan to neutralize his breaking pitches and force him to beat them with his high-heat fastball.
Now, it’s only fair to point out that Glasnow did beat them and was as good as advertised. He improved to 4-0 after surviving an early-inning attempt by the Orioles to run up his pitch count and take control of the game.
Still, the Orioles had as many hits (six) by the time there was one out in the third inning as any other opponent had managed against Glasnow in each of his three previous starts. They also pushed him past 50 total pitches in that inning and held him to a season-low three strikeouts over seven innings. Not exactly what you might expect from a collection of largely unheralded young guys of which very little has been expected.
Glasnow settled down and the young O’s couldn’t touch him the rest of the way, but that doesn’t mean their persistent performance at the outset was just a fluke. The statistics over the first three weeks also indicate that they are striking out less and walking more than last year’s team.
They entered Wednesday night’s game ranked a surprising ninth in the major leagues in their ratio of at-bats to strikeouts (4.02), a category in which they finished among the bottom third of the 30 big league teams last season.
This year’s lineup also is walking at a rate (once every 12 plate appearances) significantly higher than last year’s team (14.3), even though the 2018 Orioles featured a largely veteran lineup for the first four months.
It’s early, of course, and the Orioles showed during the middle innings on Tuesday night that they can get a little first-pitch crazy at times, so there aren’t any sweeping conclusions to be drawn here. They haven’t shown as much improvement in their overall batting average or on-base percentage and they still seem destined to lose a lot more games than they win.
What’s refreshing is the way they seem to have embraced the new organizational philosophy and are starting to get some return on that investment. Necessity demands that they squeeze the most out of every plate appearance because the days when the team lived and died with its power bats are over — at least for now.
There are still some guys with pop. Trey Mancini has rebounded from the frustrations of last season to flex his muscles and spark the offense. Jonathan Villar, Renato Núñez and Dwight Smith Jr. have shown they can drive the ball at this level. The difference is that this year’s team knows it can’t just wait around for that to happen.
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Instead, what these young hitters are learning to do is make opposing pitchers uncomfortable by going to the plate with a well-considered plan to wait for certain pitches and extend at-bats. It’s an approach that teams such as the Astros and Boston Red Sox have used to great result over the past few years and it won’t be mastered overnight, but the early indications are promising.