30 Reasons to be Excited About the Orioles Starting Pitching

I am turning over a new leaf. I no longer want to get worked up over every slight thrown the Orioles way from the Baseball media at large to the point where I feel the need to respond and 'defend' the team. Between now and Opening Day, you can read dozens of articles dissecting why the 2013 Orioles will be a bad team. I am tired of reading them and I am tired of validating that opinion as the standard one by responding the criticisms laid out in those articles. Instead, I am going to be all positive from here on out. Instead of writing about how the Orioles won't finish under .500, I want to write about why they will finish over .500 and are a legitimate contender in the AL East. We start today with "30 Reasons to be Excited About the Orioles Starting Pitching"

photo

30. Deep Depth – The Orioles have no less than 15 pitchers that could reasonably be considered for a starting rotation spot at some point during the 2013 season: Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland, Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, Tsuyoshi Wada, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Todd Redmond.

29. T.J. McFarland – If the Orioles can figure out a way to keep Rule 5 draft pick T.J. McFarland this season, the 23 year-old could have a place as an innings-eater 5th starter for Baltimore. As I detailed here, the sinkerball-throwing lefty has a profile that suggests he could slip into an innings-eating, 5th starter role right out of the gate if given the opportunity. Not bad for a pitcher that is likely no higher than 7th on the current starting pitching depth chart and was acquired virtually for free this December.

28. Rick Peterson and Biomechanical AnalysisIn the middle of May last season, Orioles Director of Pitching Development Rick Peterson sat down with Chris Tillman and AAA pitching coach Mike Griffin in Norfolk. Peterson showed Tillman and Griffin some of the discoveries that had been made in Tillman’s mechanics when his delivery underwent a biomechanical analysis during Spring Training. Peterson and Griffin made some suggestions which resulted in a shorter, compact delivery for Tillman. About a month later, Tillman had lowered his ERA by more than a run and was experiencing a noticeable uptick in velocity – two developments he later carried with him to his successful stint in the Majors. It is hard to say how much Peterson’s biomechanical pitching philosophies played a role in Tillman’s resurgence – or with Arrieta, Matusz, and other pitchers he was worked carefully with – but it is impossible to discount the impact entirely.

27. A Possible Jair Jurrjens Resurgence – Significant knee issues have derailed – and are threatening to end – Jair Jurrjens career. Jair missed time with a torn meniscus in 2010 and early 2011, but nonetheless managed to be among the National League leaders in ERA through July when the knee began acting up again. Jurrjens struggled in his remaining starts that season and was ineffective in 2012 to the point that Atlanta demoted him and later designated the right-hander for assignment this winter. So what’s the good news? The good news is that from the time Jurrjens cracked the Braves rotation as a 22-year old in 2008 through mid-2011, his results were good – sometimes really good. Jurrjens is only 27 and was an extremely effective pitcher less than a season and a half ago. The knee issues are clearly the source of Jurrjens’ ineffectiveness, which in some ways is a good thing. If he can get past the knee problems that have hindered his ability to pitch effectively – and that might be a big “if” – Jurrjens is clearly a Major League caliber starter.

26. Strong Pedigree – For those who place an emphasize on these sorts of things, the Orioles rotation mix includes four 1st round amateur selections (Matusz, Bundy, Gausman, and Hunter), one 2nd rounder (Tillman), and two 4th round selections (McFarland and Britton). Eight of the potential rotation candidates (Hammel, Tillman, Britton, Jurrjens, Arrieta, Matusz, Bundy, and Gausman) appeared on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list at least once during their minor league careers.

