The Orioles have a huge problem. Actually, they’ve got a number of them. I mean, it isn’t good that none of Rickard, Kim or Trumbo can play passable defense in the outfield and therefore the Orioles have two competent defensive outfielders. It is worrisome that the Orioles have no infield depth to speak of, and JJ Hardy will be out for the next six weeks. It’s problematic that the Orioles basically have four 1B/DHs on the roster: Pedro Alvarez, Mark Trumbo, Hyun Soo Kim and Chris Davis, and have a fifth in Jimmy Paredes expected to return from the DL in the near future. It can’t be good that Zach Britton is day-to-day, that Dylan Bundy has two strikeouts in seven innings, and Hunter Harvey is back on the DL with yet another injury. But all of that can be worked around and pales in comparison to their real problem. The real problem is their starting rotation has been a dumpster fire or a complete disaster.
At the team level, it doesn’t look so bad. Sure, they have a 4.62 ERA good for sixth worst in the AL. And yes, opposing batters only have a .218/.336/.294 line with runners in scoring position with zero home runs, a .260 BABIP, a 13.5 K% rate and a 10.1 BB% rate. Opposing batters are going to start hitting for power with men on base, with potentially disastrous results for this staff. It isn’t a good sign that the Orioles rotation is averaging only 5.29 innings per start, which is the eleventh lowest rate in the majors since 1974 (total sample size is 1294). In the interest of full disclosure, the Reds (10-16), Brewers (10-15) and Rockies (12-13) starting rotations all average fewer innings per start than the Orioles. And let’s not forget the Orioles only have 8 quality starts so far this season, good for a 32% rate. League average is 48%.
But if you ignore those small details, they also have a respectable 3.97 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP. They have a surprisingly poor LOB% of 68.7%, good for third worst in the AL. It seems possible that some of the starting rotation’s problems should be blamed on the defense and that the rotation is middle of the pack. After all, why would a defense with an Rickard, Jones, Trumbo outfield and having JJ Hardy on the shelf struggle?
But the problem comes into focus when you look at the pitchers individually. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman have done well. Tillman may only be averaging 5.33 innings a start (although a severe rain delay hurt him in this regard), but he has a 2.81 ERA, a 26% K-rate and has been worth 1 fWAR. Aside from one game where he struggled, he’s been excellent. Gausman has played in only two games, but has a 2.45 ERA, a 22.7% K-Rate and a 3.53 FIP. All in all, these guys are showing ability.
But the rest of the rotation has been terrible. Tyler Wilson is the only other starter with an ERA below 5.00 as a starter, and has an FIP of 5.35. He’s extremely hittable with a strikeout rate of just 12.2% and a walk rate of 2.4%. He could possibly be serviceable with a good defense, but the defense has some issues. No, I don’t care how he has performed as a reliever. Vance Worley has an ERA of 5.06 and an FIP of 4.57. He’s got the best K-BB% on the team at 17% and has an excellent K% rate of 23.4%. He’s struggled due to a high HR/9 rate and a low LOB%. Ubaldo Jimenez has been his usual Jekyll-and-Hyde self with two good starts and two poor ones. He has an ERA of 5.20, but has an FIP of 4.70 and an xFIP of 3.92. He’s likely better then he’s performed so far, although it isn’t likely that he’ll be a staff ace. Gallardo and Wright have also struggled, and Gallardo is currently on the DL and throwing an 88 mph fastball when healthy. Jimenez and Gallardo are the only two guys in this list that have a track record suggesting that they can start, and Gallardo certainly has had issues to start this year. Unless you believe in Wandy Rodriguez, it’s not like the Orioles have much help available in the minors. All in all, it’s pretty clear that the Orioles only have three starting caliber pitchers.
The Orioles could look into trading for a starter, but without a farm system or excess payroll it’s hard to see who they can add. Also, it’s questionable how much one starting pitcher will help their rotation given that they need three. Not to mention that it’s just the beginning of May and it’s hard to trade for a pitcher before July. The Orioles have roughly another sixty games until the all-star break and probably need a solution before that point of the season.
This rotation is going to make it hard for the club to win games and is going to kill the bullpen. Most of these starters largely can’t go deep into games and aren’t effective even in their limited playing time. That’s why the Orioles should go outside of the box and use a four man rotation. But I have a different idea of how that would work than the usual.
Tillman and Gausman would be the #1 and #3 starters respectively. They pitch every five games. If you have two legit starters, you might as well use them. The guys in the #2 spot are Jimenez/Worley and the guys in the #4 spot are Gallardo/Bundy (with Gallardo hurt, Wilson takes his spot). The first starter goes through the order twice and the second starter goes through the order once. This results in the two starters facing 27 batters and hopefully going through at least six innings but hopefully seven. This allows for a six man bullpen of Britton, O’Day, Brach, Givens, Matusz and McFarland.
A team can play a maximum of twenty games without an off day. So, the schedule would look something like this:
As you can see, Tillman and Gausman are on a regular schedule. The combo starters get between three and four days of rest per start. This is normally considered short rest, but these pitchers will have a much reduced workload. In addition, it is possible to have Worley go four innings instead of Jimenez every once in a while and to have McFarland start instead of Gallardo, Wilson, Wright or whoever. Wilson, Wright and McFarland all have options remaining and therefore it would even be possible to swap them out regularly to ensure that each gets enough rest.
The starting pitchers wouldn’t be very happy with this plan. Gallardo and Jimenez aren’t going to be getting many wins if they can’t throw five innings. But Gallardo is throwing his fastball at 88 and has a 7 ERA. If he can’t improve on that, it’s not like he’s going to be in huge demand come next free agency. Jimenez is performing better, but he’d have a chance to factor in the decisions of over 40 games. With decent performance, he could easily be a twenty game winner.
This plan would mean the bullpen is a man short. But it would also mean that the rotation would have a better chance of going six or more innings in a given night. If these pitchers can go deeper into games, then the bullpen will remain in better shape. This plan would require Tillman and Gausman to successfully produce. If they struggle, or aren’t able to average six innings an outing on a regular basis, then this will be problematic. But the alternative is hoping that starting pitchers that have been poor so far and have a bad track record will suddenly become good. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Orioles do have a lot of flaws, but they’re largely offset by the fact that they’re able to crush the ball. The offense, with a wRC+ of 119, is ranked the best in the AL. They’ve scored a respectable high 4.5 runs per game. Their hitting will make up for a lot of weaknesses. And if the Orioles are willing to go outside of the box to fix one of their largest flaws, they may just defy the projections yet again this season.