The Value Of Average Pitching

In a vacuum, the numbers look quite awful. By WAR standards, the Orioles’ rotation ranks just 12th in the American League. Their 4.26 ERA ranks just 10th. Their 4.37 FIP ranks just 13th. Heading into Tuesday’s action, the rotation has pitched 209.1 innings, also ranking 13th. They are a group that doesn’t strike out many batters either as their 18.9 percent strikeout rate is just 10th best. They also have the fifth worst walk percentage in the American League. 

With an offense that ranks just 13th in the American League in runs scored, it would seem likely that the Orioles are at the bottom of the division and struggling to play even .400 baseball. 

{Discuss the Orioles’ staff on the BSL Board}

Yet, the Orioles are in first place with 20 wins. They’ve spent a good chunk of time with their best offensive player, Chris Davis, on the disabled list. Manny Machado just came back from his ankle injury. Closer Tommy Hunter has made the 9th inning a roller coaster that brings back the days of Jorge Julio and Armando Benitez. 

One of the reasons for the Orioles excellent start is simply great timing. The Yankees have three of their five rotation members on the disabled list. Their worst case scenario is currently playing out with the veteran team dealing with a rash of injuries. The Red Sox were off to a slow start and to some degree still have a World Series hangover that has prevented them from winning consistently. The Rays have lost Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeremy Hellickson. And, the Blue Jays went into the season with deficiencies that would deter success. 

In short, the perfect storm has given the Orioles the opportunity to be in the top spot in the early going. Every one else in the division is dealing with extreme issues. The Orioles haven’t, especially in the most important areas. And, even as they have lost four straight, the rest of the division has more or less followed along by losing. 

The real reason for the Orioles’ early season success is the rotation’s one elite characteristic. The rotation, despite the lackluster statistics, has the brilliant ability to simply show up and be average. 

That may seem unimportant or a detriment. However, with the exception of the Red Sox, only the Orioles’ rotation has made each of their first seven or eight starts. The Yankees have already used seven different starters, with an eighth likely needed this weekend. The Rays have also used seven with Hellickson lost in the Spring. The Blue Jays have used six starters. 

The idea of showing up is generally undervalued. We tend to look for star performances or poor performances. An average pitcher who simply takes the ball is a valuable commodity. Making the rotation even more valuable is that they are consistently average. No team in the division, even the Red Sox, has a rotation that is comprised of five pitchers who are all posting league average results. The Red Sox have two pitchers, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront who have ERA’s over 5.00. 

Meanwhile, the Orioles have the following:

Chris Tillman: 8 starts, 47.1 innings, 3.97 ERA, 4.59 FIP

Bud Norris: 7 starts, 43 innings, 3.98 ERA, 4.68 FIP

Wei-Yin Chen: 7 starts, 41 innings, 3.95 ERA, 3.15 FIP

Ubaldo Jimenez: 8 starts, 47 innings, 4.02 ERA, 4.27 FIP

Miguel Gonzalez: 7 starts, 37.2 innings, 4.78 ERA, 4.72 FIP

None of that looks spectacular. Each starter averages about six innings per start. Each starter is either slightly above or right at league average. Each starter gives up about one home run per nine innings. The only other staff in the American League, aside from the Orioles and Red Sox, that has sent just five starters to the mound is the Los Angeles Angels. But, like the Red Sox, there is a member of the rotation that is worse than the league average. 

Being average has allowed the Orioles to post a winning record despite a poor offensive start. It has masked a thin bullpen. The rotation’s strength has been that it has kept pitchers seven, eight, and nine in the Minor Leagues or in the bullpen. That’s when teams get into trouble; the lower they get on the depth chart, the less likely the pitcher is of Major League caliber. The Yankees and Rays can attest to that. 

The average work of the rotation has also masked the underbelly of the Orioles’ bullpen. There is a legitimate case to be made that the back of the Orioles’ bullpen isn’t very good, but the last couple of pitchers on the staff have struggled. Luckily pitchers such as Josh Stinson and Evan Meek have been limited to just 22 combined innings. The fact that the rotation is a near lock for six innings, Manager Buck Showalter can, on most days, use his core relievers rather than reach deep into the bullpen. 

The best part about being consistently average is that it gives hope for better. Since the calendar turned to May, Ubaldo Jimenez has been more of the pitcher who led the Indians to the playoffs last season than the free agent bust he looked like in April. With a fix in his mechanics and better location, Jimenez has toed the rubber three times in May. In 19.2 innings, he has allowed 13 hits, 5 walks, and has struck out 20 batters. That comes along with a 0.86 ERA. If Jimenez morphs back into the upper echelon starter he was during the second half of last season, the Orioles rotation suddenly has a leader. 

Chris Tillman’s first three starts were excellent, but he has been more or less league average since. While the Orioles were hoping for more, there is value in giving those six inning, three runs allowed starts. With no pitcher performing poorly, the Orioles do hold a distinct advantage over most of the competition.  

Wednesday didn’t go as planned for the Orioles. The 7-5 loss the Tigers marked their fourth consecutive loss. It was particularly disappointing because the best pitcher in their system, Kevin Gausman, was making his season debut after a surprise call up. Gausman pitched two scoreless before the Tigers jumped on him for 5 runs over the last two innings. The decision was a bit bizarre in terms of timing because Gausman was just reactivated from the disabled list after battling pneumonia. He had made just one start since his return before this call up.

Gausman’s call up does signal the potential to be even better. If Gausman can pitch as expected and Jimenez continues to roll, the Orioles now have two above average starters along with a group of league average starters. That type of depth is a luxury in this season’s run of Tommy John surgeries. Because the Orioles rotation is competent, durable, and deep they become dangerous if one or two of them can perform at a higher level. None of their division competition currently have this.

Consistently average won’t garner headlines. It won’t make the highlight reels and it certainly won’t be something fans can boast about. But, it is the one thing that is keeping the Orioles in contention.  In a division full of injuries and inconsistency, having a group of average, consistent starters is an advantage. 

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About the author


Gary Armida  

Gary Armida is a Father to the best little girl in the world. After that, he is a writer who has been covering Major League Baseball since 2007. During that time, Gary operated FullCountpitch.com, one of the first independent online sites that gained Major League Baseball media credentials. Over the years, he has covered two Winter Meetings and has written feature articles for a variety of outlets while interviewing Major League personnel such as Rick Peterson, Jason Giambi, Zack Wheeler, Jeff Luhnow, Jack Zduriencik, Michael Bourn, and many others. In addition to his work at BSL, Gary contributes to USA Today Sports Weekly and maintains his personal site, garyarmida.com, that serves as his portfolio as well as a place for additional content.


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