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With Corbin Burnes, the Orioles rotation could be better than we dared to dream

80% of the Orioles rotation had a great second half of last season

Washington Nationals v Milwaukee Brewers
Same, honestly.
Photo by Kayla Wolf/Getty Images

When considering baseball statistics, it is always important to guard against the siren songs of small sample sizes and arbitrary endpoints. We’re all too smart for that. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s also the case that this is the week of the Orioles getting a new owner and making the major trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. This is a time for irrational exuberance until reality rains on this parade.

With that in mind, let us consider a set of results from the second half of last season, and imagine the good things that could occur in 2024 if something like those results carries over. The tentative Orioles rotation for the coming season, now with 2021 Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes presumably added to the top of it, is 80% made up of guys who were collectively pretty freaking awesome after the All-Star break last year.

Two 2024 Orioles starting pitchers were in the top five in second half ERA for 2023 - and neither one of these guys was Burnes, actually. It is Kyle Bradish who pitched his way into second place on the ERA leaderboard for the post-All-Star period last season, rolling to a 2.34 ERA in 14 starts. He was averaging six innings per start while doing this. That’s only a half-season sample, of course, but that’s ace-level results.

After his struggles in the first half of last season, some people abandoned the Grayson Rodriguez hype train. That first half was pretty bad. There’s no denying it. The idea that Rodriguez might be the kind of guy who’s good enough to come up and immediately dominate was dashed within a handful of starts. His demotion to the minors was a downer. What if he was just going to be the latest Orioles pitching prospect to stumble and never recover?

Rodriguez returned for the second half of last season and he also dropped some ace-level results on the league after his return. Over 13 starts after the break, Rodriguez posted a 2.58 ERA over 76.2 innings, tied for fourth place in ERA among all starting pitchers over that period of time. His postseason performance means our most recent memory of him is not a good one, but even so, that was a seriously awesome second half.

You don’t have to go beyond the top ten, or change the first digit of the ERA leaderboard to a 3, before you find now-Oriole Burnes on this list of second half performers. Burnes was not at his best in the first half of last season. “Not his best” was still pretty darn good, as even while “struggling” Burnes had a 3.94 ERA and struck out nearly a batter every inning. That would have been the second-best in the O’s rotation last year on its own.

Much more fun was the second half from Burnes, when he stomped on the league, holding batters to a .553 OPS against him over 14 starts. The strikeout rate was back up, the walk rate was back down, and Burnes finished that split with a 2.71 ERA.

Worth remembering: Burnes has struck out 200 or more batters in each of the last three seasons. The Orioles have had only five such seasons from a pitcher since arriving in Baltimore in 1954, none more recently than 2007. (Hall of Fame Oriole Mike Mussina did it three times.) Watching Burnes take a run at that leaderboard should be one of the fun ongoing 2024 O’s stories.

The idea of this trio cutting loose in Orioles uniforms this year is exciting enough. There is a fourth O’s name who pops up on this leaderboard. Dean Kremer’s second half of the 2023 season wasn’t too bad either. Though he wasn’t chewing up innings the same way as these other guys, nor stopping batters at quite the same rates, Kremer still gets into the top 20 for second half ERA with his 3.25 from the All-Star break onward.

It’s not very likely that any of these guys will post a full-season ERA number that’s as good as any of this second half of last year stuff. That’s the dose of reality. There were only five qualified starting pitchers with full season ERAs under 3 last year. One of them, though, was Bradish - and Burnes accomplished this feat in 2021 and 2022.

On the other hand, sometimes a great second half really does carry over to the next season. We don’t have to look any farther than the Orioles rotation for an example of this. Bradish had some terrible results when he got his own first taste of the big league in 2022, getting punished with a .967 OPS against and a 7.38 ERA across ten starts. In the second half he held batters to a .607 OPS and he dropped to a 3.28 ERA for that part of the season. We already know what Bradish did in 2023. Whatever adjustment he made was a durable one.

Even before the Burnes trade, there was plenty of potential for the Orioles to have a pretty good top part of the rotation. Now that potential has a much better chance of being achieved, and along the way the middle of the rotation shouldn’t be too bad either. The Burnes trade has opened up possibilities that are so exciting that I don’t even know how to handle thinking about them. I hope that this fun feeling lasts all through the coming season.