In 2002 the Oakland A’s won 103 games with a team getting paid just over $40 million. Contrary to what the film rendition of this season would have you believe, they did not win with cast-offs and OBP-machines. Barry Zito won the Cy Young Award, Miguel Tejada won the MVP and their pitching staff had the best ERA in the American League. They did focus on on-base percentage, and in the 12 years since then nearly every team in MLB has followed suit until this year.
Three teams stick out as surprise early contenders in 2014 and they have all been using the same offensive strategy. The Orioles, Brewers and Rockies have all been succeeding by abandoning the walk and swinging away. Those three teams have 3 of the four lowest walk rates in all of baseball — 5.8 percent for the Orioles, 6.5 percent for the Rockies and 6.7 percent for the Brewers according to Fangraphs. Beyond the low walk rates for these teams, the none of these teams have a player averaging 4.00 pitches per at bat.
Because they rely so little on the walk, all of these teams will be streaky and be driven by BABIP. Right now the Rockies lead the league with a .332 BABIP which is one of the reasons they are leading the league in scoring. The Orioles and Brewers are scuffling offensively right now — the Orioles are 23rd in scoring and the Brewers are 19th — but with their play style, that can flip very quickly.
I know what you might be thinking, “Well if the Brewers and Orioles are in the bottom half of baseball in offense, how can that be helping them?” The answer to that is different for each team.
Milwaukee is winning games with a strong pitching staff. They have a good starting rotation, a closer with a sub-one ERA and a collection of relievers carrying their own weight. This may not be largely affected by the offensive strategy, but there is one way, and it is something that I think is rarely talked about.
Pitchers, especially in the American League, only have to compete every couple of minutes. If you could tell the pitcher exactly when he had to go out and compete, it would be easier for him to get his heart rate up. When the Brewers swing early and often, their innings are more likely to be a consistent length of time. I don’t think it has a huge affect but it probably helps some.
For the Orioles, they have returned to winning close games. They are 10-4 in one run games. This is a major contributor to their negative run-differential despite a 22-19 record. Their bullpen has been average, but their offense has excelled in high pressure situations. In high leverage situations — a classification used in win probability added when a hit or run can drastically increase a team’s win probability — the Orioles are hitting .305 with a BABIP of .365 in 300 plate appearances.
This means the Orioles will probably not be able to maintain over the course of the season. That being said, nobody thought they would get into the playoffs in 2012 with a plus seven run differential.
All three of these teams in contention through the first fourth of the season but you never know how long it will last, but at least the fans are seeing some action. After all, no one ever said “Chicks dig the base on balls.”