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Early results show that the Orioles pitching staff is taking steps forward

Small sample size warnings apply, but the O’s arms have been impressive and there is reason to be hopeful.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, the Baltimore Orioles sported what was arguably the worst pitching staff in Major League Baseball. Their 5.85 ERA was, by far, the highest in the league. Nine games into 2022, a group with many familiar faces has performed like one of the most effective units in the sport.

It goes against conventional wisdom. The Orioles pitching staff is a batch of names that even the most engaged baseball fan would be challenged to differentiate from a team of create-a-players in MLB The Show.

Despite the anonymity, O’s pitchers have been worth 1.6 fWAR so far this season. That’s the fifth-best mark in baseball, sandwiched between the Yankees and White Sox, two staffs with reputations to back up a number like that. It’s a stark contrast to the 7.9 fWAR they posted for the entirety of 2021.

To be fair, the success is not equally distributed. It is the bullpen that has been truly tremendous to begin the year. Their 1.0 fWAR is tops in the sport. Over 44 innings, the relievers own a 2.66 ERA and 2.51 FIP, and perhaps the most important number is the 0.20 home runs per nine innings pitched. It has allowed them to mostly avoid large innings and keep the O’s competitive each day.

Credit is due throughout the group. Keegan Akin is yet to allow a run, or even a walk, across his 5.2 innings. Felix Bautista has burst onto the scene, striking out six in his first four innings. Bryan Baker has caught people’s eye. Dillon Tate looks good once again. Jorge López is finding his groove at the back of the ‘pen. And how about Joey Krehbiel and Cionel Pérez? Two guys that have yet to allow a run.

It has been impressive work all around, and it’s easy to see why Mike Elias felt comfortable sending out Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott prior to the start of the season. Perhaps their presence would have made the ‘pen even better, but clearly there were favorable alternatives.

The starters have been less impressive, but it has not been the disaster that most expected, at least not yet. Their 3.50 ERA and 3.79 FIP are the 20th- and 19th-best marks in baseball, respectively. That isn’t especially good given the context of how few innings they have been asked to cover, but it feels worlds better than last year.

Bruce Zimmermann has been the standout. Through two starts, the Baltimore native has tossed nine scoreless innings while striking out 10 batters. His changeup looks as nasty as ever, and he is doing his best to remain in the Orioles’ plans long term.

There are positives elsewhere. Jordan Lyles has given the O’s five innings or more in each of his first two starts. He bounced back from a rough debut to allow just one run over 5.1 frames to the Yankees. It’s a similar story for Tyler Wells, who is still going through the process of being stretched out a starter’s workload. His first outing was a disaster (1.2 innings, four earned runs, two walks, two strikeouts), but he took a step forward against the Bombers as well.

Before we pop the champagne to celebrate the official “fixing” of the pitching staff, let’s acknowledge the small sample size shenanigans that could possibly be at play here.

Lyles leads the Orioles with 10.1 innings thrown this year. Pérez and Mike Baumann have tossed three or fewer frames. Clearly, we need to see more than that to determine who is real and who is just having a nice run of games.

The more innings we get, the better we can be at asserting which stats reflect reality. The sample size needed depends upon the number being discussed. Michael Salfino from The Athletic laid that out prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. According to Salfino, “stabilization” happens at 17.1 innings for strikeout rate, walk rates at 41.5 innings, and exit velocities at 63.6 innings. An older piece at FanGraphs touches on something similar.

Part of the equation is just how “green” many of the Orioles arms are. The relievers are a collection of rookies and pitchers that have had just a sip or two of big league coffee in their career. It likely becomes harder for them once they see opposing hitters multiple times in a year.

Then we have the elephant in the room that is the John Means injury. The Orioles are remaining relatively quiet on that front, at least until Means gets the second opinion he desires. No matter what, a left elbow strain is ominous and is often a precursor to UCL issues, which would mean Tommy John.

Someone will need to jump into his spot for the time being. Not to mention the fifth starter spot, which was vacant to begin the season and is currently occupied by Spenser Watkins, a pitcher that struck out fewer than six batters per nine and posted an ERA of 8.07 (6.37 FIP) over 54.2 innings a season ago. All of that movement could take a pitcher like Akin, who is excelling in his current role, and force him back to starting, where he has struggled to this point in his career.

And while the bullpen has been terrific, we should also be wary of burnout. They have handled 44 of the team’s 80 total innings to this point, and once rosters retract to 26 at the start of May you can assume the ‘pen will need to shrink by at least one member. It’s early, and starters are still being stretched out, but the Orioles eventually need the starters to shoulder more of the innings burden.

Now that we have gotten the required amount of skepticism out of the way, let’s just take a moment to be hopeful. The talent of the Orioles pitching staff, in general, is improved from a season ago. The results may fluctuate, but the amount of firepower coming out of the bullpen is unmatched in recent seasons. That is something to be excited about.

At the risk of sounding like a misguided Orioles fan of the 2010s, a promising cavalry of arms is also nearing Baltimore. Grayson Rodriguez has struck out 15 batters over his first nine innings at Triple-A. Kyle Bradish has allowed just one run across his opening nine innings at the same level. D.L. Hall continues to ramp up down in Florida, but his performance in spring training alone should have you fired up. Provided they each stay healthy, all three of those prospects will pitch for the Orioles this year and should continue to do so for years to come.

There is still plenty of work to do in completely rebuilding the Orioles pitching staff, but the progress is noticeable, and it should get better from here.