12 September 2013

Orioles' Pitchers Have a Home Run Problem

The Orioles offense is fourth in runs scored. Their team defense, led particularly by a strong left side of the infield, is very good. The Orioles' team pitching, though, is not good. They're 24th in baseball in ERA (4.25). They're also 27th in groundball percentage (42.2%), 24th in strikeouts per nine innings (7.15), and middle of the pack (tied for 14th) in walks per nine innings (2.93). But this team's biggest issue is the pitching staff's inability to keep the ball in the ballpark. (And no, the O's are not "too reliant on the longball." I keep reading about this team's issues with runners in scoring position, and maybe that's been a struggle the past few weeks. But here's the 2013 MLB average batting line with runners in scoring position: .255/.336/.389. As for the 2013 Orioles? .267/.329/.439. That's a seven-point drop-off in on-base percentage but 50 more points of slugging. I'd say that's a worthwhile trade-off.)

Overall, the Orioles have hit 194 home runs -- 25 more than the second place team, the Blue Jays. But the O's pitching staff has allowed nearly as many (184), which is the most in baseball by three (the Astros have allowed 184). The Yankees, with 155 homers allowed (ranked 23rd), are the next closest team in that department that is actually still in playoff contention.

As you'd likely guess, the O's have the worst HR/FB ratio in baseball (13.2%), but they're also tied for fifth in overall fly ball percentage (36%). Those are not positive qualities for a team doing half of its pitching in Camden Yards.

Here are the O's top five in home runs allowed:

1. Chris Tillman (29)
2. Miguel Gonzalez (22)
3. Jason Hammel (20)
4. Freddy Garcia (16)
5. Wei-Yin Chen (13)

Chen, Tillman, and Gonzalez, though not fantastic, have been three of the O's best pitchers this season. But Hammel -- and especially Garcia -- have not.

Let's also go back to the team's HR/FB leaders (for a slightly more advanced look instead of a counting stat). I'm removing Luis Ayala (2 IP), Jairo Asencio (2.1 IP), and Josh Stinson (9.1 IP) from this discussion. So by HR/FB, here's the new "leaderboard":

1. Francisco Rodriguez (41.7%)
2. Pedro Strop (26.7%)
3. Freddy Garcia (24.6%)
4. Kevin Gausman (20%)
5. Chris Tillman (14.4%)

First, a qualifier. Besides Tillman (179.1 IP), the other four names above haven't pitched that many innings (18.2 for Rodriguez, 22.1 for Strop, 53 for Garcia, and 40 for Gausman). Strop was a disaster for the Orioles this season, but he's with the Chicago Cubs now and is actually pitching well. He'll do that -- for a while, at least.

Rodriguez has allowed five home runs since he was acquired by the Orioles, and four of them came in his first four appearances with the team. Overall, he has a fantastic K/9 (13.02) and BB/9 (1.45), but mostly because of those early home runs his ERA is OK (3.86) but not great. The O's were looking for better than OK numbers when they traded for Rodriguez, but that's what can happen in a small sample when dealing for a non-elite reliever, especially for just a portion of a season.

It's sort of amazing that the Orioles allowed Garcia to throw more than 50 innings despite how poorly he pitched, but the Orioles were in a bind in May/June because of injuries to Chen and Gonzalez. It's worth noting that Garcia, who's now throwing a handful of September innings for the Braves, has the second highest HR/FB rate of all pitchers this season who've thrown at least 50 innings. He should be thankful that Clayton Richard of the Padres (25.5%) was so terrible.

As for Gausman, he has not pitched particularly well and when he gets hit, he has tended to get hit hard, but his strikeout and walk numbers are decent and he's still just 22 years old. Considering how the O's have moved him from the rotation (in the minors and majors), to the bullpen, and back to the rotation in the minors, and then back to the bullpen, I tend to give him more slack than some of the team's other pitchers. But if he continues to struggle again next year, when he's possibly in the team's rotation to start the season, then there will be something more to talk about.

And then there's Tillman, who's thrown nearly 180 innings, more than double his previous career high of 86 last season. His ERA is a bit higher than last season, and the increases in home runs and walks are a mild concern. But he's also striking out more batters than he ever has (7.68 K/9) and seemingly living up to the hype he received when he was acquired in the Adam Jones trade. Even if Tillman is not an ace, that's OK -- and he's doing a pretty good job of making sure the expectations of the cavalry weren't completely unjustified. (For more on Tillman and home runs, read Nate's piece from a couple months ago.)

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