The Orioles finished off the first half of the season on a five game winning streak. The offense—after falling largely dormant toward the end of June—woke up in a big way as the Orioles collected a 14-1 win over the Yankees and a 15-2 win against the Twins. The recent promotions of Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser—along with the return of Ryan Mountcastle from his bout with vertigo—mean this Orioles lineup is the strongest top to bottom that it’s been all season. Any concerns that popped up a couple weeks ago have been well and truly laid to rest.
An assessment of Birdland’s confidence in the pitching staff heading into the second half would not ring out as emphatically. That’s not to say that the pitching staff has been bad. In fact, over the winning streak the pitching has been just as impressive as the offense. The quintet of Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, Cole Irvin, Tyler Wells and Kyle Gibson combined to throw 32.1 innings, rack up 34 K’s and only allow six earned runs for a miniscule 1.67 ERA. Any way you slice it, that’s a dominant stretch of five games for this sometimes maligned O’s staff.
Even with a wonderful flourish to end the first half, the Orioles starting pitching over the first three months of the season was often far from inspiring. The O’s rotation currently ranks 17th in all of baseball with a collective -0.3 Wins Above Average. Perhaps more importantly, of the six American League teams currently in a playoff position, the Orioles rank 4th—ahead of Cleveland and Toronto and significantly behind Tampa Bay, Texas, and Houston.
It feels dubious that the O’s front office will make a major move to reinforce the rotation. And so it’ll be on the current crop of starters to continue to help carry the O’s toward a postseason appearance. With that in mind, we look at one thing each starter can improve on in the second half.
Tyler Wells: keep the baseball in the yard
Wells has been an inspiration for all Orioles starting pitchers this year. He led MLB in WHIP during the first half, and finished second only to Shohei Ohtani with a .193 BAA. At the beginning of June, I called Wells the Orioles ace and he’s continued to be ace-like over the last month. Most importantly, the Orioles are 11-7 in Wells 18 appearances this season.
Where Wells has been decidedly un-ace-like is the rate at which he gave up HRs in the first half. With a 5.2% HR rate, Wells is the second worst pitcher in all of baseball when it comes to giving up the long ball. The majority of the homers off Wells come off his cutter and fastball, often when he leaves them over the middle of the plate. Wells has excelled this year by dotting the corners with his impressive five pitch mix.
The Orioles’ third-year right hander doesn’t have overpowering stuff, so when he misses his spot, it’s much easier for hitters to launch those pitches. If Wells can focus on keeping those fastballs low and on the edges of the zone, we should see a dip in that HR rate in the second half—and maybe a top 10 Cy Young finish along with it.
Kyle Bradish: bring his fastball usage under 25%
While Wells has provided the Orioles with a consistent presence atop the rotation, Bradish’s first half was a tale of two halves. In his first eight starts, Bradish had a 4.34 ERA, was allowing opponents to hit .269 off him and put up only 32 Ks across 37.1 innings. Then in the second eight starts, Bradish was a different pitcher. He dropped his ERA to 2.51, brought down his BAA by more than 50 points and racked up 47 Ks in 46.2 innings.
Much of Bradish’ success came when he reduced his fastball usage and relied more heavily on his plus slider and curveball. Bradish has six starts this year where he’s thrown his fastball less than 25% of the time. In those starts, Bradish averaged 5.1 IP, posted a 3.66 ERA and a 9.8 K/9. In line with Bradish’s theme of getting better as the season goes on, the last three of those six starts saw him throw 18 innings, only allowed four earned runs (2.00 ERA) and picked up 16 Ks.
If Bradish can continue to keep his fastball usage at or below 25% in the second half, we should continue to see him get better as we get into September and October. After all, this is the same Bradish who twice dominated the eventual World Champion Astros at the end of last season. The more sliders and curves he throws, the closer he gets to being that pitcher.
Dean Kremer: reverse his sinker and cutter usage
Kremer was a confounding pitcher throughout much of the first half. If all you remember from him is his most recent outing—seven strong innings in the Bronx, only one run allowed and 10 Ks—you’d think that Kremer had a successful opening half of the season. The fourth-year right hander’s 4.78 ERA, .280 BAA and 1.37 WHIP tell a story of a pitcher who’s ran into plenty of struggles this season.
It’s truly been a roller-coaster ride for Kremer. He put up a 6.67 ERA in the first month of the season, brought it down to 2.45 in May, was back up at 5.91 in June before that great start in Yankee Stadium to begin his July.
A problem for Kremer has been his inability to develop a reliable secondary offering. Kremer’s fastball is his bread and butter: he throws it 36.5% time, uses it to in all counts and even uses it as his primary put away pitch. Kremer’s primary secondary offering has been his cutter, but that’s also been his worst pitch, with opponents slugging .581 off Kremer’s cutter.
The O’s starter’s sinker is the pitch he uses third most, at 15.2% of the time. However, Kremer has found much more success with the sinker compared to his cutter. Kremer’s sinker has the lowest BAA of his main pitches, and limits opposing hitters to a 40% hard hit rate—also lowest of Kremer’s pitches. If Kremer can start relying more on a fastball-sinker combo early in counts, he can then start using his cutter as a put away pitch It would also allow him to better play the cutter off his other pitches that break right-left like his curveball and sweeper.
Kyle Gibson: figure out a way to pitch lefties away
In many ways, Gibson performed exactly to expectations in the first half. His 4.60 ERA, .262 BAA and 45% GB rate are all more or less in line with Gibson’s career averages. He’s provided a steady veteran presence in the rotation, but forth some excellent performances (including the last game of the first half) but also had some games where he got knocked around.
One place where Gibson has struggled is against left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting .284 against Gibson, compared to .238 against righties. The 12-year vet pitches both sides of the plate the same: lots of sinkers, running balls away from righties and into lefties. Against the right handers, that strategy plays right into Gibson’s game plan—it’s hard to pull and lift balls that are low and away from you. However, against lefties, those low and inside pitches can easily turn into pitches that opponents can pull and drive.
Gibson’s best pitch against lefties has been his otherwise seldom used four-seam fastball.
If Gibson can continue to increase that fastball usage to keep the ball away from lefties, it should be an even more successful second half for the Orioles veteran leader.
Cole Irivn: continue to be unpredictable (in a good way)
Irvin only made 10 starts in the first half and struggled greatly early on—earning him a demotion to Norfolk. He’s been much better since his return from the minors, and across six appearances in June and July he has a 2.92 ERA with a .255 BAA.
A big difference in how Irvin has pitched since his return to the rotation is the unpredictability with his pitch mix. In some starts he’s leaned more on his sinker, in others his four-seamer. After throwing only two cutters in his first start back from Norfolk, Irvin recently threw 30 cutters in five innings of one-run ball against the Twins.
Early in the season Irvin was almost exclusively a fastball, changeup, curveball pitcher. The incorporation of his cutter and sinker—while also varying how he much he uses that changeup—has seen Irvin play up to the expectations that the Orioles had for him when they acquired him from Oakland. Irvin is still the last man in the rotation, and the most likely to be replaced should Grayson Rodriguez get called back up. However, if he can continue confounding hitters by effectively mixing pitches, he should be an effective member of the rotation in the second half.
Which Orioles starter will have the best second half?
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Starter not currently in the rotation