The Orioles have a storied history of great left-handed starters. Just think about it. Names like Steve Barber, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar. And they were all retired years before I was even born.
The Birds are long overdue for a resurgence of lefties and we may have even gotten a glimpse last year.
Because the schedule at the time allowed it, the Orioles started 2019 with a four-man rotation. That group consisted exclusively of right-handed pitchers. For the final spot in the rotation the Orioles rolled out their version of the opener in early April of 2019, but to unfavorable results. So the team pivoted to a more conventional fifth starter. Enter John Means.
The first start of the young left-hander’s remarkable rookie season came on April 9 against the Athletics, a game in which he lasted three innings. He would only get one more relief appearance all season before sticking in the rotation for good from April 24 onward.
The southpaw made 27 starts last year, but the vast majority of other starts on the team were taken by right-handed pitchers. Only seven other games were started by a lefty. Five of these belonged to Ty Blach, over the course of which he had an 11.42 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. Also, Richard Bleier and Sean Gilmartin each started a game as an opener.
The O’s could use more guys like Means. But I don’t have to tell you that.
Baltimore has a pair of left-handed non-roster invitees in camp in the form of Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone. They’ve also got minor league lefty Keegan Akin knocking on the door. All three are decent options to make the 2020 opening day roster, considering the opportunities that currently exist in the back-end of the rotation.
Now some may think I’m suggesting that one of the three aforementioned pitchers could be the next John Means, but not so fast. Best case scenario, one of those three assumes the role of ‘John Means Lite,’ so to speak. Both Fangraphs and MLB.com projections have LeBlanc winning one of the open spots in the O’s rotation.
Maybe there is more to Mike Elias’ increased number of left-handed options for starting pitching depth.
Just look at ballpark platoon splits from the last few years and there are positive trends for left-handed pitchers who log innings at Camden Yards. Playing at home in 2019, left-handed O’s pitchers held opponents to a .725 OPS, including a 73 tOPS+ and 92 sOPS+. At Camden Yards in 2018, O’s lefties held opponents to a .772 OPS, 91 tOPS+ and 111 sOPS+. Those numbers were .768, 94 and 98 in 2017.
But on the other hand, the numbers from last season do not show positive results for Baltimore lefties when pitching in either New York or Boston. The numbers do look much better in other AL East cities though. Stadiums in Tampa and Toronto, where batters managed only a .684 and .683 OPS respectively, served as strong venues for Orioles lefties.
Knowing the O’s play their fellow AL East rivals more than any division, performance against these foes can show where to best exploit an edge.
Unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, for example, the Birds cannot compete for the premier free agent starting options each offseason. So in that case, creativity is key. Finding an overlooked lefty starter who can provide a certain amount of consistency could play up with certain circumstances surrounding the Orioles as we head towards opening day 2020.
While Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone represent the more experienced southpaw options, there are others.
There’s always the next wave of young minor league starters to look forward to. Keegan Akin was mentioned earlier, and his projected ETA in the majors is sometime this year according to Fangraphs. He has a 3.78 ERA and 2.40 SO/W rate across four minor league seasons and last year at Norfolk he had a 4.73 ERA in 25 games (24 starts).
There’s also hometown left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, who had a strong 2019 in which he put up a 3.21 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. He set a career high in innings last year with 140, and in three minor league seasons he’s averaging more than strikeout per inning while holding opponents to a .245 batting average.
The increase in quantity of left-handed arms gives the Orioles a chance to sift through and see who can provide above average competitive performance on a consistent basis. Spring training games will decide who starts the year in Baltimore, but it will be quite a bit longer until we see who’s in the rotation at the end.