It's Time to Worry About the Starting Pitching

Rob Carr

No, really. I'm worried.

5 2/3 IP, 3 ER, 4 K, 3 BB, 5 H

What a thoroughly mediocre line for a starting pitcher. The guy pitched in and out of trouble, put eight men on base, escaped total disaster by only allowing three runs to score, but didn't go deep and left the yeoman's work to the bullpen. He put a lot of pressure on the offense with a performance like that, too, letting the other pitcher pitch with a lead, to challenge hitters and throw more strikes.

You might take this line from your #5 starter. You probably wouldn't be thrilled about it, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. Here's the thing, though: That's the average line of an Orioles starting pitcher after Monday night's play (and that's a generous cutoff, since Chris Tillman's Monday outing was the Orioles' best starting performance to date). That is simply a putrid average.

There is no kind way to slice and dice the performance of the Orioles starting rotation through the first nineteen games. They're allowing an opponents' OPS of .761. Their cumulative K/BB ratio is 1.41. To use more traditional stats, they've gone just 5-6 with a 4.74 ERA. And a more common complaint - an Orioles starter has yet to complete the seventh inning of a ballgame. All season. The Orioles are the last team in that sad little camp.

So what's wrong?

Some of this had to be expected when the Orioles broke camp with Jake Arrieta as the #5 starter. After touting their starting pitching depth in spring training (at one point claiming that there were twelve viable candidates for the job), Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette must have looked on in horror as candidates dropped out because of injury (Jair Jurrjens, Steve Johnson), ineffectiveness (Zack Britton), being better suited for the bullpen (Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter) or simply not being ready yet (TJ McFarland, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy). And that's how Jake Arrieta got the nod. As Homer Simpson would say, "Default, the two sweetest words in the English language."

What couldn't be expected, though, was that the problems would extend beyond Arrieta into the whole rotation. Jason Hammel, who a lot of folks (myself included) believed was the real deal, looks lost, struggling to find a consistent delivery and giving up fly balls at an alarming rate. Tillman, who similarly has been struggling with mechanics, didn't look like a major-league pitcher before righting the ship on Monday night. Miguel Gonzalez hasn't provided much to write home about either, leading to fears that last year was just a flash in the pan (late edit: Gonzalez gave us all a bit of hope last night). Wei-Yin Chen has at least picked up right where he left off, but "where he left off" was a solid six-inning pitcher, which isn't exactly what a team wants from its #2 starter.

When one guy has these struggles, you can focus your attention on that guy (and that's exactly what I'm doing for Arrieta). When a whole rotation is struggling with fundamentals like mechanics and endurance, you really need to turn your attention to the coaching and pitching development staff. The entire Orioles rotation shouldn't be struggling for the reasons they are. Regression from one or two guys who overperformed in 2012 wouldn't be entirely unexpected. Regression from five guys, for basic reasons that coaching is supposed to address, are way more concerning.

Joe Saunders, of course, looks all the more appealing now. Saunders is exactly what a team like the Orioles needs in its #3 starter - unspectacular, but unlikely to implode. Just predictable, which is what no one else in the mix is right now. The "Peter Angelos is cheap" canard is basically played out at this point, but it does seem that payroll was a key factor in not picking Saunders back up after last year's run. Some thought that Duquette wouldn't give Saunders a three-year deal (which would've been totally valid), but then he ended up in Seattle on a complete reasonable one-year contract. He's not lighting the world on fire out there in his first four starts, but I'd personally feel a lot better having him behind Chen in the rotation.

Is there hope on the horizon?

Although the mythical seven-inning start continues to taunt them from the horizon, Orioles starters seem to be steadying at least a bit. Chen, Tillman and Gonzalez just turned in some solid starts on this latest turn through the rotation. One possibility is that, with all the pitchers vying for attention and roster spots in camp, the guys who actually made the rotation didn't get enough reps (or coaching attention) in spring training. Although that would still be an organizational failure, it would be good news in that it should right itself over the next couple of weeks. This might be what's being witnessed right now.

The other glimmer of hope is that Dan Duquette is not a patient man. The roster-shuffling has already begun, with the demotion of Jake Arrieta. While I don't see a great white hope in our system until Gausman or Bundy is ready to come to the rescue, it's not unreasonable to think that Jurrjens, Britton or even Freddy Garcia could turn in a couple months of serviceable starts. But on a larger scale, it's important that guys like Tillman and Gonzalez know that their jobs aren't guaranteed (Hammel and Chen deserve much, much longer leashes, of course). Perform, or Duquette will find someone else who will.

The last bit of good news is that this starting pitching slump (if you want to believe it's just a slump, as I do) came while the Orioles had three hitters on a sustained hot streak. So, even with all the devilish stats above, the team has come out of the gates just a bit above .500. That's a good sign - if the rotation rights the ship, it portends good things for the team's performance going forward.

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