“Dazzling.” “A revelation.” “Stunning.” No, it’s not a new production of Hamilton: these words are being used to describe the Orioles pitching staff.
The team is last in the AL with a record of 4-8. The offense has scored 24 runs in two weeks, last in the majors by a good seven runs. The team is vastly underperforming at the plate, and expectations weren’t high there to begin with. But you don’t suddenly have to confuse the Orioles with a good team to be appreciative of what the pitching staff has done recently.
Prior to this season, there was justified concern about the pitching. Jordan Lyles of the 5.19 career ERA was the team’s “big-ticket” signing, and after John Means and Bruce Zimmermann, there were open rotation slots with no one making a clear push to fill them. Then, on April 14, the team lost Means, their best—and only reliable—starter, to an elbow injury that could still keep him sidelined for all of 2022. Fans’ worst fears were coming true.
Which is why, notwithstanding the team record and meager offensive numbers, it’s important to take stock of and be grateful for what Orioles pitchers are unexpectedly doing. So far as a unit they have allowed:
· A 2.57 total ERA, 2nd in the AL.
· Four home runs on the year, best in the Majors.
· The best starter ERA (2.68) in the AL.
· And, according to Fangraphs, the highest total WAR (2.5) as a staff of any team.
I want to say, go back and read those stats again. But either way, keep in mind last year’s team ERA of 5.84. Or, exactly one year ago, in April ‘21: 4.16. Or a year before that, in 2020: 4.53. In 2019: 5.61. In 2018: 5.19. So just to be clear: we haven’t sniffed several weeks of sub-3 ERA pitching in years.
The team has three shutouts in 12 games. In 2021, the Orioles didn’t manage three shutouts until over three months into the season. In 2020, they had one shutout in 60 games. In 2019, five in 162 games.
In 2019, they allowed almost two home runs per game (1.90). In 2020, their best season of pitching in the Elias era so far, they surrendered 1.37 homers per game. This year so far: 0.26. Different.
The tough questions: how? For how long? Oasis or mirage?
Let’s start with the bad news. So far, in a small sample, 2022 looks like a down year for offense across the league, and a bumper year for pitching. Hitters’ average is down from .244 in 2021 to .230. OPS is .678, down 50 points from .728 in 2021. Runs per game are down 11%. Meanwhile, league ERA is 3.78, down significantly from 4.53 in 2021. Across the board, walks and strikeouts are about usual, but hits, home runs and runs scored are down. It’s not clear what this indicates: the same amount of contact, just weaker contact?
The Orioles’ results fit this pattern so far. Their WHIP of 1.248 is about league average. They’re striking out fewer hitters than the great teams (LA average 9. 39 K/9, while the Orioles are averaging 7.97) and walking more (a 3.51 BB/9 is about average). But the contact allowed is much weaker than in past seasons, especially when it comes to home runs, where their 0.26 HR/9 rate is second in the majors to only San Francisco, and ahead of third place (Houston, with 0.60). (Plus, so far as I can tell, the Orioles haven’t been the beneficiaries of the left-field wall in that regard.)
Can this unexpected success last? Let’s check the peripherals. The Orioles’ FIP stands at 2.93—still the best in the AL. Opponents’ BABIP is .291, suggesting the team is not getting very lucky so far. A groundball percentage of 49.3% is high, and a good sign, plus a nice change of pace from 2019, when the starting rotation was basically a bunch of guys throwing batting practice.
Now, the stats aren’t totally without cause for concern. Orioles pitchers are not striking out many hitters (even the bullpen is just middle of the pack) or missing many bats (an 8.6 percent swinging strikeout rate ranking 19th).
But there are good signs, too. The team’s 24.3% hard-hit rate is the lowest in the Majors – and, says MLB beat writer Zach Silver, “that’s a wholly important number in this era of baseball.” Even the ragtag band of misfits isn’t getting hit up hard. And that, for years, was a huge problem for this staff.
It’s easy to take this stretch of pitching excellence for granted. Orioles fans are used to being self-protective; the last five years have given us either devastating collapses (2016, 2017) or hopeless incompetence (2018, 2019, 2021). If people choose to believe this is all a mirage, that’s highly understandable. This team won’t be challenging for a Cy Young come the offseason. But still, with so much bad pitching in recent history, we should be more appreciate of stretches of excellence, not less. Maybe the offense will even awaken in time to catch the wave. That would be nice.