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The Orioles’ pitching staff has taken a step forward in 2020

Comparing Year One versus Year Two of the Mike Elias regime provides further evidence the Orioles are heading in the proper direction.

MLB: Game One-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Rationally speaking, it’s probably not a stretch to say the most important position in all of sports is the quarterback.

He handles the football on every snap, adjusts the offensive play call pre-snap depending on the defensive formation in front of him, and is the scapegoat or simply THE G.O.A.T. depending on the manner of his play. When talking about pitching, the parallels are often too familiar.

On the mound, the pitcher dictates the pace of the game. He’s responsible for the contact that proceeds him. Typically, a game is won or lost on the mound. I’m a firm believer good pitching beats good hitting on any given night, and for the Orioles in 2019, ballgames were lost on the backs of a historically-bad pitching staff.

When Mike Elias took over as executive vice president and general manager in late 2018, it was assumed his mind and baseball worldview would need time to soak into the organization. Coming from the Astros, an organization with a tons of recent success on the mound, Elias would not have been criticized if he made attempts to mirror the teachings and stylings of his former franchise.

From 2015-18, the Astros rankings among baseball’s pitching staffs were as follows:

Contact %—75.1% (2nd)
Strikeout %—24.6% (3rd)
ERA—3.72 (4th)
Whiff %—11.5% (4th)
Outside Zone Swing %—31.6% (4th)
Walk %—7.6% (5th)
GB/FB Rate—1.36 (7th)

In that four-year span, the Astros made three postseason appearances, including a World Series championship in 2017. Granted, the impact of the aforementioned World Series win has taken a serious hit over the past year for obvious reasons, but the Astros pitched really well while Elias was in a role of prominence, and that was because he came from a place of progress where the Orioles were lagging behind.

Now in his second season (or 1.5?), Elias and the entirety of his baseball staff are seeing dividends being paid.

Orioles Pitching Stats (2019-20)

Year Strikeout % (Rank) Walk % (Rank) ERA (Rank) BABIP (Rank) WHIP (Rank)
Year Strikeout % (Rank) Walk % (Rank) ERA (Rank) BABIP (Rank) WHIP (Rank)
2019 19.5% (29th) 8.8% (17th) 5.67 (30th) .295 (14th) 1.46 (26th)
2020 21.6% (26th) 8.7% (12th) 4.40 (14th) .279 (10th) 1.31 (14th)
Fangraphs

For a more basic understanding of the Orioles pitching staff at the surface, voila! I give you Exhibit A.

As you can clearly see, the O’s are striking out more batters, dealing with fewer base runners, and creating more outs on contact. The ERA was always going to come down from its ghastly 2019 figure, but wouldn’t you know it, the Orioles are allowing earned runs at an above-average rate. Who’d a thunk?

OK, so now we know that Orioles pitching has been slightly better in fairly simple terms. So, WHY are the O’s pitching with relatively more success? I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’d have a guess that it probably has to do with better stuff being introduced on the mound every five days or so.

Orioles Weighted Pitch Value/Usage 2019-20

Year wFB (Rank) FB Usage (Rank) wCH (Rank) CH Usage (Rank) wSL (Rank) SL Usage (Rank) wCB (Rank) CB Usage (Rank)
Year wFB (Rank) FB Usage (Rank) wCH (Rank) CH Usage (Rank) wSL (Rank) SL Usage (Rank) wCB (Rank) CB Usage (Rank)
2019 -120.1 (29th) 54.9% (6th) 12.8 (11th) 15.0% (3rd) -37.4 (30th) 21.5% (8th) -20.7 (28th) 4.8% (30th)
2020 -11.6 (18th) 50.7% (14th) -0.2 (19th) 17.6% (3rd) 1.7 (18th) 14.2% (27th) -5.7 (24th) 9.9% (17th)
Fangraphs

The Orioles, a team that threw a lot of really bad fastballs a season ago, have backed off from the heater to an extent, putting to use a more varied collective pitch mix. One of the things I was most excited to see, more so hoping for, was that the Orioles would adopt this ideal from the Astros, the team that has thrown the second-fewest number of fastballs since 2014. The team that’s thrown the fewest in that span? The Yankees.

It’s not that I have some vendetta against the fastball. It’s still and always will be the most important pitch in the game. The thing is, the Orioles haven’t had a lot of guys over the past few years with fastballs that play in the strike zone. I’d hoped the organization would recognize that fact and seek change.

Well, Elias is that change, as the Orioles not only have become a bit less predictable on the mound, but the new talent is partly to credit for the assist. In fact, if it weren’t for Asher Wojciechowski (-7.6), Cody Carroll (-5.0), and Wade LeBlanc (-3.4), all of which were either ineffective and/or short on innings, the Orioles’ fastball numbers would look like less of a problem.

As a whole, it’s interesting to see the Orioles maintain the high rate of changeups in spite of the pitch having its ups and downs. You have to believe that’s more of a case where guys like Cesar Valdez, John Means, Cole Sulser, and Alex Cobb are using the pitch so heavily as a matter of need. As for Means, his 12.8 wCH in 2019 has been depleted to -0.8 this season, an urgent problem in need of repair over the winter.

Even so, the Orioles have made massive strides in terms of producing more effective breaking balls, in spite of limited usage.

Orioles Weighted BB Pitch Value 2019-20

Pitcher 2019 (wSL) 2020 (wSL) Pitcher 2019 (wCB) 2020 (wCB)
Pitcher 2019 (wSL) 2020 (wSL) Pitcher 2019 (wCB) 2020 (wCB)
K. Akin N/A -2.2 K. Akin N/A 0.7
A. Cobb N/A N/A A. Cobb -2.6 1.2
T. Eshelman -3.7 2.3 T. Eshelman 0.7 0.2
P. Fry -1.8 1.2 P. Fry N/A N/A
H. Harvey N/A N/A H. Harvey 0.3 -0.4
D. Kremer (wCT) N/A -0.1 D. Kremer N/A -0.7
J. Lopez -0.8 N/A J. Lopez 2.5 0.1
J. Means 4.0 -1.6 J. Means -5.6 -0.4
T. Scott 2.6 4.1 T. Scott N/A N/A
D. Tate -3.7 1.9 D. Tate N/A N/A
A. Wojciechowski -4.4 -2.2 A. Wojciechowski N/A N/A
Fangraphs

For the most part, the returning guys have shown to be more capable with their breaking stuff. Aside from Means, though he’ been much better the past couple of weeks, the pitchers have progressed. I’m sure there are still some folks that are iffy about the new way of business, but we’ve seen across the board guys not pitching worse, but better. Even the Kremers and Akins have shown up and pitched like competent big leaguers. That’s not been the norm for some time.

Pitch values are not not intended to be predictive but tell you what’s occurring in the moment. Over these handful of games, the young and the old Orioles are pitching OK. If you would have told me that the Orioles would have pitched like this not in 2021, but in 2020, I’d tell you I’m much less surprised than I should be.

It’s proof Mike Elias and all of his people have a clue as to what they’re doing, and the Orioles are benefitting from how baseball operations must be maintained. For the first time in a long time, this team’s wheels aren’t just spinning for the sake of spinning. It would appear there’s direction.