13 November 2014

The Future of the Orioles' Present Rotation

The 2014 postseason revealed the biggest weakness in the Baltimore Orioles rotation.

The weakness wasn't revealed during the Orioles' own postseason. Rather, the weakness revealed itself in the World Series. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series because they had a Madison Bumgarner, widely recognized as a top-flight starting pitcher and the one pitcher on either the Giants or Royals who could be projected to win a World Series game on his own.

The Orioles didn't have anyone like that. In 2014, the Orioles had five average to slightly-better-than-average starting pitchers, and one erratic starting pitcher who has been both very good and very bad (but very bad in 2014.) Given the Orioles defense and bullpen, that's good enough to get the team into the postseason, but may be problematic once in the postseason.

This is nothing new for the Orioles. Who was the last Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher to receive a vote in the Cy Young Award balloting? I wouldn't have guessed Erik Bedard, but that's who it was - he got one third-place vote in 2007. The Orioles probably haven't had a truly outstanding starting pitcher since Mike Mussina.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the Orioles' history itself shows that the lack of an ace doesn't necessarily mean that a team can't win in the postseason or that a pitcher can deliver a Bumgarner-like performance seemingly out of nowhere. In 1971, Steve Blass - who before he became associated with untamable wildness was a pitcher who would have fit nicely in the 2014 Orioles rotation - pitched two complete-game victories, giving up a total of 2 runs on 7 hits. I acknowledge that the Orioles' rotation doesn't necessarily doom them to postseason disappointment.

However, if the Orioles starting rotation DOES have a weakness, it's the lack of an identifiable ace. Looking at the current Orioles' rotation, it's hard to see any one of them developing into the ace the Orioles may need.

Kevin Gausman

Many Orioles fans hope and think that Kevin Gausman, the #4 overall draft pick in 2012, will develop into an ace. And he is the best bet among the current Orioles starters. Gausman was widely projected to be a potential ace as a top minor-league prospect. He reached the major leagues in his first full professional season and made 20 starts as a 23-year-old last season. And I think Gausman projects to be a good major-league starting pitcher. He throws very hard and has had some success in the majors. He's only 23; he turns 24 in January. There would appear to be plenty of room for development.
Kevin Gausman pitches at Norfolk in 2014. Photo courtesy of Elaina Ellis/Norfolk Tides,
The problem I see with Gausman is reflected in his hits-allowed rate. In both AAA and the majors, he's given up close to a hit per inning, which is a high rate for a pitcher who throws as hard as Gausman does. And it's easy to see why Gausman gives up a lot of hits - his fastball, while hard, is straight. So while Gausman can overpower some batters and rack up strikeouts, batters who can time his fastball and get around on it can hit the ball hard. That leads to base hits and home runs, both of which Gausman surrenders more frequently than a pitcher with a 96-mph fastball should.

Remember, I think Gausman is a good pitcher and will have a fine career. I just think that he's less likely to emerge as an ace than many others might. He reminds me of the Reds' Homer Bailey, a good pitcher who can contribute to a playoff team but isn't someone who can carry a team.

Chris Tillman

While I think Kevin Gausman will be a successful pitcher, I want Chris Tillman to be a successful pitcher; of all the players, the one I most want to succeed is either Chris Tillman or L.J. Hoes. I first saw Tillman when he reached Norfolk at age 21 in 2009; he pitched very well in 18 starts and was promoted to the Orioles. He struggled in the majors, and then spent 2010 and 2011 bouncing between Norfolk and Baltimore, always struggling in Baltimore and generally getting worse each season in Norfolk. By 2012, he was considered a disappointment, another in a long line of hot pitching prospects who failed their major league trials.

When Tillman was promoted to the major leagues in 2012, it was his fourth major league shot and he hadn't been pitching all that well at Norfolk (although he was pitching better just before his promotion). It wouldn't be a stretch to say Tillman was promoted because there were no other options. The fourth time was the charm; he pitched well. He continued to pitch well in 2013 and 2014. He's pitched 200 innings in each season, with adjusted ERAs of 110 and 114. He'll turn 27 in April.

Tillman is a good, durable, relatively young pitcher. When he was young, he was considered a potential star. After his first three failures, he was considered a bust. He's rebounded from that to have established a level of success. Fans, remembering his early promise, may be hoping that he'll take it up a notch and become the ace he was predicted to be.