25. Bullpen/Rotation Flexibility – Based on the numbers crunch in the rotation and their strong 2012 performances out of the bullpen, there is a good chance that both Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz work in relief to start the 2013 season. The two pitchers will nonetheless get a look as starters during the Spring and be stretched out as starting pitchers. Given that both have spent the vast majority of their pro careers in a starting role, they could be slipped back into that role if the need arises. This provides the Orioles with a little added flexibility. If a starter is injured pre-game, Buck has the option of throwing Matusz or Hunter – both of whom started 15+ games just last season. In any other scenario where the Orioles might need a spot starter – rain out, double header, extra rest for a pitcher – but cannot or do not want to call up an additional player, Matusz and Hunter provide another option with their ability to act as “swing men” out the bullpen if so desired.

24. Consistency – Quality Starts – defined as the starting pitcher allowing 3 ER or less and pitching 6 or more innings – is not a perfect measure of performance or consistency. A pitcher that allowed 4 runs over 8 innings had just as good of a start – if not better – than a pitcher that threw exactly 6 innings and allowed 3 earned runs. Nonetheless, there is some value to the measure as starter that reaches that mark is usually keeping his team in the game and giving them a chance to win on a consistent basis. Miguel Gonzalez recorded a quality in 67% of his starts last season which was good enough for a tie for 9th in the AL amongst starters with more than 80 innings pitched. On a percentage basis, Miguel delivered a quality start more often in 2012 than pitchers such as Hideki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, James Shields, CJ Wilson, Felix Hernandez, and Doug Fister to name a few. Chris Tillman checked in at 60% (23rd) and Wei-Yin Chen at 53% (33rd). Those three give the Orioles a solid chance to win more than half the time they take the mound.

23. Above Average Infield Defense – There was some talk earlier this winter about the Orioles trading for Rick Porcello of the Tigers. The Orioles liked Porcello and there was a school of thought that as a ground ball pitcher, he would be greatly aided by getting away from the Tiger’s bad infield defense and joining an Orioles’ team with above average defense in the infield. Porcello is still a Tiger of course, but the Baltimore infield – which should be above average defensively especially on the left side – could still have a positive impact on the starting pitchers the Orioles do have. Hammel (1.17 GB/FB in 2012), Britton (1.55 GB/FB in 2012 in the Majors), and McFarland (1.80 GO/AO in 2012 in the Minors) are all sinker ball pitchers who should feel the most benefit from a solid infield defense.

22. Matt Wieters Behind the Plate – The Baltimore backstop has made a reputation for himself around baseball as one of the top defensive catchers in the game which has earned him back-to-back All-Star appearances and gold glove awards. Wieter’s game calling abilities are also lauded by all of those around him. There is a reason that Buck Showalter cannot go a post-game press conference without mentioning Wieter’s contributions to the game – he truly does add value every pitch of every game with his pitching call, receiving skills, and pitch blocking abilities behind the plate. By all accounts, Matt Wieters truly does make the game easier on his pitchers and allows them to focus their attention on their pitching.

21. Really Deep Depth – In four Major League starts last season for Baltimore, Steve Johnson averaged 5 ½ IP per start, went 3-0, had an ERA of 2.86, and struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings. Impressive right? Johnson is somewhere between 7th and 10th on the starting pitching depth chart for the Orioles as Spring Training begins. That’s depth.

20. Dr. K – According to Tsuyoshi Wada’s Baseball Reference player page, his nickname is Dr. K. That’s pretty awesome. The lefty – who Buck Showalter felt was the team’s second best starter at the end of Spring Training in 2012 – is also ahead of schedule in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He could be ready to contribute to the Big League club in May or June and provide a spark to the rotation if needed.

19. Lefties that can Shut Down Lefties – Of the 15 starting pitchers that could see time in Baltimore this season, 5 are left-handers (Britton, Chen, Wada, McFarland, and Matusz). Left-handed pitchers – especially quality ones – are a rare commodity indeed. Their value is perhaps even more important to the Orioles, who face a lefty-heavy Yankee lineup 19 times a year and given their options, should be able to make life as miserable for the Robinson Canos and Curtis Grandersons of the world.

