After a month of baseball, the Orioles have played 23 games, or about 14.2% of their total 2017 schedule. April is as important as any other month in that all wins and all stats count just the same, so it’s a good thing that the Orioles ended the month on a pace to win 105 games over the course of the season.
Still, a month of baseball is a small sample size compared to a whole season, so it’s early to make any definitive pronouncements about who is good and who is not. An April slump can just be an April slump, and many are the torrid starts that wither in the summer heat. There is a lot of baseball still to be played, a lot of time for hot streaks, cold streaks, injuries, and everything else.
With that in mind, there are some early trends showing themselves. It’s too early to make any final pronouncements about where things will end up, but there’s enough there to look at the good things and hope they continue and to look at the bad things and hope they don’t. Here’s a handful of them:
1. The Orioles rotation is both better and worse than expected
One of the constant problems for last year’s Orioles team was a terrible starting rotation. In the aggregate, April didn’t bring a ton of hope that things will be better. The Orioles starters combined for a 4.29 ERA, third-worst in the American League, and an AL-worst 4.71 FIP. They have one of the lowest strikeout rates and one of the highest walk rates.
Individually, there has been as much success as failure. If you’d told me a month ago that Dylan Bundy would have five April starts, averaging more than six innings per start, with a 1.65 ERA, I would have jumped to the moon. Same for Wade Miley’s 2.32 ERA, though his 19 walks in 31 innings are unsightly.
A disappointing month from Ubaldo Jimenez is not particularly surprising, and given that he’s in the final year of his contract, not a problem that will plague Orioles fans for long if it continues.
The struggles of Kevin Gausman, on the other hand, matter a lot to both the present and future of the team. Not only has he not taken the step forward everyone hoped for, he’s sliding down into the muck of an Orioles-era Jake Arrieta, where promising stuff and occasional flashes of brilliance never quite turn into a useful pitcher... or at least, not here.
Chris Tillman is almost back. How he looks after recovering from his offseason PRP injection is going to affect the rotation going forward as well.
2. The Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle hasn’t helped anything yet
Dan Duquette spent the offseason and especially spring training collecting a series of optionable arms who would presumably be riding the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle for long relief roles and spot starts with the big league club.
We have seen six of these pitchers so far, a combined 37.1 innings over 22 games pitched with a 5.79 ERA. It’s not like it’s just one struggling player inflating that ERA, either. Many were not good, which is why all of Tyler Wilson, Stefan Crichton, Vidal Nuno, and Jayson Aquino are already back down with Norfolk. Nuno in particular has not even been adept at eating innings in garbage time.
There are more of them on both the 25-man and 40-man. If the current set in the big leagues - Alec Asher, Logan Verrett, and Richard Bleier - struggle individually or collectively, Duquette will keep shuffling that deck. Once Tillman returns, these guys will be limited to long relief roles, unless there are any other surprise injuries in the rotation.
3. The Orioles streak of home run champions may come to an end
Between Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, and Mark Trumbo, the Orioles accounted for the last four MLB home run crowns. April makes it look unlikely that this streak will continue.
Tied for the team lead with a relatively paltry five home runs are Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini. Those are respectable home run totals, to be sure, but when Oakland’s Khris Davis and New York’s Aaron Judge have ten apiece and the resurrected National League pair of Milwaukee’s Eric Thames and Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman have eleven apiece, it seems clear which way that streak is headed.
4. The Orioles past bullpen success should not be taken for granted
Zach Britton spoiled us with his 47-for-47 perfect save season last year. Everything else with the O’s back end of the bullpen flowed from that. The past weekend’s series against the Yankees was an unpleasant reminder for O’s fans of what a bullpen that doesn’t have the right answer all of the time looks like.
Britton will soon be back, but his April outings before he was injured gave plenty of food for thought about whether he’s going to be the same Britton as last season. He’s only pitched in six games, but all the same, you don’t want your closer having a 1.857 WHIP over any six game stretch. Britton has struck out fewer batters and walked more, so far, than he was doing in the past.
Though Britton managed to keep opponents mostly off the board with a 1.29 ERA before going on the disabled list, his teammate Darren O’Day hasn’t been so fortunate. O’Day, after a tough 2016, has started 2017 with a 6.10 ERA in his first eleven games, including an attempted unsuccessful save in the ninth inning of Sunday’s wild win over the Yankees.
They mostly made it look automatic last year, but it’s not automatic. Hopefully there aren’t many or any more games like Friday’s loss to the Yankees.
5. Mark Trumbo’s worst month as an Oriole is a cause for concern
One month is too soon to judge a three-year contract, but it’s worth noting that Trumbo’s worst OPS in a month last season was .769 last August. He batted just .184 that month but also managed to hit ten home runs. Trumbo hit only two home runs this April and is sitting on a .548 OPS, lower than even Craig Gentry and Ryan Flaherty.
Now, unless there’s a secret injury, which is always a possibility with baseball players, Trumbo is not .548 OPS-level bad. It’s hard for a player to be that bad when his big league track record is so much better than that. Trumbo’s career OPS is .770.
Trumbo is better than this, but when things start to stabilize, how much better will they be? Will that be a player who should keep batting fourth or fifth in the lineup, as Trumbo has done every game he’s played so far this season? Will it be a player whose presence in the lineup overcomes the lack of defensive flexibility that comes from his being on the roster?
Hopefully after the month of May, we don’t have to still ask these questions because Trumbo is looking closer to last year’s form.
Unless they’re as good as last year’s Cubs, which let’s face it, they’re probably not, the Orioles aren’t going to keep winning at this clip.
For many individual Orioles, April could have probably gone better, but as a team, it doesn’t get much better than this, and they did it in a month where 20 of their 23 games came against division opponents. If they’re able to stay in the race all year, building this cushion is going to be crucial.