June 17, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Of Birds and Bats
The Orioles' collection of high-upside young starters—Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman—was supposed to be the team's ticket out of irrelevance, the prescription to help the once model franchise end a humiliating streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons. Yet several recent headlines suggest a staff going to seed. Matusz, the most established of the group, left his latest start after retiring only four out of 13 hitters, with his average velocity down as much as four miles per hour. Britton, whose arrival in the majors was accelerated by Matsuz's two-month absence due to an intercostal strain, will skip a turn in an effort to limit his workload, conjuring images of the Yankees' futile machinations involving Joba Chamberlain. Finally, the club announced that pitching coach Mark Connor had resigned due to personal reasons, with bullpen coach Rick Adair taking over. Collectively, these stories paint a picture of an organization struggling mightily to develop young pitchers as they fumble along just below .500 (31-35) and last in the AL East, but pitching isn't what's keeping the Orioles down.
Although the O's finished 66-96 last year, theirs was a tale of two seasons; they produced the league's best record after August 3, when manager Buck Showalter arrived. The turnaround had everything to do with improved pitching and defense:
Oriole pitchers did a much better job of controlling the strike zone after Showalter arrived, and the defense—aided by Brian Roberts' return from injury and Miguel Tejada's departure via trade—provided much-improved support to boot, paring more than 1.7 runs per game off the ledger.
Thus it wasn't entirely a shock when PECOTA forecast the Orioles to finish 81-81 this season, fourth in the division, but 15 games better than last year. When the team bolted to a 6-1 record, expectations may have become too outsized, particularly as they held a share of first place through the season's first 13 days; this roster wasn't built to win at a .625 clip, as they had done under Showalter to that point.
The Orioles' run prevention (4.69 per game) ranks 11th in the league, exactly where PECOTA projected them, though the shape of how they've gotten there isn't quite as predicted. Matusz, who projected to have the rotation's lowest ERA, has been roughed up in his three starts. Britton, who ranked among the game's top 20 prospects coming into the season, has stepped into the breach and posted the rotation's lowest ERA (3.18) despite mediocre strikeout and walk rates (5.2 and 3.2 per nine, respectively). Tillman has pared his home-run rate drastically, from 1.8 per nine in 2009-2010 to 0.4 this year, but an inflated walk rate (3.8 per nine) and ERA (4.69) led to his demotion to Triple-A upon Matusz's activation, though he should return soon. Arrieta has boosted his strikeout rate from 4.7 per nine to 7.5, but with worse luck on the HR/FB front, his 4.48 ERA hasn't improved much over last year. Elder statesman Jeremy Guthrie's 3.77 ERA is a carbon copy of last year; his real problem is a team-low 3.2 runs per game of offensive support en route to a 2-8 won-loss record.
Collectively, Orioles starters are 11th in the league in ERA (4.20), 12th in strikeout rate (5.9 per nine) and quality start percentage (50 percent), the latter a product of young arms on short leashes. Their bullpen has been similarly subpar, with a 4.36 ERA and an above-average percentage of inherited runners scored, but not drastically so.
Offense is where the Orioles' real heartaches begin. Pegged to rank third in scoring, instead they're 10th at 4.11 runs per game, and 11th in True Average at .257. The team's four key winter additions—DH Vladimir Guerrero, first baseman Derrek Lee, shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds—looked to be major upgrades at positions where last year's stiffs combined to hit .240/.288/.343, if you consider that Guerrero's arrival bumped incumbent Luke Scott into the left-field slot inadequately manned by Felix Pie and Corey Patterson. Alas, three newcomers are underproducing relative to expectations, two of them significantly:
The 35-year-old Lee has battled thumb and oblique injuries en route to a bare .223/.299/.324, while the 36-year-old Guerrero is hitting just .281/.310/.394, with career-low walk and isolated power rates. Free-agent flops are nothing new to this franchise, though, and at least both are one-year rentals.
More disturbing are mainstays Markakis and Roberts, their two highest-paid players, owed a collective $63 million through 2014 and 2013, respectively. The 27-year-old Markakis is suffering through a mysterious power outage, recently going 100 plate appearances between extra-base hits; he's batting just .249/.307/.330 in what should be a peak season. The 33-year-old Roberts battled back problems this spring and suffered a concussion following a head-first slide in mid May, this on top of a self-induced concussion late last year, when in frustration he conked himself on the head with a bat following a strikeout.
The Orioles aren't out of the wilderness yet, but all is not lost. The issues with Matusz and Britton shall hopefully pass; the former is effectively in spring training mode, the latter won't turn into Chamberlain simply by missing a turn. Small advances made by the other starters leave room for optimism, and once Roberts returns, the staff's BABIP (.282 with him, .305 since he left) should subside. Absent health issues, the established hitters should heat up. The Orioles can't erase 13 years of dreadful history in a couple of months, but so long as they maintain patience, they'll remain on a better path than before.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Note: all stats through Wednesday.