18. Righties that can Shut Down Lefties – Here are the 2012 platoon splits for the three right-handed starters expected to be in the Opening Day rotation:

Chris Tillman: 138 PA, .701 OPS vs. RHB; 209 PA, .601 OPS vs. LHB

Jason Hammel: 236 PA, .692 OPS vs. RHB, 257 PA, .586 OPS vs. LHB

Miguel Gonzalez: 209 PA, .685 OPS vs. RHB, 225 PA, .701 OPS vs. LHB

Tillman and Hammel actually demonstrated reverse platoon splits last season while Gonzalez showed no real discernible splits. The ability for a RHP to shut down left-handed hitters is very important. For one, managers are likely to start an abundance of left-handed hitters against a right-handed pitcher regardless of the pitcher’s splits. This is seen in how all three righties faced many more left-handed batters in 2012. It is important for a right-handed pitcher to be effective against left-handed batters – it is a GREAT bonus if they can practically shut them down like Tillman and Hammel did in 2012. The ability of that trio to get out batters from both sides of the plate was big to their success in 2012 and could be again this upcoming season.

17. Zach Britton – It is sometimes easy to forget that we are less than 1 ½ seasons removed from Zach Britton being the 28th best prospect in all of baseball and owning a 3.19 ERA on June 22nd after 15 Big League Starts. Britton was well on his way to a solid, Rookie of the Year caliber campaign when he began experiencing discomfort in his shoulder. The shoulder pain never went away (even into the off season) and the injury impacted the left-hander’s on-field performance. Zach received treatment last Spring but never quite got his arm into 100% game shape during an up and down 2012 season. Reports are that Britton is now completely healthy and throwing the ball as well as he ever has. Britton is still only 25 years old and if truly healthy, has the stuff – including a wicked sinker that effective as both a groundball and strikeout pitch – and the past results to be a #2 or #3 starter for the Orioles in 2013.

16. Addition by Subtraction – This is supposed to be a wholly-positive article so I am apologetic to mention that Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz made 60% of the Orioles starts during the first three months of the season and were truly awful in doing so. The trio had an ERA north of 5.50 during that period, numbers which dragged down the final 2012 starting pitching numbers for the entire staff. When journalists look at Baltimore’s starter ERA of 4.42 and state that they will have to be far better in 2013 if they wish to be successful, they really are not being fair. That ERA includes the previously mentioned starts from Hunter, Matusz, and Arrieta – not to mention Dana Eveland and Randy Wolf amongst others – who likely won’t factor into the rotation again. Hunter and Matusz are most certainly bullpen bound and Arrieta will only be in the rotation if his results are much improved over 2012. Truthfully, a more accurate starting point would be the starter’s 4.01 ERA in the second half of the season when the Orioles current projected rotation was largely intact. The Orioles starters – the ones who will likely be in the rotation – were much more of a 4.00 ERA group than a 4.42 ERA group.

15. The InvisiballOpponents and teammates have described Steve Johnson’s fastball as an “invisible fastball”. That is to say, his fastball is ordinary in speed but to a batter, it seems to get to home plate much quicker than one would expect. It is a normal – below average in some ways – fastball but hitters simply cannot pick it up. It is invisible. When the Orioles claimed Todd Redmond off of waivers several weeks ago, I typed his name into Google and ran across similar references to his “invisiball” – a seemingly pedestrian fastball that hitters struggle making contact with. In both Johnson’s and Redmond’s cases, it is your typical backhanded baseball compliment. What people are really saying is that their fastballs are not that great when you see them but somehow they are effective. Personally, I love that. Nothing better than having two potential starters who can strike Major League hitters out while leaving fans, coaches, and players all wondering in unison: “How the heck did he just do that”? Because really, is that not what everyone is asking about the Orioles anyway?

