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Could the Orioles benefit from a change in philosophy?

The Orioles' pitchers seem to like fly balls despite their disadvantages. Could a switch to a more grounder-centric strategy benefit the team?

A home run paradise.
A home run paradise.
Greg Fiume

The Baltimore Orioles, outside of the Grant Balfour situation, have had a relatively quiet offseason. For a team that was near playoff contention in 2013 and was a playoff team in 2012, the lack of activity suggests that the team is not completely displeased with what they have heading into the 2014 season. There have been rumors that the Orioles are pursuing A.J. Burnett, which may or may not come to fruition. Burnett, as a ground ball pitcher, goes against what seems to be the Orioles' organizational philosophy; the Orioles starting pitchers are a fly ball bunch which is kind of surprising considering that the Orioles could achieve better results if they induced more grounders.

From 2011-2013, the O's starting pitchers ranked dead last in GB% at 41.3%. Given that the Orioles play home games at Camden, a noted home run haven, and some of their road games in the Rogers Centre and Yankee Stadium, also noted home run havens, it is not surprising that over the same time period, the Orioles also rank last in HR/9 at 1.35 and 29th in HR/FB at 12.7%. The Orioles give up a lot of fly balls, and many of those fly balls go for home runs because of the parks in which they play. Why have they emphasized fly balls? A difficult question, to be sure. The Orioles have J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado gobbling up everything sent their way, while Adam Jones, despite winning Gold Gloves, and Nick Markakis are generally disliked by advanced fielding metrics. This seems an inefficient distribution of batted balls.

As a thought exercise, I wondered how much improvement the Orioles could achieve by flipping their strategy. At 41.3% GB% over the past 3 seasons, the Orioles were about 1.4 standard deviations below the mean for team starting pitching GB%. What if they were 1.4 standard deviations above the mean GB%? That means their GB% would be about 48.1%. Let's assume that over the same time period, everything else remained the same except that some fly balls became ground balls instead (a big assumption!). The Orioles would achieve about a 20% reduction in home runs given up, and their HR/9 would decline to 1.08, which would have been pretty close to the middle. In counting numbers, their home runs would have gone from 415 to 332.

In a vacuum, a reduction in home runs from 415 to 332 would have been worth about 116 runs over 3 seasons, which is worth perhaps 3-4 wins per season. There are so many other factors to consider in this kind of thought experiment, and accounting for them all for an exact estimate would be complicated and time-consuming. This is a quick-and-dirty Jeff Sullivan-style analysis. The point is that a shift in the Orioles' batted ball strategy toward more ground balls could earn them better odds of making the postseason, regardless of whether or not they add a new pitcher. Given that Scott Feldman has departed, it doesn't look like the Orioles will improve their GB% without an external addition. The Orioles may not be in that market, but a very short-term commitment may not be a bad idea.

Paging A.J. Burnett.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Kevin Ruprecht is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royal Stats for Everyone. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.