Way back in February of this year, I looked at the Orioles and their tendency to be a fly ball pitching team. I felt this was strange, given their home environment and some of their road environments. The Orioles gave up a lot of home runs because of their fly ball tendency. Their strongest defenders defend the infield, not the outfield grass. More ground balls would be good, right?
The team's strategy didn't necessarily change in 2014. The team was still more fly ball oriented than most; their 1.23 GB/FB ratio ranked 8th. The Orioles were 7th in FB%. What did change were the results. The Orioles were very close to league average in both HR/9 and HR/FB, which is starkly different than 2011-2013. Regression to the mean was likely at work here, but I don't think that's everything. Popups are another thing.
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Popups are almost always outs. Popups are never home runs. Players and teams who generate a lot of popups can do well for themselves while still allowing a lot of fly balls. Since FanGraphs started tracking infield fly balls (IFFBs) in 2002, popups are also down across the league, though stable since 2006 or so. This correlates nicely with the decreasing power throughout baseball. Power hitters usually hit a lot of popups, so it makes sense that popups are down since there are fewer power hitters these days.
As the IFFB rate has decreased slightly for the past few years, the Orioles have attempted to go the other way. I calculated IFFB rate Z scores for each team in each year. Here is the Orioles' trend line.
2014 actually saw the Orioles' highest IFFB Z score since IFFBs began being tracked. 2014 is not their highest actual IFFB% since 2002, though.
Who were the main drivers of the Orioles' IFFB rate? The sortable table below shows that information.
Very surprisingly, Brian Matusz led the Orioles in IFFB%. This appears to be a skill of his. There was only 1 season in which Matusz did not have a double-digit IFFB%--2011. Maybe coincidentally, maybe not, 2011 was the worst season of Matusz's career. He had a 3.26 HR/9 and a 10.69 ERA. Matusz has become a solid reliever, but that's due to his improved K-BB% as a reliever. Popups are a part of his skills, but nothing more.
Darren O'Day came in a close second; generating popups appears to be a skill of his as well. In an eerie-ish coincidence, O'Day's only sub-10% IFFB rate season came in 2011, during which he suffered through his worst season. Just like Matusz. Weird.
Next is Miguel Gonzales, a starter. I have often wondered what has driven Gonzales' relative success in the league. He doesn't have a special K% or BB%, and he doesn't limit home runs. It would seem that he excels at generating popups.
Not all the pitchers are popups generators. Bud Norris and Chris Tillman were slightly below average in this regard, and sinkerballer extraordinaire Zach Britton doesn't need popups to be successful because 75% (!) of his allowed batted balls went for ground balls last year. Ground balls can be outs a lot too.
Popups are often hit when the ball is up in the zone. The Orioles didn't as a team throw the ball higher than the league, however. Assuming my 2014 PitchF/X database is complete and correct, the average pitch height was 2.27 feet. The Orioles' average pitch height was 2.32 feet, a difference of only 0.6 inches.
As the league focuses on ground balls, a few teams are focusing on fly balls. The Orioles are one of those teams. As long as they are generating a lot of popups, they may not be hurt too badly by their environment.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.
Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.