After 16 games, there are plenty of Orioles who have developed some noteworthy numbers to begin the season. While we’re currently dealing with small sample sizes, it’s still worth looking at some underlying data to explain some of the roster’s early trends.
Cole Irvin is suddenly walking everyone
When the Orioles decided to trade away one of their top 30 prospects for an established major leaguer for the first time in the Mike Elias era, they expected to acquire consistency.
Cole Irvin’s 2021 and 2022 seasons were remarkably similar for every major pitching stat, including a BB/9 of 2.1 in 2021 and 1.8 in 2022 across over 350 combined innings.
So, it was quite a surprise when Irvin began his Orioles tenure with a 5.7 BB/9 that earned him a visit to Norfolk after just three starts.
When looking at the underlying numbers, the first thing that stands out is Irvin is actually throwing more pitches in the strike zone than he did in 2022. According to MLB.com’s Baseball Savant, 55 percent of Irvin’s pitches have been in the zone during 2023, a slight increase from 2022’s 52.9 percent.
While Irvin is finding the zone more often than he did in 2022, he’s getting hitters to chase less often than he did last year. Opposing hitters swung 30.4 percent of Irvin’s pitches outside the zone in 2022 and now that has dipped to 27.3 percent. You don’t exactly have to be an analytics nerd to know that if players are chasing fewer pitches then it’s more likely they’ll end up getting some walks.
While a lower chase rate helps explain Irvin’s issues, the smoking gun here is how often he throws a first-pitch strike. In 2022, he started with an 0-1 count 66.8 percent of the time. Now in 2023, that figure has dropped to 52.4 percent.
Irvin has also been worse at recovering once he goes down 1-0. In 2022, he allowed a .361 OBP following a 1-0 count and this year it has increased to a .433 OBP.
The distribution of where Irvin doesn’t hit the strike zone for ball one has also changed, with a notable increase in pitches missing low and to the right side of the plate from the catcher’s perspective.
If Irvin returns to regular first-pitch strikes in Norfolk, it’d likely go a long way to seeing him back in the majors.
Gunnar Henderson has plenty of walks and plenty of strikeouts
In Gunnar Henderson’s first 132 MLB plate appearances during 2022, he had a strikeout rate of 25.8 percent and a walk rate of 12.1 percent. Now, both those numbers have massively spiked this year, with Henderson striking out in 35.6 percent of his PAs and walking in 22 percent of them.
Henderson’s combination of walking over 20 percent of the time and striking out over 35 percent of the time has made him quite the outlier to begin this year, which you can see from this graph.
That graph contains 199 hitters who have had at least 50 PAs this year and no one’s dot comes anywhere close to Henderson’s.
As for what explains Henderson’s unique amount of walks and strikeouts, his swing rate certainly answers some questions.
Henderson swung 41.2 percent of the time last year and this year that has decreased to 34.1 percent. Unsurprisingly, this means Henderson has been laying off more pitches inside the strike zone. Baseball Savant data says Henderson swung at pitches in the zone 66.4 percent of the time in 2022, while that number now sits at 48.7 percent this year. More called strikes, as you could guess, leads to more strikeouts.
Of course, a lack of swinging is also going to mean you see more balls. Henderson saw a ball on 40.1 percent of his pitches last year and now he’s seeing balls at an increased rate of 43.1 percent.
Henderson’s lack of swinging has created a unique offensive profile, but so far it hasn’t exactly been working. His impressive walk rate has given him a .373 on-base percentage, but it’s joined by a very underwhelming .289 slugging percentage to create a .662 OPS.
Ultimately, how often a player swings has very little correlation for his OPS when looking at league-wide numbers. Julio Rodriguez and Juan Soto both finished last season with an OPS of .853, but Rodriguez did so with a swing rate of 50.2 percent, while Soto’s swing rate was 35.5 percent.
Your swing rate only matters if it’s not working and right now it doesn’t seem to be working for Henderson.
However, this is hardly a cause for concern given Henderson’s age and lack of experience in the majors. He’s yet to reach 200 career MLB PAs and still has some kinks to work out, which is perfectly normal.
Once Henderson figures out a swing rate that works for him, we should expect to see a productive season from Opening Day’s consensus #1 prospect in baseball.
Everything is going right for Jorge Mateo
Just about every offensive stat on the planet says that Jorge Mateo has been noticeably better this year. Everything from batting average and stolen bases to exit velocity and WAR says Mateo has been an impressive offensive weapon to begin the year at the plate and on the bases.
After putting together a .646 OPS in 2022, Mateo’s OPS this year sits at 1.083. While I’m certain a 1.083 OPS isn’t quite sustainable, it is encouraging to see that OPS is helped by more walks and fewer strikeouts. Mateo’s strikeout rate has dipped from 27.6 percent to 17 percent, while his walk rate is above nine percent after it sat at 5.1 percent last year.
Mateo taking better at-bats is probably not to keep his OPS above 1.000 all year but it certainly can keep his OPS from falling below .700.
Mateo’s hitting improvements might be due for some regression, but I’m less certain that’s the case for his stolen bases.
He is currently 8-for-9 on stolen bases and has been given the green light at a much higher rate than last year. According to Baseball-Reference, Mateo has been on-base with second or third base open 13 times this year and attempted to steal on nine of those occasions, a stolen base attempt rate of 69 percent. Meanwhile, 2022 saw Mateo in the same situation 134 times and he only 44 attempted steals, an attempt rate of 33 percent. The bigger bases and limit on pickoff moves are very quickly accomplishing their intended purpose.
Mateo eight stolen bases in Baltimore’s first 16 games put him on-pace for 81 stolen bases, a remarkable figure when no one has swiped more than 80 bags since 1988. Mateo is probably not ending the year with that many steals, but it does demonstrate how much he’s been running to start the year.
If Mateo gets on-base at a higher clip and gets the green light more than 33 percent of the time he’ll quite comfortably exceed last year’s total of 35 steals even if he doesn’t quite maintain his current pace.
Mateo has always had elite speed and fielding, but his ceiling was always going to be limited if he struggled to hit. A major early improvement for his walks and strikeouts could go a long way towards making him a more valuable player.
Rose Katz is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, where she worked for The Diamondback as the online managing editor and a sports blogger. As a student, she spent almost all of her time on campus in The Diamondback’s newsroom or at Xfinity Center, Ludwig Field and Maryland Stadium. Rose gained intern experience with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).