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Don’t panic! Orioles pitching hasn’t been that bad, for now

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The starting rotation has been decent, albeit unable to provide length, and the bullpen woes may be temporary.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees
Righty reliever Shawn Armstrong after having done a less-than-great thing against the Yankees on Monday night.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Thursday’s home opener, a 7-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox plagued by bad defense and myriad bullpen shenanigans, was disappointing. Starter Matt Harvey tried and failed to get through six innings. His replacement, lefty Paul Fry, allowed a walk, groundout, and a single that scored two runs. Shawn Armstrong gave up two more and failed to get out of the seventh. Rookie Tyler Wells got taken deep by Kike Hernández in the eighth.

Coming into the 2021 season, the Orioles were expected to be bad. Bad in several ways, but one more so than others: starting pitching. The rotation was a shambles. John Means wasn’t an “ace” on anybody’s staff but ours, Keegan Akin had just gotten demoted, Matt Harvey was a reclamation project on a minor league deal, Jorge López a Kansas City reject, Dean Kremer an untested prospect with a sluggish fastball, and Bruce Zimmermann … uh, him?

Several key things seemed to be missing from this outfit: experience, durability, and, frankly, decent stuff.

One week in to the season, that dire prediction hasn’t materialized: the rotation looks far better than the worst predictions—not “Oriole Way” better, but at least decent!

John Means has a 0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings against two stacked lineups. After a masterful seven-inning shutout of Boston at home on Opening Day, Means struggled against New York this Wednesday, exiting after 93 pitches in just 4 2/3 innings. But let’s be clear: if “struggling” against the Yankees means one run allowed in five innings, Orioles fans will take that every time.

Matt Harvey hasn’t had great results so far (a 5.59 ERA and 1.55 WHIP) but that’s partly due to bad luck (um, thanks a lot, Ryan Mountcastle and Paul Fry). Harvey’s control looks a bit off so far, like he’s still figuring his stuff out, but his fastball is averaging 94 mph and his new slider/two-seamer has drawn a 66.7% whiff percentage in a small sample size. Credit Harvey for work in the offseason and spring to retool his stuff, and pitching coaches Darren Holmes and Chris Holt for masterminding the tweaks. Besides, if Harvey ends up giving us five or so innings with two/three runs allowed every fifth day, well, things could be worse.

Zimmermann, López and Kremer are all solidly in the realm of “too small a sample size to count,” but none of them have looked embarrassingly hittable. In six innings against the Red Sox, Zimmermann struck out five and allowed three runs, good enough for a win on a day Orioles bats actually supported their starter. Kremer and López both had strange starts against the Yankees that began well, with several scattered strikeouts, but ended too early as both ran out of gas. Cherished O’s announcer Jim Palmer scolded López during the MASN broadcast for “losing his concentration” in the fifth inning. Well, hey, if that’s what wrong with the Orioles’ No. 4 starter, give him some mindfulness classes and send him back out. His stuff, to this viewer’s eye, has some life to it, at least.

One week in, Orioles starters are actually averaging a middle-of-the-pack 3.90 ERA compared to the rest of MLB, while also ranking totally middle-of-the-pack in runs allowed, innings pitched, strikeouts, exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and most other stats you can think of. Assuming that this continues (and that the bats perk up—and stop striking out so much, damnit!), I’ll take it.

Given that three of the Orioles’ last four games ended with a bullpen-powered loss, I was ready to conclude it was time to fire everybody and start again. Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately), the stats don’t quite support this line.

Just seven games into the season, the Orioles’ bullpen has the eighth-best ERA in the majors, and only eight teams have fewer walks. The bullpen has given up a decent number of hits (20 in 24 innings), but not many runs (9) or homers (2). No raging dumpster fire here.

Still, as good as guys like Tanner Scott (0.00 ERA and 5 K’s in 2.1 innings) and César Valdez (0.00 ERA and 5 K’s in 4.1 innings) have been this season, there are a few arms who’ve had such shaky starts they might deserve a period of probation: Wade LeBlanc, who’s allowed more runs than innings pitched (3 to 2, respectively), Paul Fry (5.40 ERA and 0 strikeouts in 1.2 innings), and Shawn Armstrong (27.00 ERA and 5.25 WHIP in 1.1 innings).

It’s too soon to tell whether something is up with these pitchers—but hey, thank goodness for Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler. (File that one under “Things you never expected to hear in 2021.”) There is a good chance Fry and Armstrong bounce back soon, of course: Armstrong’s walk rate and average exit velocity are way up in 2021, but in other ways, his peripherals look solid. Paul Fry, who seems to have tinkered with his fastball in the offseason, appears to be the beneficiary of bad luck, mostly. (At this point, Wade LeBlanc may be less clearly amenable to a revival.)

Seriously, though, I’m glad for both of the Rule 5 guys, and glad that this Orioles bullpen is designed for maximum flexibility: if a persistent problem develops with Fry, Armstrong, or LeBlanc, there are replacements waiting on the taxi squad or, once the season kicks off, in Norfolk. With the team’s farm system on the rise, fans can soon hope that pitching depth and reliability will soon be things this Orioles team is known for.