Monday, May 11, 2009

Orioles Update: A Post-April Lineup Evaluation

With a little more than one month in the books, the Orioles sit last in the AL East at 13-19, seven games behind division leader Toronto. After a sweet Opening Day rout of the Yankees and a hot 6-2 start, Baltimore’s fast pace slowed quickly, their record falling to .500 by the end of April.

Recently, their performance has been less than spectacular winning just four of ten games in May, including three losses to start the month, completing a six game losing streak that started April 27th. The Birds’ run differential is -28, worst in the majors, but it’s not like the offense isn’t there. The O’s are ninth in runs scored, 11th in home runs, 10th in RBI, 12th in batting average, 14th in OPS, 11th in extra-base hits, and next to last in total strikeouts. In addition, Baltimore has a team batting average of .302 with runners in scoring position higher than every other team except St. Louis, Boston, and Toronto.

The offense may not be stellar, but with all of those stats in the top half of the 30 MLB teams, I’d say the Orioles’ bats are definitely better than middle of the road. If they had a pitching staff that boasted names like Sabathia, Halladay, or Matsuzaka they might have a better record.

Here’s how each starter has fared at the plate this season (in lineup order):

 Brian Roberts, 2B
The Orioles’ table-setter has played OK over the first 32 games, starting 31 and leading the team with 126 at bats. He’s hitting a solid .294 (.348 with runners in scoring position) and has scored 24 runs, good enough for ninth in the American League. However, his on base percentage is just .362 overall (an ugly .200 in May), down from .426 last month, and his batting average has dipped to an appalling .139 this month.

The good news: After tomorrow, the Birds have only one more day off this month, meaning B-Rob will have plenty of chances to get out of his current slump, and he’ll see good pitches with Jones and Markakis batting behind him.

Adam Jones, CF
A fleet-footed force in the outfield, Jones has opened the season on fire. Jones leads the team with a .353 batting average, second among all center fielders and fifth overall in the AL. Jones is also fifth in OPS and leads the American League in runs scored. His .348 average with runners in scoring position equals that of Roberts; conversely, Jones is playing as well this month as he was last. His play has been noticeably better in day games (.441 BA, 1.251 OPS), and he loves to face Yankee pitching (.421, 1.297).
The Orioles play another three-game set with New York this month, as well as five day games. Look for Jones to continue his quality performance with the lumber.

Nick Markakis, RFExpected to carry the Orioles’ offense this season, Markakis has done just that, hitting .347 to lead all right fielders. Markakis is tied with Jones for the AL lead in runs scored (33) and is sixth in RBI (30), 8th in OPS (1.016), and 13th in walks (17). Even better, he’s hitting .417 with runners in scoring position, which is exactly what the Orioles need from their best hitter. Admittedly, Markakis’ average against righties is over 100 points higher than his average against lefties, but he’s still hitting a respectable .279 against southpaws.

Markakis loves playing home games at night as well, and the Orioles have six more of those games in May. Barring an onslaught of lefty pitching, he looks poised to continue his offensive fireworks
Aubrey Huff, 1B
The O’s cleanup man is currently hitting a decent .268, but to his credit, he’s doing his job and doing it well, batting .406 with runners in scoring position and driving in 31, fourth best in the AL.

Like Markakis, Huff performs much better in home games at night. Something tells me it’s not a coincidence that the Orioles hold the worst record in the majors in day games, winning just two of eleven.

With five day games still to play this month, Huff needs to improve or O’s fans should hope that Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara are not pitching on those days, thereby preventing a good outing from being spoiled by poor hitting.

Melvin Mora, 3B
Mora is coming off a hamstring injury that occurred in mid April, which earned him a spot on the 15 day DL and greatly decreased his at bat total thus far.

Prior to the injury, Mora was in midseason form, hitting a cool .364 with nine RBI in 22 ABs. However, he’s been slow to recover, hitting just .139 in his 12 games post-injury.

That said, Mora’s value over his replacement during the injury (Ty Wigginton) is significant enough that his job is probably not in jeopardy. Let’s just hope he battles back quickly.

Luke Scott, LF/DH
The majority of Scott’s 98 at bats this season have been as a designated hitter, although he has spelled Felix Pie in left field a couple times. Scott’s .303 average and 15 RBI sound mediocre for a starting DH, but those don’t tell the whole story.

In his 20 ABs with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting .350 with nine RBI. Furthermore, 10 of those 20 ABs have come with two outs, and in those two out situations, Scott is batting a whopping .500 with five RBI, and a ridiculous 1.315 OPS. Now that’s clutch hitting!

Unfortunately for the O’s, Scott hurt his shoulder in Sunday’s game and could be headed to the DL.

Ty Wigginton DH/1B/3B
Added in the offseason as a reserve infielder, Wigginton was expected to play the corner infield spots and DH in the bottom of the order on occasion, but he saw increased playing time at third base when Mora was placed on the DL. In 101 at bats this season (63 at third base), Wigginton is hitting a lowly .198, the only Oriole with a triple digit AB total and an average below the Mendoza line (the next closest is Huff at .268).

Wigginton’s forced playing time clearly exposed his inability to be a consistent starter, but there wasn’t much the O’s could have done differently when Mora went down. For Wigginton’s sake and our own, we should pray that Mora stays healthy the rest of the way.

Gregg Zaun, C
Zaun has split time this season between the No.7 and No.8 slots in the lineup, but he is markedly better when he bats eighth, hitting .326 in 46 at bats, compared to his hideous .065 average in 31 ABs in the seven hole. Zaun was not acquired for his offense, so although it may hurt your eyes to see he’s hitting .158 with runners in scoring position, it should not be a surprise.

Zaun’s veteran presence was meant to be a stop gap measure while the O’s waited to bring top prospect Matt Wieters up from Triple-A Norfolk, but the process is taking longer than expected.

Until Wieters is ready, the O’s will have to make do. With Zaun, fans should clap for the ordinary or otherwise remain quiet.

Felix Pie, LF/CF
In two years with the Cubs, Pie never had more than 177 at bats in a season, so the concern this year was to get him as many opportunities as possible. Pie has played a fair amount, starting 17 games in left field and four in center field, but he hasn’t shown much when he’s stepped into the box. In 60 ABs, Pie has amassed only 11 hits (BA .183) and more than a quarter of his ABs have ended in strikeouts.

With Luke Scott possibly headed to the DL, Pie may be forced to hit his way out of his slump. Terry Crowley is a top-notch hitting coach and should be able to get more out of Pie’s talent, but that may take a while, and fans are known for their impatience.

Cesar Izturis, SS
Like Zaun, Izturis was not signed for his bat, as evidenced by his .260 career average and his 2004 NL Gold Glove with the Cardinals. Though he can bat from both sides of the plate, he is clearly better when he hits right handed, accumulating a .444 batting average and an OPS of 1.111, compared to a .159 average and .407 OPS from the left side.

This month, Izturis is hitting .286, up 44 points from his April average. He plays well at home, and having nine home games still to play in May should boost his confidence.

For better or for worse, Izturis will be the shortstop for the rest of the season, so hopefully he can continue to provide excellent defense and perhaps increase his OBP, thereby remaining a valuable contributor to the team.

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