Adam Jones could find himself more pitches to hit if he works… (Patrick Smith, Getty Images )
It's easy enough to look back at the way the Orioles have scored runs the past few weeks and conclude that their once-feared offensive attack has been in crisis, but the problem is a little more complicated than that.
What they really have been suffering from is an identity crisis.
There has been the occasional short-term flareup, like the middle-inning fireworks display that carried them to victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, but the hitters who ravaged American League pitching last year with a major league-leading 212 home runs are still living in 2013 while a variety of negative factors have conspired to change — at least temporarily — the nature of their lineup.
Some of those factors are obvious. The Orioles spent the first month of the season without emerging superstar Manny Machado, which certainly had an effect on the continuity of the offense. They lost power-hitting shortstop J.J. Hardy for a significant part of April because of a pair of injuries. Hot-hitting Matt Wieters is on the disabled list with a sore elbow. And Most Valuable Player candidate Chris Davis had not looked anything like himself until he launched three homers out of PNC Park on Tuesday night.
Some of the factors are not so obvious. Opposing pitchers have spent countless hours studying the key hitters in the Orioles lineup and figuring out ways to keep them from squaring up those pitches that so often disappeared into the night last year. Combine that with a brutal schedule that has featured a large sampling of the best pitching in either league, and it's a wonder that the Orioles are three games over .500 and battling for first place in the AL East.
They won't stay there long if they don't adapt to this new landscape.
So far, they have stubbornly clung to the delusion that it's just a matter of time before they start hitting home runs like last year. Maybe that started Tuesday, but it's way too soon to tell, and there is way too much evidence to the contrary to be confident the worst is past.
They continue to talk about “staying aggressive,” while opposing pitchers exploit that overly aggressive approach to get key outs in close games. They appear oblivious to the way patient opponents push Orioles starters to triple-digit pitch totals in the middle innings while they seem to fall in love with the first pitch.
Here's some proof: Entering Tuesday, the Orioles actually ranked higher among AL clubs in team batting average (fourth) than they did last year (sixth), but they ranked lower in on-base percentage (13th) than last season (10th), even though Buck Showalter made plate discipline one of the points of emphasis this spring.
Instead, the Orioles have been one of the least patient teams in baseball. Entering Tuesday, they were also second-to-last in the AL in average pitches per plate appearance (3.70), and they swung at a whopping 49.6 percent of all pitches thrown, which was the most in the majors. The most telling stat, however, comes from Fangraphs, which showed the Orioles swung at a league-most 33.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone through Monday.
Once again, it's easy enough to rationalize all that by pointing to all the injuries and the fact that the bottom third of the order has been in flux all season, but that case gets harder to make when you look at the fact that Adam Jones has walked just four times in 185 plate appearances and Hardy has walked just four times in 143.
Jones will tell you that he isn't in the middle of the lineup to watch pitches, and he's right. He's in one of the prime run-production slots to swing the bat and drive in runs. The problem is, opposing pitchers know that he'd rather expand the strike zone than pass the baton.
It's a credit to Jones that he can still hit for average and produce runs with a .303 on-base percentage. It's also frustrating to wonder just how great he would be if he could lay off that bouncing curveball on the first pitch of an at-bat with the tying or go-ahead run at third base — or take just enough walks to get a 3-1 pitch down the middle.
This is not an indictment of Jones, who is on pace for almost 100 RBIs. It's just an illustration of the way opposing pitchers have adapted to reduce the number of pitches he and his teammates can drive into the gaps and out of the park. The Orioles ranked 19th in home runs entering Tuesday after leading the majors last year and ranked 27th in doubles (65) after ranking fifth in 2013.
Perhaps most telling of all, the Orioles have drawn just 94 walks this year, the fewest by far of any major league team.
Granted, they have been banged up and have faced a lot of tough pitching, but they have made it tougher on themselves because they only seem to know one way to approach a good pitcher when there actually are two.
Obviously, the best way is to swagger to the plate and beat him to a pulp, but it's also OK to let him beat himself once in a while.
There will come a time when the Orioles will be back at full strength and the hitters will be able to wear out pitchers as they did in 2013. In the meantime, they need to take a long look in the mirror, because too often their toughest opponent has been themselves.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.