COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Under manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette’s watch, the Orioles have formed a successful lineup that hits many home runs and draws few walks.
While this offensive approach helped lead the Orioles to the American League Championship Series in 2014 and American League wild card game in 2016, it was also part of the reason why the team didn’t advance further in those years.
The Orioles are only one of many teams who’ve decided to value home runs more, but they are against the grain when it comes to devaluing walks. Baltimore has pursued this approach partially because they trust their players to put together strong at bats even if they don’t end in walks.
”You don’t necessarily have to walk to gain something from [the at bat],” Showalter said in a 2016 media session. “I’ve seen a guy make an eight pitch, nine pitch at bat and make an out, but he won that at bat.”
The Orioles aggressive approach has helped them hit the most home runs in baseball since 2011. They have the eighth-best winning percentage in that span, and they’ve won with the league’s second-worst walk rate and fifth-worst on-base percentage. By not drawing walks, the Orioles risk not getting as many baserunners as other teams, which results in them hitting more solo home runs than most teams.
Baltimore has put together a lineup dominated by right-handed power hitters like Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop. In 2017, the team has hit a home run once every 22.6 at bats, second-best in baseball. They finished first in that category in 2014 and 2016, when the Orioles made the playoffs, and they finished third in 2015.
Despite this tremendous power, the Orioles don’t have as much patience. While Baltimore’s aggressive approach leads to home runs, it also means the team walks less than the rest of the league.
Since Showalter’s first full season, Baltimore has only walked 7.1 percent of the time, second-worst to only Kansas City. When the Orioles made the playoffs in 2014 and 2016, they had a below-average 6.6 and 7.7 walk percentage. In 2017, Baltimore has only walked 6.5 percent of the time, tied for last in baseball.
A big reason for building an aggressive, right-handed heavy lineup is the ballpark in which they play. Since right-handed power bats can take advantage of hitter-friendly Camden Yards, seven of the Orioles’ everyday players are righties who have an aggressive approach, resulting in a high home run and low walk rate.
Due to this strategy, the Orioles front office decided to let some key players go in free agency. Nick Markakis leaving to sign with Atlanta stands out the most.
Markakis, who played nine years with the team, has a career 10.5 walk percentage, but is a lefty who only hits a homer once every 42.7 at bats, and didn’t fit the mold of what plays well at Camden.
Since leaving Baltimore, Markakis has averaged a 10.3 walk percentage for the Atlanta Braves, surpassing double digits in each of the past three seasons. In all of Markakis’ full seasons playing for Showalter, his highest walk percentage was 8.9. Markakis’ career high walk percentage: 14.2, which he posted in 2008, before Showalter arrived.
A year later, the Orioles traded for Mark Trumbo, who has walked 6.8 percent of the time and hit a homerun every 18 at bats over his career. After Trumbo hit 47 home runs for Baltimore in 2016, he signed a three-year, $37 million deal with the team, close to Markakis’ four-year, $44 million deal with the Braves.
This past offseason, the Orioles signed catcher Welington Castillo, who has a career 6.9 walk percentage and hits a homerun every 25.7 at bats. Castillo replaced Matt Wieters, who walks 8.1 percent of the time and hits a home run in every 27.8 at bats. Wieters and Markakis spent a combined 18 years in an Oriole uniform.
Jake Mintz has been following the Orioles closely in the Showalter era. Half of the popular Twitter account Cespedes Family BBQ, and most recently a Cut4 personality, Mintz says the team seems to be willing to live and die by the same player type.
“I don’t know if they’re going out and trying to develop hitters in that way, but it seems that the guys that they bring in kind of fit that mold,” Mintz said. “It seems like they’re doubling down on that type of player.”
One of the more recent Orioles success stories is Tim Beckham, whom the Orioles received from the Rays at the trade deadline this year. With the Orioles, he is hitting more home runs and walking less. And despite the lack of patience, Beckham’s OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging percentage) with Baltimore is .270 points higher than it was with Tampa Bay.
Although the Orioles have committed to this strategy, they’ve still deviated from it — if an incoming player is talented enough.
The biggest example: Chris Davis, a cornerstone of the team since he arrived in 2011. Despite hitting a home run in every 15.4 at bats for his career, Davis also walks 10 percent of the time. When the team signed Davis to a 7-year, $161 million contract in 2016, they were looking at Davis’ power output and less at his walk rate.
Even when Davis doesn’t walk, he takes notes from each plate appearance, something that his manager appreciates.
”I remember Chris, one time during the spring, had like an eight or nine pitch at bat,” Showalter said. “In the dugout he was talking to me about “I saw everything he has to offer in one at bat.’”