It's unlikely. Tillman has been very consistent in 2013-2014; it seems likely that this is his level of performance rather than a springboard for greatness. Also, according to baseball-reference.com, the most-relevant similar player to Tillman is Matt Garza. Garza, who through age 26 had pitched consistently at Tillman's level, has remained an effective pitcher, but has not improved to the level which his teams had hoped. It seems more likely that Tillman will be a Matt Garza, a consistently solid pitcher but not a star.

Miguel Gonzalez

As has been written in this article, Miguel Gonzalez has over the past three seasons been more effective at run prevention than would be expected from his component results. When Gonzalez first became a starting pitcher with the Orioles. I was skeptical that he could stay healthy. He missed two full seasons with injury, and he had had only one season as a full-time starting pitcher. But in the past three seasons Gonzalez has been able to avoid serious injury; he served a fifteen-day stint on the disabled list with a minor injury but was not affected.

His past injuries may have now become an asset rather than a liability. His arm is fresher than the arms of most 31-year-old pitchers (he turns 31 in January), and he has established that he's not more injury-prone than any other pitcher. But he's also a 31-year-old pitcher who has not demonstrated star ability, and is very unlikely to emerge as an ace.

Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris

I have not seen Chen nor Norris pitch at Norfolk and don't have any connection to either of them. Chen, the only left-hander in the rotation, has a career ERA+ of 105; his individual seasons are 105, 100, and 108. He's improved his control; he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in 2014. He's likely to rmain an effective pitcher but not to improve greatly. Norris had his best season in 2014, and he pitched 165 innings with an adjusted ERA+ of 105. He'll turn 30 in March. There's no reason to believe that he'll be any more than an adequate #4 or #5 starter.

Ubaldo Jimenez

Whereas the other Orioles starters are consistently sort of okay, Ubaldo Jimenez has had some outstanding seasons (2009 and 2010; in 2010 Jimenez earned Cy Young votes, the only Orioles starter to have done so in his career) and some terrible seasons (2012 and 2014). The difference is clear; Jimenez was able to avoid home runs in his good seasons and gave up a lot of home runs in his bad seasons. He's been four years removed from his outstanding seasons, and it's now unlikely that he'll return to that level.

So, it's not likely that the Orioles will find their ace from among the pitchers in their 2014 rotation. In my next article, we'll look at the candidates currently in their farm system.


Unknown said...

Interested to see the farm system write up. Especially Bundy/Harvey.

Anonymous said...

The idea that having an ace is necessary for playoff success is popular, and it's hard to argue that having a top-flight pitcher for potentially three starts in a short series is a bad thing. But consider Clayton Kershaw's NLDS this year: 12.2 IP, 11 ER. The playoffs are too vulnerable to randomness to make even the undisputed best pitcher in the game a guarantee of victory.

While having an ace is better than not having one, I think the Os collection of lower-tier, cost-controlled starters is a perfectly viable path to a championship, provided the savings are invested in an outstanding bullpen and defense. Defense of course plays no matter who is pitching, and the playoff schedule is so spread out that teams can run the top of their bullpen out every game without risk of fatigue (as KC showed). With a great bullpen, I feel like the best strategy in the playoffs would be to tell your "starter" to let it fly because you're lifting him after 60 pitches and using a parade of relievers.

I think the key going forward for the Orioles will be to acquire or develop a few hitters who can work the count and get on base more frequently. Chewing up a pitching staff will make it more likely that they get to face the weak links in the other team's bullpen, which they did to great success in the Detroit series (and which was done to them in the KC series).

Philip said...

And just for Fun, Rodriguez.

Unknown said...

#Anonymous - Of course having an ace is no guarantee of a championship, and it's a popular theory that you can ride a great bullpen and adequate starters to a championship. However, even in recent times most World Series have been won by a team that got a great start from a starting pitcher. And, Kansas City did lose this World Series.

Anonymous said...

Any chance we can get Arrieta back from the Cubs?

Matt Kremnitzer said...


Anonymous said...

All things considered about starting pitching, this post season would have looked very different if Weiters, Davis, and Muchado had been playing.

Benny D. said...

I think you guys put way too much emphasis on statistical analysis. Chen, Tillman, Norris,Gonzalez, and even Gausman are fully capable of a 20 win season next season. Consider how many of our rotisseire teams and fantasy teams fall short of expectations and then you'll have some player come out of nowhere for a big season.....Mora's wife had five kids one off season and the next year he hit .317.

Pat Holden said...

Benny, What should be emphasized in place of statistical analysis? It seems as if you are suggesting less statistical analysis and more waiting for random, unlikely luck to come along.