The Orioles offense was nothing short of maddening in 2016.
The second-best lineup in the American League prior to the All-Star break at 5.08 runs per game and holding an .800 on-base plus slugging percentage, Baltimore was a different story in the second half. Over their final 75 games, the Orioles ranked 14th of 15 AL clubs in runs scored at 4.03 per contest and 13th in the AL with a .713 OPS.
A major part of that decline was an inability to hit left-handed pitching as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in OPS (.692) against southpaws. That’s not exactly what you want to hear with AL East favorite Boston adding All-Star lefty Chris Sale to a rotation that already includes David Price and Drew Pomeranz and could also feature young lefty Eduardo Rodriguez.
Two Orioles hitters who struggled against lefties in 2016 — Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold — are no longer with the organization, but the club’s struggles can’t be blamed solely on them. Of course, Reimold’s regular starts in place of Hyun Soo Kim — who was hitless in 22 sporadic plate appearances against southpaws — are difficult to defend since the 33-year-old owned an anemic .565 OPS facing pitchers throwing from the left side.
Including the key offseason additions of catcher Welington Castillo and outfielder Seth Smith, below is a look at how Orioles regulars fared against left-handed pitching in 2016 and in recent seasons. It’s important to remember that a hitter rarely has more than 180 plate appearances against lefties in a given year, so we’re dealing with a relatively small sample, making it useful to look at production over multiple seasons.
||2016 vs. LHP
||2015 vs. LHP
||2014 vs. LHP
||Career vs. LHP
Of their two notable pickups, Castillo should be a welcome asset against left-handed pitching while Smith is clearly a platoon player who’s proven over 558 career plate appearances in the majors that he won’t produce enough to warrant regular playing time against southpaws. Manager Buck Showalter will likely express the belief publicly that Smith can handle himself against lefties much like he did with Pedro Alvarez last year, but the numbers simply don’t support that notion to be true.
Trumbo and Jones stood out as substantial deviations from their career numbers a year ago. It’s remarkable to think that Trumbo had such impressive production in his first season with Baltimore while also posting a career-low OPS against left-handed pitching. The slugger made some mechanical changes to his swing with Seattle that preceded his debut season with the Orioles, so perhaps that impacted his approach against lefties. History still suggests that he’ll bounce back against lefty pitching to a meaningful degree.
Jones has been more successful against right-handed pitchers than lefties throughout his career, but 2016 was extreme compared to his typical numbers. The 31-year-old has shown some decline offensively over the last few seasons, but it’d be surprising to see him struggle to that extreme level against lefties again in 2017.
Machado and Schoop had different levels of success in 2016, but both young players continued to trend upward against lefties, which could be a product of getting more familiar facing the skilled lefties who tend to be so rare in the minors. We know the 24-year-old Machado has already reached superstar status, but the 25-year-old Schoop has shown meaningful improvement against lefties since his rookie year, a positive sign for his ability to improve further as a hitter.
Hardy was one of the Orioles’ few success stories against lefties last season, but you’d have to think the 34-year-old will struggle to duplicate what he did in 2016 being another year older and already dealing with back concerns this spring. His lack of production against lefties in 2014 and 2015 suggest last year was more of the aberration at this advanced stage of his career.
The wild cards in this department for 2017 will be Kim and reserve outfielder Joey Rickard. It’s a shame that Kim didn’t receive more opportunities against lefties — especially when his primary platoon partner was so unproductive — as last spring should have taught us not to judge his overall ability on a small sample of at-bats. With Smith already destined to be part of a platoon, Kim being able to effectively handle himself against southpaws would go a long way in maintaining more game-to-game roster flexibility. The need for two corner outfield platoons would allow opposing managers to potentially wreak havoc with bullpen matchups late in games.
The Orioles would like Rickard to back up a strong .861 OPS in 90 plate appearances against lefties last year with further proof that he can produce as part of a platoon with either Kim or Smith. If he doesn’t, Trumbo will likely see more time in the outfield, which hurts his overall value.
A simple look at these numbers suggests that it’s hardly unreasonable for the Orioles to make improvement against lefties this season without dramatic changes to their lineup. Baltimore won’t lead the league by any means, but the arrival of Castillo, Jones and Trumbo performing closer to career norms, and the improvement of a young hitter or two would put the Orioles in much better position to compete against lefties.
And that’s all they probably need when they’re seeing lefty starters only 25 percent to 33 percent of the time in a given season.