Orioles fans, repeat after me, “They can’t be this bad. They can’t be this bad. They can’t be this bad.” Now, tap your heels together three times. Maybe that will help fix whatever is ailing the Baltimore Orioles’ starting rotation.
Orioles’ starters rank dead last in the league in ERA (5.82), 28th in innings pitched (77.1), have allowed the fifth most home runs (12), and have walked the second highest amount of batters (44). To be brutally honest, the starting pitching has been worse than awful; probably even worse than the stat heads who discounted the Orioles’ chances of repeating as AL East division champs could have predicted.
No Orioles starter has pitched past the sixth inning since Miguel Gonzalez went seven innings on April 14. It’s been eight games since then, and the longest start the Orioles have gotten out of a starter is 5.1 innings from Chris Tillman in last Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Red Sox. All of these short outings have taxed the Orioles’ bullpen, which has thrown 59.0 innings this year, third most in the league. After allowing a run in each of the team’s first ten games this year, the bullpen does appear to have stabilized itself, but the Orioles cannot continue putting such a heavy workload on a bullpen that has already lost a key piece in Wesley Wright.
The starts the Orioles have received from their staff this season have ranged from laborious to downright ugly. Bud Norris has struggled the most amongst Orioles’ starters this season, with a 17.42 ERA, which just goes to show that maybe there is something to Spring Training statistics. Norris posted a 9.26 ERA this spring, and has been hammered in his three starts this spring. Toronto has done most of the damage to Norris, tagging him for 17 runs in only 5.1 innings. What’s more depressing is the fact that Norris went 4-0 against the Blue Jays last year with a 1.78 ERA. His fastball command looks off so far this season, and he has already walked six in only 10.1 innings. Norris needs to turn things around, and fast, because right now, he looks like a lost puppy on the mound. If not, Kevin Gausman is looming in the bullpen.
Chris Tillman’s struggles so far this season should be expected, as he has been a slow starter historically and has also been pounded by the Blue Jays over his entire career. Tillman has a career 4.96 ERA in April and a 4-8 record with a 5.12 ERA in 16 starts against Toronto. Tillman has allowed 19 home runs in those 16 starts. Take out the 14 runs and three home runs Tillman has allowed in his two starts against the Blue Jays this year, and the numbers are not that bad — 2-0 record, 1.50 ERA, and a .238 BAA. He does need to work more efficiently, as 13 walks in 19 innings would indicate, but I do expect Tillman’s ERA to head south from 7.58 as long as he does not have to face Toronto for a while. Tillman is a fly-ball pitcher who pitches up in the zone to be most effective. That just doesn’t fly against a team like the Blue Jays.
Miguel Gonzalez, the pitcher given the least love by the sabermetricians, has been the Orioles best starter this year. Gonzalez is 2-1 with a 2.55 ERA, but has been hurt by ten walks in only 17.2 innings. Gonzalez has not made it out of the sixth inning in two of his starts despite the fact that he has allowed only five earned runs on the season. Gonzalez is limiting hits and home runs effectively, and his walk rate should soon stabilize around 3.0 as it has his entire career. His strikeout rate of 10.2/9 IP will also likely come down as well, but so far in 2015, Gonzalez is proving that he is far from the fluke the statistics would lead you to believe.
Wei-Yin Chen and Ubaldo Jimenez round out the Orioles’ rotation, and both are enigmas to me. Chen has also been hurt by the walk in 2015, issuing eight free passes in only 14.2 innings. His 3.07 ERA is misleading, as he allowed five unearned runs in his start Monday against Boston, but did not pitch well at all, walked five, and actually contributed to own his demise with a careless error on a tapper back to the mound. Chen gave the Orioles a good start against the Yankees on April 13, but was robbed of a victory thanks to a truly dreadful performance from Tommy Hunter. Chen has not given Orioles fans any reason to believe the wheels are truly coming off. His poor command in Boston may have been influenced by the rainy conditions.
Ubaldo Jimenez, God love him, is still difficult to figure out. He was utterly dominant against Toronto in his first start of the season, throwing seven shutout innings and allowing only one hit. Umpire Jordan Baker sent Jimenez to the showers early last Friday in Boston, but Ubaldo was carrying a no-hitter into the fourth inning before getting the thumb. He had, however, walked three. Jimenez pitched Wednesday against Toronto and delivered a start that was eerily similar to most of his starts last season — not horrible, but far from great.
Jimenez ultimately took the loss in a 4-2 Orioles defeat, and gave up two home runs. What troubled me, was the way Jimenez appeared to lose all confidence in himself after giving up a home run to Justin Smoak. Following the Smoak dinger, which barely snuck over the wall, Jimenez walked the next two hitters, was nowhere near the strike zone, and his body language clearly showed a lack of confidence in his command. He was ultimately bailed out by a double play ball off the bat of Kevin Pillar. Jimenez is going to walk batters, and he is going to give up home runs. The Orioles cannot afford to have him have a near meltdown on the mound after he gives up a few runs.
The Orioles starting pitchers are not nearly as bad as their performance this year would indicate. The early season schedule has not paid the team any favors, with nine games so far against Toronto and Boston. Ultimately, the staff’s command must improve. They cannot continue walking batters at a rate of 5.12 per nine innings. The Orioles have not been hit particularly hard this year, save the four Norris and Tillman starts against the Blue Jays. The walks and an inability to finish hitters off is what has ultimately hindered the Orioles starting rotation most this year.
Starting pitching will improve in Baltimore this season, which will lighten the load on the bullpen considerably. While the Orioles sit at a middling 8-10, it is still not yet time to panic. The offense has produced very well this season, even with J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, and Jonathan Schoop out. Those three will be back before the All-Star break. Manny Machado is heating up, and Adam Jones continues to play out-of-this world baseball. The Orioles do not have a true ace, but each pitcher in the rotation is a proven Major League starter. Despite the slow start, there are no screaming red flags that would lead one to believe the staff can right itself. The starting pitching will indeed come around, and all will be fine in Birdland.