22 May 2017

Orioles Pitchers Have Mastered The Clutch Popup

All data in this article does not include Sunday's game.

Every year, baseball fans can look forward to a few constants. The MLB-wide strikeout rate will increase. Mike Trout will be the best player in the American League, and Clayton Kershaw the best pitcher in the National League. And the Orioles will defy expectations, spitting in the face of BaseRuns, third-order winning percentage, and every other model out there.

This season — in the last regard, at least — has been no different. While the O's have gone 25-16 and are neck-and-neck with the Yankees in the AL East, the numbers don't back them up. FanGraphs gives the team a 20-21 expected record, and Baseball Prospectus estimates Baltimore should be 20.5-20.5 (don't ask). It's a familiar story for Birdland, but one element of it is a little different from the past.

Both FanGraphs's and BP's models think the Orioles offense has been unlucky. The real difference comes on the pitching side of things:

  Metric    Actual    FG (predicted)    BP (predicted) 
RS/G 4.78 4.90 5.17
RA/G 4.44 4.98 5.18

On first glance, the pessimism with runs allowed makes sense — to this point, Baltimore's pitching staff has allowed a .333 wOBA, the fifth-highest in MLB. But it's spread that wOBA so as to avoid runs. While the Orioles' .343 bases-empty wOBA is the second-worst in the majors, their .321 wOBA with runners on base comes in 12th. Only the Astros have stranded more baserunners than the Birds this season.

With the bases empty, the O's rank 23rd in strikeout rate and 27th in walk rate. With runners on base, they're 28th and 26th, respectively. Suffice to say, this is not a team that blows hitters away. Where Baltimore has done well is limiting base hits when it counts — the club has MLB's highest BABIP (.328) with no one on, and the fourth-lowest BABIP (.267) with men on.

Now we get to the heart of the matter — the reason the Orioles have given up so few runs this year, the reason they're near the top of the division instead of wallowing around .500. When pitching from the windup, Orioles hurlers have a 2.5 percent popup rate (meaning infield fly balls make up 2.5 percent of all their balls in play). When they're pitching from the stretch, that increases to 6.9 percent.

How rare is a jump like that? Since 2002, when Baseball Info Solutions began tracking batted-ball data, none of the 480 team seasons has stood out to that degree:

Let me put this another way. Over those 16 years, these are the biggest disparities in popup rate by situation:

  Rank    Season  Team   BE_Popup%    MOB_Popup%    Differential 
1 2017 Orioles 2.5% 6.9% -4.4%
2 2017 Mets 1.3% 4.3% -3.0%
3 2017 Red Sox 2.8% 4.9% -2.1%
4 2017 Pirates 2.1% 4.1% -2.0%
5 2012 Reds 2.7% 4.7% -1.9%
6 2003 Angels 3.3% 5.1% -1.8%
7 2012   Nationals  2.5% 4.2% -1.7%
8 2017 Giants 2.4% 4.0% -1.6%
9 2009 Marlins 2.8% 4.3% -1.5%
10 2010   Athletics  2.9% 4.4% -1.5%

You see a few more 2017 teams on the list, but none have gone above 5 percent, much less 6 percent. There's really been no one else like the Orioles.

For at least one Baltimore pitcher, this skill is nothing new. In 2016, Dylan Bundy got 7.1 percent popups with the bases empty, and 9.6 percent popups with runners on. Thus far in 2017, though, he's taken things to the next level: His popup rates in those respective situations are 5.0 percent and *deep breath* … 11.8 percent. And many of his teammates have followed suit — Brad Brach (13.1 percent), Alec Asher (12.9 percent), and Mychal Givens (10.7 percent) are among those in the double-digits from the stretch.

Approach-wise, it's unclear whether the Orioles can keep this up. Pitches in the upper part of the zone are the best for infield fly balls, yet when runners reach base, Baltimore goes low. No other team in baseball has thrown more low pitches with men on. This seems to suggest Bundy and co. will trade those popups for ground balls, which turn into hits far more often.

Still, we can't ignore what's already happened. Last year, the O's induced 70 popups with runners on; this year, they've already racked up 36. Even if they can't sustain that 6.9 percent clip, no one can take those 36 flies away from them. No team in that 16-year sample has broached 6 percent over a full season, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Baltimore has a fly ball-inclined pitching staff, and if those fly balls are of the lazy variety, that'll just make things easier for

We've been saying a lot of things about the Orioles aren't sustainable for a long time now. The 2012 record in one-run games, the 2014 rotation's overperformance, the 2016 power — through thick and thin, the O's just seems to have a way of proving us wrong. Maybe this…

GIF via MLB.com

…is just the latest oddity for Birdland to get accustomed to.


Roger said...

There's gotta be some effect from all the hype to increasing launch angle. Everyone wants to take an uppercut. Is it good or is it bad? Seems to be good for the O's.

Jon Shepherd said...

It is more a narrative than reality. I believe 538 addressed it. On Twitter I have been noting for a few months that the data do not corroborate anything about it.