14. The Top Pitching Prospect in BaseballDylan Bundy has ranked as the top pitcher on virtually every prospect list this winter, usually falling in the #2 or #3 spot overall on these lists. It is always great to have the top pitching prospect in baseball. It is even better when that prospect dominated low-A and advanced-A in his first professional season, made it to AA, and got his feet wet in the Majors with a couple of innings thrown out of the bullpen in September. Bundy is not just a top prospect – he is a near-Major League ready top prospect. In Bundy, the Orioles have a weapon that few other teams possess going into the 2013 season. 2012 1st Round draft pick Kevin Gausman is pretty good, too.

13. Young but Experienced – Eight of the starting rotation candidates have started 32 or more Major League starts in their careers. A ninth – Tsuyoshi Wada – has made 88 career starts in the Nippon Baseball League in Japan. Miguel Gonzalez has made 15 career Major League starts. Only prospect Kevin Gausman and Wada have no Major League experience in that 15-player group. The results have been mixed for sure, but there is a lot more experience amongst this group than what might initially think.

12. Flexibility – Chen, Wada, Gonzalez, Johnson, Britton, Matusz, Bundy, Redmond, and Arrieta are all on the 40-man roster but can have at least one remaining Minor League option that can be used to send the player to the Minor Leagues during the 2013 season. Jair Jurrjens and Kevin Gausman are under minor league contracts but have all three of their Minor League options if they are ever added to the 40-man roster during the season. In the unlikely event that the Orioles wish to option Jason Hammel, he can be optioned to the minors as long as he gives the team his permission (given that he has more than 5 years of Major League service time). T.J. McFarland has three options remaining, but cannot be optioned as a Rule 5 pick unless Baltimore works out a trade with the Indians for his full services. That is nine 40-man starters with options, two non-40 man pitchers with his options, one 40-man starter with options but 5 years of Major League service time, and a Rule 5 draft pick. Only Hunter and Tillman are completely out of options. Baltimore has a ton of flexibility to maneuver the roster as they see fit and utilize the pitchers that will give them the best chance of winning.

11. Jason Hammel’s Two-Seam FastballJason Hammel experienced a breakout season in 2012 largely due to the development of a very effective two-seam fastball. The sinking fastball was not only effective our inducing groundballs – Hammel’s groundball/fly ball ratio of 1.17 was 23rd among all Major League pitchers with 100 or more innings thrown in 2012 – but also aided him in being an effective strikeout pitcher. Of the twenty-two pitchers with a better GB/FB rate in 2012, only Tampa’s David Price (8.74 K/9) struck out more batters per nine innings than Hammel (8.62 K/9). The combination of ground balsl and strike outs make Jason Hammel a very rare and effective starting pitcher.

10. Wei-Yin Chen – What is there not to like about Wei-Yin? He is a fierce competitor and a smart pitcher. He lead the Orioles in innings pitched in 2012 with 192.2 over 32 starts, despite having to make the transition from the 6-man rotations of the Nippon Baseball League to the 5-man Major League rotation. Like others in the Baltimore rotation, is underlying stuff will not floor you but as clichéd as it sounds, he knows how to pitch. Chen has not rested on his laurels as demonstrated by his decision to train in California with Brady Anderson this winter and to forgo pitching for his home country of Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic this March. While some look at Chen’s stuff and numbers are predict regression, watching him take the mound 32 times last season I am convinced he will be a solid #3 starter with an ERA right around 4.00 for many years to come. At 27 years old and making under $5 million per season, few teams have a pitcher that can beat Chen’s overall package.

9. Really, Really Deep Depth – As a 27 year old in the International League in 2012, Todd Redmond struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings, walked 2.4 per nine and gave up 9.1 H/9 which allowed him to pitch to a solid 3.63 ERA, win 8 games, and earn the distinction of being the only starter not in the Reds Opening Day rotation to make a start for Cincinnati last season. Zach Clark altered his mechanics which allowed him to add a couple of MPH to his fastball last season. He utilized that improvement to pitch to a 2.79 ERA and allow only 8.1 H/9 IP, while winning 15 games for AA-Bowie and AAA-Norfolk in 2012. Redmond and Clark are likely 15th and 16th on the Orioles starting pitching depth chart, respectively.

