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The Orioles rotation is turning into the liability everybody expected

The question is, were Orioles starters overperforming over the first two weeks or performing to level now?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Orioles’ hot start to the season caught folks by surprise. The offense was the story, and deservedly so, with former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander a switch-hitting RBI machine, Hanser Alberto at the top of the AL in extra-base hits, and José Iglesias, Pedro Severino, and Rio Ruiz all turning in starts completely unpredicted by their past numbers.

But the team that motored to an 11-7 record by August 13th did it with pitching, too.

On that date, the staff ERA was 4.44—definitely not wow numbers compared to Cleveland’s ridiculous 2.57 mark. But it was a huge improvement over 2019’s abysmal 5.61 ERA, and Fangraphs’ dire prediction of a 5.54 ERA for the rotation this season.

Well, what a difference a week makes. As of yesterday, the Orioles’ team ERA had jumped up nearly half a run to 4.82. In their last 10 games, they’ve given up an average of 6.8 runs per game, about half of which were chalked up to the starting pitchers. In those games, the starters went an average of just over four innings a start. This—along with defensive mistakes, injuries, and offensive slumps—has set the Orioles on a five-game losing streak, just after they finished winning six in a row.

Let’s exempt two of the five suspects from blame: Tommy Milone and Alex Cobb. Both are having totally decent years, especially considering that one of them barely made the rotation.

Since signing a 4-year/$57 million contract, Alex Cobb has been extremely candid about his disappointment in his own failure to live up to expectations, mostly as a result of injuries. This year was supposed to be make-or-break for Cobb to prove that the deal wasn’t a bust. Well, Cobb has shown fans just what he promised: prior to this week’s kind-of-fluky result, Cobb had a 2.75 ERA in four starts with 17 strikeouts (it’s a still-palatable 3.75 now). More importantly, although his walk rate is elevated (3.1 per 9 innings), Cobb has looked consistent across all starts, with swing-and-miss stuff, poise on the mound, and an ability to execute a good game plan and fool hitters.

The Orioles have exactly two quality starts this season, and both of them belong—unexpectedly—to veteran lefty Tommy Milone, who signed a late minor league contract with the team in spring training. The 10-year veteran has an unremarkable career average of 4.46 and a 1.316 WHIP, and he’s pitching at pretty close to both numbers over five starts this season—which, for this team, is just fine. Milone’s ERA currently stands at 4.13, and his whip is 1.333. His FIP this season, however, is a very nice 3.19. Plus, in two of his last three starts, he pitched into the sixth inning—something a harried Brandon Hyde has been begging for in no uncertain terms.

However, the remaining three-fifths of the rotation comes bearing mostly bad news right now. CC’s Harrison Jozwiak explained yesterday how Wade LeBlanc seems to be trending in the opposite direction from Milone. LeBlanc’s 2020 season kicked off with a pair of good starts—well, one decent one (5.2 innings of four-run ball against Boston) and one great one (5.1 innings with one run allowed against Tampa Bay). However, LeBlanc’s last three outings have been, as they say, nasty, brutish, and short, averaging just three-plus innings in length and almost five earned runs a pop. The walks are going up, and so are the flyball/groundball ratio and home runs allowed per nine innings.

As Harrison also pointed out, the only Orioles starter with a higher HR/9 than LeBlanc’s 2.1 mark is Asher Wojciechowski at 2.4. WoJo is a source of great frustration because his starts are, literally, so hit-or-miss. Everybody remembers how WoJo randomly owned the Boston Red Sox in 2019? He faced them three times and shut them out twice. It was amazing. Well, it didn’t happen in last night’s game against Boston. Instead, WoJo was pulled after allowing three runs in 3.2 innings. A few of those runs, as radio announcer Geoff Arnold pointed out, were kind of crappy luck. What was not just bad luck were the 80-plus pitches WoJo threw, an average of over 20 an inning. Add to that an average of almost 3 walks a game, and it’s no wonder he’s not giving the bullpen any rest.

Finally there is John Means, who’s pitched all of three times this season. Before the season, it was no joke to say that Orioles fans’ hopes for the rotation rested on his shoulders. On July 20, FanGraphs’ Paul Sporer wrote:

John Means Business.

I’m tempted to end the Orioles section here and see if it flies, but I doubt it will. That said, I have a hard time finding much else to say about Baltimore’s pitching in 2020.

It really is too soon to say what’s going on with Means. He’s had two very rough starts sandwiched around one good one, and he missed time earlier this season with a sore elbow. His FIP (6.54) and WHIP (1.304) are both enormously inflated, as is his rate of home runs allowed per nine innings (2.3). But his stuff looks better, faster and maybe even sharper. It’s still too soon to push the panic button on John Means.

Here’s the good news: overall, the Orioles’ team pitching stats (especially ERA, and hits/walks/home runs per nine innings) remain not-bad, lifted up by greater-than-expected consistency from the bullpen. And based on career statistics, we can probably expect continued strong starts from Alex Cobb (for as long as he remains an Oriole) and improvement from John Means. All of this is kind of gravy for a team that wasn’t supposed to compete at all.

On the other hand, being realistic about what awaits this team going forward, the Orioles’ recent downturn reflects, in large part, the realities of a rotation lacking in talent. Asher Wojciechowski, Tommy Milone, and Wade LeBlanc are performing at more-or-less career levels. This means that the Orioles’ struggles will continue unless the team does what it did the first few weeks and overperforms at the plate. There will be bright spots on the roster; the question is whether continued pitching struggles overall will drown those performances out.