The Orioles current crop of big league starting options is not especially deep. Sure, John Means is pitching like a Cy Young candidate, but he’s backed up by reclamation projects and inexperienced hurlers that the Orioles’ brass is simply hoping can make it through an entire season.
For that reason it has been a bit frustrating to see the Orioles lack creativity with their approach to pitching so far this season. Instead of trying something new, they simply allow guys like Jorge López and Matt Harvey to flame out in the fourth or fifth inning time after time.
That was altered a bit on Sunday as Means was pushed back for extra rest, and in his place the O’s started Adam Plutko, followed by Bruce Zimmermann out of the bullpen.
Plutko has been one of the best relievers on the team, he can work multiple innings, and he has had loads of success against right-handed hitters. Zimmermann tends to give up harder contact during his second and third trips through the order. Using the two in roles opposite of the norm, especially against a righty-heavy Yankees lineup with tons of power, made perfect sense, so kudos to Brandon Hyde for the plan.
Of course, who knows if that was always the plan—Plutko was pretty terrible, and it’s possible Zimmermann was turned to as a guy to soak up some innings rather than Hyde truly expected his guys to claw back and pull off an improbable win. Whatever the case, it worked.
The only other time that the Orioles have deviated from the traditional approach to starting pitching was April 24, when they sent Wade LeBlanc to the mound in what may turn out to be the final outing of his big league career. He was bad, and so was Tyler Wells later on. But that was just a good old-fashioned, doomed-from-the-start bullpen game. There was no real creativity or logic. The goal was to survive, and LeBlanc was sacrificed.
Perhaps the most obvious change the Orioles could make is the way that they handle López. He is, quite clearly, not capable of consistently giving the team a starter-like performance on the mound. The guy is 28 years old, has started 41 games in his career, and has a 6.37 ERA in those games. That’s not going to get it done.
However, the intrigue over an improved fastball is understandable, and just because he cannot turn in five or six quality innings per outing does not mean that he cannot be a major league pitcher in some capacity.
López has been dominant in his first trip through an order this season, holding opposing offenses to a .169 batting average and .419 OPS. But he gets absolutely hammered during his second time facing hitters to the tune of a 1.066 OPS. Unsurprisingly, those struggles have cut many of his starts short. He has gone longer than five innings in just one of his eight starts.
So, what can be done? Well, López could be a perfect fit as an opener that can be depended on for two or three very strong innings. Or, he could be paired with an opener that allows him to delay facing the top of opposing lineups for as long as possible, which could net him an extra inning. Either one would at least be different from the current situation in which the Orioles bang their heads against the wall and hope for a result different from the one we have seen so many times before.
It’s not a mystery as to why the Orioles try to get López and others through innings when they are clearly laboring. The O’s entered the season with a noticeable lack of big league pitching options, especially coming off of a year without a minor league season. They needed the few pitchers they do have to produce every possible out they could.
But times change. The big league season is now 25% over. The minor league campaigns are well underway. The possible reinforcements are better suited to help, and the Orioles can feel more free to take risks.
Zac Lowther has been up a couple times already and will be back. Expect something similar for Mike Baumann and maybe Alexander Wells. Keegan Akin is currently on the active roster. The O’s just added Brandon Waddell, a 26-year-old with two options remaining, off waivers. He can start as well.
The point is that the Orioles do not have to be too fine with their pitching decisions. There is enough flexibility in the roster to give some room for tinkering. Plus, there is enough information at this point to know where some of their hurlers struggle, and there isn’t much reason to push them beyond that. It seems they may have figured that out with Zimmermann, and López could be next.