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Orioles starting pitchers and run prevention: Can they do it again this year?

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The Orioles ability to prevent runs improved greatly as the season went on, but why?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been said before and it’s worth saying again - the Orioles have a lot riding on their starting pitching in 2015. The team (and the fans) are banking on the rotation repeating its 2014 season, even though there’s not a whole lot of indication that this is a safe bet. To be fair to Dan Duquette, though, I’m not sure there’s much that could have been done this offseason.

To think the team was ever going to be in the market for Lester, Scherzer, or Shields is not realistic. It's looking like signing Ubaldo Jimenez was a mistake, but Tillman, Chen, Norris, and Gonzalez are all solid and dependable, if not excellent, starting MLB pitchers. Gausman’s performance to date puts him in with that group, and the potential is there for him to be much better.  Should the Orioles have released all of these pitchers and drafted a new lineup? Not a chance. So, this pitching staff is what there is to work with.

While run prevention and ERA are not the best way to gauge a pitcher and it certainly has to do (at least in part) with the defense on the field, pitchers, especially starting pitchers, are still mostly responsible. It’s hardly a groundbreaking conclusion that any team’s starting rotation is key to preventing runs.

So why is there so much riding on the Orioles 2015 rotation? Because last year, even with Nelson Cruz’s 40 home runs and Steve Pearce’s breakout year, the team only scored 705 runs, good for 8th in MLB and 68 runs behind the major league leading Angels. Chris Davis’ 53 home runs in 2013 helped them to 745 runs, still more than 100(!) behind Boston.

What was the difference between 2013, when the O’s missed the playoffs, and 2014, when they made it? The 2014 Orioles allowed 593 runs and the 2013 Orioles allowed 709. If the Orioles still scored as many runs as last year (and that’s not looking good) but allowed as many runs as they did in 2013, with largely the same pitching staff, well, forget the playoffs, they’ll be lucky to get to .500. So, it’s obvious that run prevention and starting pitchers matter. Let’s look at last year:


RA/G greater or equal to 4

Team ERA

April/May

33 (61% of games)

4.28

June/July

25 (47% of games)

3.21

August/September

20 (36% of games)

2.87

Here’s another way of looking at the overall performance:

image (1).png

See that gap starting to develop a little less than half way through? That was right around the time the O’s were 6.5 games behind Toronto in early June, before going on their run to take (and keep) the division lead. So clearly, the team’s ability to prevent runs got better as the season went on, and this is what propelled them to the division title. Trying to figure out why is worth analyzing so that if something was done to create that change, it can be carried over into 2015. There are certainly lots of ideas about this, but I think it basically comes down to three things:


  1. The starting pitchers simply got better, either through coaching from new pitching coach Dave Wallace, a change in pitching command and selection, or luck

  2. The defense behind the pitchers improved, saving more runs

  3. Even though the starting pitchers remained consistent, the bullpen’s performance improved through the use of better pitchers and bullpen management by Buck Showalter

I’ll start by looking at my first theory. Fortunately, there’s a very simple way to analyze a pitcher’s performance in an isolated way: Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Because we want to determine if the starting pitching rotation was the sole reason for why the overall run prevention improved, FIP is the perfect statistic. By determining each player’s FIP for the different thirds of the season (to match the data above) I can look at if the pitcher’s performance actually got better:


Games

Pitcher

ERA

FIP

BAPIP

April/May

Tillman

4.63

4.63

.280

Gonzalez

4.17

4.54

.304

Norris

4.04

4.64

.258

Chen

4.50

3.84

.340

Jimenez

4.65

4.13

.318

Average

4.40

4.356

.300

June/July

Tillman

3.27

4.15

.266

Gonzalez

3.25

5.94

.284

Norris

3.23

4.02

.309

Chen

3.36

4.79

.263

Gausman

3.12

3.43

.297

Average

3.25

4.47

.284

August/September

Tillman

2.14

3.28

.255

Gonzalez

2.24

4.45

.234

Norris

3.56

3.96

.280

Chen

2.88

3.16

.288

Gausman

3.45

3.38

.310

Average

2.85

3.65

.273

  1. I replaced Jimenez with Gausman to take the top five pitchers based on innings pitched in each period.

Based on this data, the Orioles starting pitching did get better by the end of the year, though their average FIP actually went up in June and July, even though their average ERA dropped by more than 1. August and September definitely saw better pitching, with the drop in average FIP actually exceeding the drop in average ERA. The consistent drops in FIP from Tillman and Norris are definitely good signs, while the high numbers from Gonzalez should certainly be a cause for concern. Chen showed improvement overall, but was inconsistent.

Another thing to notice is the drop in BABIP against these pitchers. Last year the league average BABIP against was .299, so it was average against them to start and just dropped from there. Considering the average FIP over the season dropped less than 1 while the average ERA dropped more than 1.5, I can’t say the improved starting pitching was entirely responsible for all the decreased run prevention over the course of the 2014 season. In fact, given the drop in BABIP I’m tempted to say it was an improved defense that led to run prevention.

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at the role that the O's defense played in saving the team runs.