The Orioles have had some good offenses in the past twenty-some years. Looking all the way back to the wire-to-wire 1997 season, it’s the pitching that has really been the team’s Achilles heel since the success of the late ‘90s teams.
Going back further to 1971 provides the shining example of a stellar Orioles pitching staff. That was the year that four starters — Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson — all won at least 20 games.
The Orioles’ greatest homegrown pitcher since then and up to now is Mike Mussina. He pitched the first 10 years of his career in Baltimore — with a record of 147-81, a 3.53 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP — before departing for the New York Yankees to pitch the final eight years of his career.
Mussina’s pitching coach during that 1997 season was Ray Miller, who also held the same job title with the O’s again from 2004-2005. Work fast, keep the ball down and change speeds — that was Miller’s mantra. In 1997, the Orioles had a 3.91 team ERA, good for second best in the American League.
In Miller’s second stint as pitching coach beginning in 2004, the Orioles team ERA was 4.70, which was seventh best in the American League. In 2005, that number was 4.56, good for tenth place in the AL. In his final year as pitching coach, 2005, the rotation was comprised of Rodrigo Lopez, Sidney Ponson, Bruce Chen, Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera.
Remember Cabrera? He had the height, downward plane and pure stuff that was supposed to lead to stardom. But no Orioles pitching coach was ever able to harness that potential. Sadly, Cabrera walked nearly as many people as he struck out over the course of his career, averaging 6.8 SO/9 and 5.2 BB/9.
Left-hander Erik Bedard had a 4.29 ERA in two years working under Miller. But his real breakout came in 2007 while Leo Mazzone was the pitching coach. Bedard went 13-5 that year with a 3.16 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 182 innings.
One might assume that was the beginning to a long and illustrious career as a starter for the O’s, but after being the centerpiece in the Adam Jones trade in the 2007-2008 offseason, Bedard pitched for five teams over the next six years, compiling a 4.15 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in that time span.
Mazzone, the pitching coach for Bedard’s breakout year, only lasted two years total in Baltimore. In 2006, Mazzone’s first year, the team’s 5.35 ERA put them second to last in the American League in that category. The following year, the team had a 5.17 ERA that was again ranked second to last in the AL.
Can we give some of the credit for Bedard’s success to Mazzone? Maybe. But there’s also too many other variables involved to undoubtedly point to the pitching coach as the main reason for success. Plus, look at the performance of the pitching staff as a whole for the two years Mazzone was in town. If he gets all the credit for Bedard’s success then he should get all the credit for the pitching unit’s failures.
Which brings us to the new Orioles pitching coach (reportedly). Doug Brocail. He was the Houston Astros pitching coach from 2011-2013 and held the same role with the Texas Rangers from 2016-2018.
In 2012, his first full season as Astros’ pitching coach, the club had a 4.56 ERA, which was second to last in the NL. The following year the Astros were last in ERA in the AL at 4.79.
In 2016 with the Rangers, Brocail’s pitching staff had the second worst ERA in the AL at 4.37. The Rangers were 11th out of 15 AL teams in 2017 with a 4.66 ERA and they were 13th out of 15 at 4.92 in 2018.
But don’t rush to judgement too quickly. Patience is required during a rebuild like this one. New GM Mike Elias and his entire staff made it clear publicly that they will put the supports and structure in place to allow Brocail the chance to achieve at least a modicum of success in his new role with the O’s.
Maybe Brocail can connect with Dylan Bundy and help him take his game to the next level. Or maybe he can help Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb find more consistency, or mold someone we’ve never heard of into an above-average major leaguer. The O’s will need at least a few of those things to go right in order to speed up the rebuild.