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Orioles’ pair of veteran lefty starters heading in different directions

To date, newcomers Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc are delivering contrasting performances in Baltimore’s rotation.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Wade LeBlanc delivers a pitch against the Blue Jays.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Three-fifths of the Orioles rotation is left-handed. I guess that’s interesting. But then again, who cares what hand you throw with as long as you can get hitters out.

The Orioles came into 2020 needing to plug multiple spots in the rotation. They chose to do so with older, more experienced guys instead of throwing their youngsters right into the fire. Patience, I keep telling myself.

Both Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc were signed to minor league deals back in February and barely had any time to establish themselves in spring training before the pandemic shut everything down.

LeBlanc only got two starts down in Sarasota, going a total of five innings while allowing two hits, one run, one HBP, one walk and six strikeouts. Talk about a small sample size. Speaking of which, that should be the nickname for this entire regular season. But here we are.

Milone had even less spring exposure, allowing one hit and striking out three over two innings in his lone start.

Then baseball hit the pause button, clearing out spring facilities and putting a freeze on transactions. Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc’s fates were frozen as well, since both were still operating on minor league deals when spring training stopped.

If you’ll remember, there was a time this spring/summer when it didn’t seem like there would be any baseball this year. But after all the back and forth, the powers that be finally decided to start playing ball in late July.

The Orioles still needed to fill out their rotation, and so both of the aforementioned pitchers had their contracts selected on July 15th, a mere nine days before the start of the season.

Looking at his two previous years in Seattle, the hope was that with the O’s, LeBlanc would be able to put up numbers more closely resembling his 2018 season, when he had a 3.72 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 162 innings. But five starts into this shortened season we’ve seen a version more like 2019 LeBlanc, when he had a 5.71 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.

Another jarring statistic that jumps out is LeBlanc’s home runs allowed per nine innings, which is exactly the same right now as it was at the end of 2019: 2.1. And for a team that set records last year for home runs allowed, that is an especially unwelcome sight.

The only regular Orioles starter with a higher HR/9 at the moment is Asher Wojciechowski at 2.4. Thomas Eshelman’s HR/9 currently stands at 2.2, although he’s split his time between the rotation and the bullpen, including only two starts.

Tommy Milone, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise so far. Unlike the guys in the last couple paragraphs, Milone is only allowing 1.1 HR/9. His ERA currently stands at 4.13, with 14 runs (11 earned), 29 hits, three walks and 25 strikeouts over 24 total innings. Plus, his FIP is 3.19.

The 33-year-old left-hander is playing above his career average in several other categories too, which includes 9.4 SO/9 (6.7 career) and 1.1 BB/9 (2.2 career). On the flip side, he’s allowing more hits per nine (10.9) than he has ever before (9.7 career).

Yes, there are indications that Milone will come back down to earth, but for now he’s doing just alright. Besides, there are more pressing matters right now in regard to risky starting pitching.

The numbers so far this season for LeBlanc aren’t pretty. Through five starts in 2020, he’s allowed 19 earned runs in 21.2 innings. He’s allowed three or more runs in all but one of his starts and is averaging 4.1 innings per outing.

This year, LeBlanc is having trouble with some of the things a pitcher is supposed to have the most control over, including walks and strikeouts. Looking backward, LeBlanc averaged 2.2 walks per nine and 7.1 strikeouts per nine from 2016 - 2019. Those numbers this year are 2.9 and 5.4, respectively.

So could we see LeBlanc lose his spot in the rotation soon? You don’t have to look back far to see that LeBlanc has relief experience in his recent past. He made a total of 26 appearances in 2019 with the Mariners and only eight of those were starts. So there is precedent for pulling LeBlanc from the rotation and making him a reliever.

Maybe recent addition Jorge Lopez is a candidate to take LeBlanc’s rotation spot. He’s got the whole new guy thing going for him and he recently pitched four innings in relief — allowing three hits, two runs and five strikeouts — after John Means only lasted 0.2 innings in his most recent start.

So what starters do the Orioles have at their alternate training facility in Bowie? Well you’ve got to really do some digging to find out. But guys like Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann are there apparently, and both pitched at Triple-A last year. Keegan Akin got a couple major league innings under his belt recently and is now back in Bowie to be called upon whenever the O’s deem necessary.

How are those particular players, and others, doing at Bowie? Well it’s nearly impossible to tell — aside from the minute snippets fed to us occasionally by beat reporters, like in this PressBox article that revealed how Ryan Mouncastle homered off Keegan Akin at the Bowie site at one point — because they are not playing in minor league matchups against other teams or accumulating game stats.

Maybe it seems like the Orioles don’t have a plan for certain aspects of this wacky season because they don’t. Maybe they’re just trying to figure things out as they go. Who can blame them? Uncharted territory, right?

But LeBlanc doesn’t represent any kind of large financial or time commitment. He was brought in to be a placeholder, and that place could be taken away sooner than later if he keeps showing the Orioles things they don’t like. Besides, the club already has one crafty veteran lefty in the rotation who is doing a half-decent job so far.