It's not an easy task for a pitcher to enter a game with an ERA of 18.00 and end up with a higher ERA by the end of his outing. Performing worse than that is something that goes beyond merely a "bad game" into territory that requires a parental warning because it should not be viewed by small children.
You have to be bad to begin with to end up with an 18 ERA, even over a small sample size. That doesn't happen by accident. Unfortunately for the Orioles and for Miguel Gonzalez, he's been that level of bad through his initial spring training outings. Things didn't get any better on Sunday, when he was blasted out of the game by the Twins, giving up six runs on seven hits over only 1.2 innings of work. His spring ERA became even more bloated.
Orioles fans have seen a story like this before. Just last year, spring training was an ongoing struggle for Bud Norris, who was etched into the 2015 rotation in stone - and not wrongly - based on his 2014 campaign. There was nothing of the pitcher from 2014 with the O's in the 2015 season.
Norris came out of the gate in spring training getting bad results. His first spring outing last year was supposed to go for two innings and he finished only one, giving up four runs in the process. This continued all through the spring and whatever his problem was, it wasn't worked out by the end of spring; Norris got wrecked in the O's 2015 home opener against the Blue Jays for eight runs in only three innings.
Gonzalez is on the Norris path
Should there start to be some panic about Gonzalez doing the same kind of thing this season? While he probably has three or even four more outings over the rest of spring training to get things figured out, and at the end of all of that, all numbers will be reset to zero. None of it counts for anything once Opening Day gets here. Still, that's really not that much time. The regular season is now three weeks away.
Gonzalez has something working against him that Norris did not. He was horrible in the second half of last season, so his spring struggle is not a sudden aberration but rather a continuation of a trend.
On the other hand, he has more of a successful track record than Norris. Gonzalez was a solid performer for the O's for nearly three seasons, from his 2012 call-up through to when he suffered the oblique injury last season. That was over 500 innings of good work before things went south for him.
The Orioles shouldn't keep giving Gonzalez chances just to be sentimental, but his past success means it's in their best interest to make sure he gets as much of a chance as is reasonable to work things out. If the guy who could post an ERA in the mid-3 range is still in there somewhere, the O's need that guy in the rotation.
Maybe that guy isn't there any more. Gonzalez is on the wrong side of 30. He'll be 32 in May. That's not old for a human being, but it is starting to get on the old side for a professional athlete. It's possible his arm just doesn't bounce back between outings like it used to, or maybe he can't hold consistent velocity like he used to.
That second concern is not borne out by the facts, at least not so far. Whatever did or didn't happen with Gonzalez in 2015, he maintained a fastball velocity of 91.1 miles per hour. In 2014, his average velocity on that pitch was 91.0mph. The oblique seems like it clearly gave him some problems. Velocity was not one of those problems.
Gonzalez has earned some time to work things out
After his poor Sunday outing, Gonzalez told O's reporters that he was "off a little bit," particularly that he was flying open in his delivery, causing command problems. Even the greatest pitchers have bad days. If it is some mechanical issue plaguing Gonzalez this spring, that's something that can be worked on between now and Opening Day. We will start to feel better if that shows up in better spring results before the games start counting.
One thing that made the struggles of Norris so tough to stomach last season is that it felt like him being in the rotation is what was keeping Kevin Gausman out of the rotation. That didn't even prove to be true, as Norris landed on the DL after a May 10 start. Gausman didn't make his first start of the year until June 20, nor did he join the MLB rotation for good until July 22. But, at the time, with Norris being the obvious worst performer of the rotation, that's what it felt like.
There is not quite the same cost to be paid for the O's giving Gonzalez some regular season chances, even if his spring struggles persist. There isn't a Gausman waiting in the wings this time around.
If the season begins and Gonzalez gets a month and he's still bad, so what? He's kept one of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, or Vance Worley out of the rotation for four or five starts? The Orioles wouldn't exactly be holding back the next Clayton Kershaw.
That's not to say it wouldn't cost the Orioles at all. If Gonzalez remains bad, they need to do something about him to keep him from continuing to dig holes for the team to climb out of every five games. Any one of those guys could be better than a struggling Gonzalez, and if that's true, the sooner they realize it and do something about it, the better off the team will be.
In an ideal world, the Orioles will never have to confront this problem because Gonzalez will straighten things out either over the next three weeks or over the first month of the regular season. If he has a fine April, no one is going to care about a double-digit spring ERA. We all know this is not an ideal world, so they might end up having to figure it out.
The time has not yet come for the O's to start shoving Gonzalez out the door. With his past success, he's earned enough leeway that a bad spring, even coupled with a bad second half of last season, should not kick him out of a spot. They might want to start figuring out their backup plan just in case.