Tuesday’s loss in Houston offered a glimpse at the major concern many had for the Orioles lineup in 2016.
Yes, the Orioles would hit home runs — their only scoring in the 3-2 defeat came on solo shots by Pedro Alvarez and Manny Machado — but the fear was that they’d strike out far too often, especially with the offseason additions of Mark Trumbo and Alvarez to an offense that finished third in the AL in strikeouts in 2015. On Tuesday, Baltimore did exactly that in striking out a season-high 19 times in the 13-inning defeat with 16 coming against the Astros bullpen over the final eight frames.
You wouldn’t know it watching the series opener at Minute Maid Park, but strikeouts really haven’t been the problem many anticipated so far this season. Even after the poor showing on Tuesday, the Orioles ranked a respectable eighth in the AL in strikeouts, a far cry from the predictions of them leading the league in both long balls and whiffs this season.
However, the last three games have brought concern with an unsettling total of 40 strikeouts. In fact, two of their three worst games of the season in the strikeout department took place on Tuesday (19) and Saturday (13).
Many of the strikeouts came at crucial times as Ryan Flaherty, Matt Wieters, and Joey Rickard each struck out with runners in scoring position to end innings. In the 12th, Adam Jones and Chris Davis whiffed against former teammate Scott Feldman with runners at first and second.
Unfortunately with the powerful Orioles lineup, you have to take the bad with the good. It’s easy to say no good can come from a strikeout, but plenty of bad can still take place from making contact such as hitting into a double play or having a lead runner thrown out on the bases, realities that make me less concerned than others over strikeouts — to a point.
It was unequivocally maddening for Orioles bats not be able to at least put the ball in play in a winnable game in which Chris Tillman pitched very well over seven innings and three of their top four relievers — Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens — combined to throw five shutout innings and 68 pitches.
You can only hope it’s more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.
Machado has filled in admirably at shortstop in place of the injured J.J. Hardy, but the Orioles have received nothing offensively at third base as Flaherty’s average fell to .189 after an 0-for-4 night.
Remembering Flaherty had hit a respectable .248 with a .713 on-base plus slugging percentage filling in for the injured Jonathan Schoop through July 4 of last year, I thought the utility infielder would provide some offense to help fill the void of Hardy, who isn’t exactly the same hitter he was a few years ago anyway. However, even with regular playing time, Flaherty has looked completely lost at the plate with a .491 OPS and a team-worst 31.7 percent strikeout rate entering Wednesday.
Since last year’s All-Star break, Flaherty has hit .156 with a .530 OPS in 178 plate appearances.
He has played good defense at third base, but it says a lot when fans are clamoring for the light-hitting Paul Janish to play over him.
Revisiting left field
Rickard continues to serve as the everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter despite a .683 OPS on the season and a .208 average since April 22.
Make no mistake, he’s been a nice find as a Rule 5 pick and shouldn’t be buried at the end of the bench, but why Nolan Reimold continues to receive so little playing time when he provides some on-base ability and power that could even be used in Rickard’s place at the top of the lineup is perplexing. I understand and agree that you’d rather not have Machado in the leadoff spot to better utilize his power, but a .309 on-base percentage from Rickard isn’t doing much to help the two-time All-Star selection hitting in the second spot, either.
It also speaks volumes that Hyun Soo Kim couldn’t draw a start against soft-tossing opposing starters Jered Weaver and Doug Fister over the last two games. He’s gone 2-for-14 in May with just four starts.
Even if you don’t buy the unfavorable defensive metrics for Rickard in the outfield, he isn’t so much better than Reimold in the outfield to justify him continuing to be in the lineup every day with his struggles at the plate. At the very least, manager Buck Showalter should strongly consider dropping Rickard in the order.
Plenty of fans continue to clamor for Dylan Bundy to start — especially with Ubaldo Jimenez’s intense struggles in May — but the young pitcher has allowed seven earned runs over his last 4 1/3 innings to raise his season ERA to 5.09.
The good news is that Bundy has stayed healthy, but the idea of him becoming a fixture in the rotation this season just isn’t feasible since he isn’t stretched out and isn’t really performing how a starter would need to. At the very least, you’d like to see him be able to consistently perform in some higher-leverage situations at some point this season.
The most disappointing aspect of his performance has been the inability to strike out batters as he’s fanned only nine in 17 2/3 innings. His average fastball has been 93.2 miles per hour, which isn’t bad but is hardly the kind of velocity that makes you salivate about his potential as a starter, either.
Tuesday night was a near-impossible spot for the young right-hander after he allowed a leadoff triple in the bottom of the 13th, but his performance hasn’t suggested he’s close to being ready to be a starter.