Last Year The Orioles Had A LOB Problem
by Joe Wantz
|photo by Keith Allison|
How, then, was Gonzalez able to be a steady, if unspectacular, starting pitcher for three and a half years? While there are a few possible answers, one of the most glaring issues was Gonzalez’s left on base percentage (LOB%). When runners got on base against Gonzalez, especially in 2014, they almost never scored. That season, Gonzalez posted a LOB mark of 85.5%, which would have led the major leagues if he pitched enough innings to qualify. For comparison’s sake, Clayton Kershaw stranded 81% runners in 2014. Clayton Kershaw was worse at stranding baserunners than Miguel Gonzalez, and not by a small margin.
While this is striking enough, considering the massive skills gap between Gonzalez and someone like Kershaw, it is not an outlier in the Orioles rotation. From 2012-2014, the starters had the seventh best LOB% in all of baseball despite having a generally underwhelming set of arms. They were able to accomplish this despite ranking in the bottom 10 in the league in line drive rate, ground ball rate (dead last), fly ball rate (also the worst in baseball), K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 (last yet again). They also had the third largest gap between staff ERA and FIP of any team in baseball.
Needless to say, this is not the profile of a good starting staff, much less the starting rotation for the team with the most wins in the American League during that time period. Yet, that was exactly what happened. And while LOB% may not be the only reason for their surprising success, it certainly was a driving factor. No team at the top of the rankings in LOB% had a higher WHIP than the Orioles. Essentially, the Os were putting more runners on base than elite pitching staffs like the Nationals but stranding them at the same rate. So, while the Os were putting a ton of runners on, they were able to keep them from scoring.
A lot of that success likely came from an elite defense, which can be extremely helpful in helping pitchers post low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) numbers. The defense fell off a bit in 2015, perhaps correlating with the disaster that was the starting rotation, which went from stranding 77.6% of baserunners (second in baseball) in 2014 to 72.3% (17th best) in 2015. The two biggest culprits in this fall were Chris Tillman and, you guessed it, Miguel Gonzalez. Tillman saw his LOB% drop from 76.7% to 68.2%, with Gonzalez’s fall an even more precipitous 85.5% to 73.1%.
So, what does this mean for 2016? It is certainly reasonable to believe that Tillman can bounce back to being at least the league average mark of about 72%. If Tillman had the exact same stats as last year, but with that LOB mark, his ERA would fall from 4.99 to 4.58. That would certainly be a start, especially if he can get back to around the 200 inning mark. His Opening Day performance, though abbreviated, looked like a great start in that regard. It is likely not realistic for Tillman to maintain an average velocity of 93.1 MPH like he did on Monday, but an increase in his strikeout rate will lessen the overall need for an elite LOB%.
The rest of the current staff did not have the kind of massive change in LOB% that we saw from Tillman and Gonzalez last season, though it is worth noting that Yovani Gallardo had one of his best LOB% seasons in 2015. The rotation turnover that has occurred since the beginning of Spring Training (Gonzalez released, Kevin Gausman on the DL, Mike Wright, Vance Worley, Tyler Wilson all potentially making April starts) makes it difficult to forecast whether 2015 was an anomaly or a sign of things to come this season. That said, with a healthy Jonathan Schoop, JJ Hardy, and Matt Wieters up the middle, along with the emergence of Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard in left, perhaps a return to the defensive greatness (and resulting low BABIP and high strand rate) of 2014 may once again be in order.