Very rarely in the world of baseball can teams settle for being average. The best teams are viewed as anything but mediocre, not to mention leading the statistical charts year after year. But in the case of the 2016 Orioles squad, average pitching might be all it takes for a playoff-contending team.
The Orioles could not muster anything close to average last season. They had the second-worst ERA for their starting pitchers of all American League teams. With four of the five starters returning from last year's underwhelming group, it is tough to feel confident in that corps. A few rough early (admittedly meaningless) spring starts have done nothing to dispel the notion.
The good news? Mediocrity is perfectly acceptable through 2016 - in fact, average pitching would almost certainly guarantee a playoff spot. Even with below average results from the starting five, there's room for optimism surrounding this year's questionable O's club. If they can end up ranked around 15-20 in the MLB, you can chalk it up as a win.
The theory begins with and centers around the offense and its ability to score runs, but let's start by first examining the projected pitching numbers.
As manager Buck Showalter likes to say, you can look at the track record, and in the case of Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman that means they should settle in and return to their average numbers once April rolls around. Ubaldo Jimenez's Monday start was a perfect example of baseball's most important adage in the spring - patience is a virtue.
First, let's try to project the average ERA and WHIP of each pitcher by taking their last three significant seasons (at-least 100 innings) in the MLB and crunching those numbers.
Obviously, this is an inexact science that isn't going to directly correlate, but it's a look at what each player has rounded out to be during their last three full campaigns.
Here are the three-year averages, modified for Kevin Gausman who has only been starting on a regular basis in the MLB for two years:
Chris Tillman: 4.01 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
Ubaldo Jimenez: 4.07 ERA, 1.39 WHIP
Kevin Gausman (two years, eight relief appearances): 3.91 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Miguel Gonzalez: 3.97 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
Yovani Gallardo (two years in NL, one in AL): 3.70 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
Assuming an equal number of innings from each - which obviously won't happen, but again, this is rough math - the combined numbers for the group would look like this: 3.93 ERA, 1.31 WHIP.
That isn't awe-inspiring, especially since the rotation would lack one really strong performer, the classic stopper-type, if you will. Still, last season, the average starting pitching around the MLB looked like this: 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP.
There's nothing outlined in this "study" that projects success or even numbers in 2016. Very simply, it acts as a general outline for where the Orioles can be this season if the numbers from the pitching staff rattle out to what we think they might.
When you break down the starting five, you do get some fairly encouraging results. If they are, collectively, merely average, they will save the team a bunch of runs compared to 2015.
The reason why they can get by with being average (probably) is that the team's offense figures to remain strong.. We know what this group brings top to bottom, not to mention new run-creators in Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez and Hyun Soo Kim being added into the mix.
For the last three seasons, the Birds have ended up in the league's top-ten in runs scored, thanks in large part to massive home run numbers that led the league in 2013 and 2014. Looking back on the offseason, Chris Davis' signing goes a long way for plenty of reasons.
Dan Duquette knew he could lose Crush and still make out just fine on offense, but pondering over the projected rotation had to have made the situation a bit more clear-cut. The Davis signing was a turbo boost to an offense that needs to be contending for the league lead in runs scored. The front office understood that the pitching wouldn't likely be in the top half of the MLB, and that the offense would have to continue their torrid run scoring paces in order to stay in playoff contention.
It's actually a pretty simple theory: if you're going to struggle on one end, you'd better make sure the other side absolutely dominates. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of that than within this year's squad.
Still, you could argue that the O's pitchers might not live up to even modest hopes of average performance. After all, unless you can see into the future, there's nobody who can accurately project what's going to take place on the mound. The most recent action from those guys last year was not encouraging.
Injuries can pile up, young arms can be thrust into the rotation and the numbers above can hold no weight by the time September rolls around. That's the beauty of baseball. It's anyone's game, and the story can't be written by anyone else other than the players on the diamond.
But at the very least, maybe the "reign of the big bats" perspective is a comforting one. Take a step back and think about the potential - 250 home runs, top-five numbers in runs scored, and a run-of-the-mill pitching staff that holds up just enough to clinch a playoff spot.
It's a nice perspective ... perhaps one we'll look back on in a few months and laugh at. But maybe, just maybe, these O's take advantage of their new turbo boosts and ride the momentum into October.
At the end of the day, what's wrong with a little wishful thinking in the beginning of March? The Orioles starting pitchers don't have to be as great as we can imagine the offense might be. They just have to be OK. That's not asking so much.