8. Chris Tillman’s Potential to Dominate – After taking ball one to begin a game on September 28, 2012, Boston Red Sox leadoff hitter Scott Podsednick dragged a bunt in between the pitcher’s mound and second base. Second baseman Ryan Flaherty fielded the ball and made an ill-advised to first that got away from Mark Reynolds. The speedy Podsednick took second on the error but was rewarded a hit for his bunt. Tillman would not allow another hit the rest of the game on his way to an 8-inning 1-hitter. That game is just one example of how dominate the 24 year-old can be when he is on. Tillman took a shutout into the 9th inning July 4th in Seattle in his first start back in the Majors in what was an equally impressive effort. Tillman has taken a no-hitter into the 6th inning and beyond on more than one occasion. While the right-hander did not manage to put together a sustained stretch of success until this past season, the potential to dominant has always been there.

7. Jake Arrieta’s Peripherals – In 2012, there were 19 starting pitchers (who were started for at least 60% of the games they appeared in) that threw more than 80 innings who fit the following profile:

K/9 IP >= 8.4 (Strikeouts per 9 innings pitched)

BB/9 IP <= 3.0 (Walks per 9 innings pitched)

H/9 IP <= 9.8 (Hits per 9 innings pitched).

Here are some of those 19 names. Perhaps you have heard of them: CC Sabathia, Stephen Strasburg, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Cole Hamels, R.A. Dickey, Justin Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke, James Shields and Johan Santana.

Oh yea . . . and Jake Arrieta.

The only difference between Jake and the other names on those list in 2012 was ERA. Of those 19 pitchers, only Arrieta and Santana had an ERA north of 4.00. Santana pitched to a 4.85 ERA while Jake let up a ghastly looking 6.20 runs per nine innings pitched. What this tells us is that Arrieta’s underlying performance – his ability to strike batters out while limiting base runners – was very good. It just did not translate into preventing runs like it usually does. There are theories for why Arrieta struggled in run prevention in spite of his strong peripheral statistics, but this much is clear – there was such a large disconnect between those statistics and his ERA that it is unlikely to happen again. If Jake repeats his underlying 2012 performance in 2013, it is a safe bet that his ERA drops way down. How far down is anyone’s guess but there are a lot of reasons to believe that Arrieta will allow far fewer runs in 2013 than he did in 2012 even without any substantial underlying improvement.

6. The Unflappable Miguel Gonzalez – We may not know for sure what Gonzalez will provide the Orioles over a full season in 2013. What we do know is not at any time will he be intimidated. Miguel made his first Major League start on July 6th in Anaheim, in front of his family and friends, and against a lineup that included Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. He proceeded to throw 7 innings of 1-run ball for the win. He faced the Yankees in New York three times after July 29th last season, including one start in the post season. Every single time the Orioles had a lot on the line and Gonzo delivered to the tune of 20.2 IP, 5 ER (2.23 ERA), and left each game with his team in the lead. With the AL East title at stake and opposing a celebrated big game pitcher in his own right in James Shields, Gonzalez held the Tampa Bay Rays scoreless for seven innings on October 2nd on the way to a 1-0 victory that – for the moment – kept Baltimore firmly in the hunt for an AL East title with one game left to play. The man simply does not get rattled out on the mound.

5. “Adversity Introduces a Man to Himself” – Albert Einstein is credited with coining that phrase, but to show you where my priorities in life are, I first heard it said by former pro wrestler Arn Anderson and have thus always attributed it to him. Regardless of who said it first, it is a great quote. It is also a quote befitting of this Baltimore pitching staff. You want adversity? Look at this:

* A pitcher who missed all of the 2008 and 2009 with unrelated injuries to his legs and shoulder, struggled in the two years following his return to Major League baseball, and was pitching in the Mexican League as late as March, 2012, all but resigned to the fact that this Major League career was over. Instead, he worked hard, got an opportunity and made the most of it in winning 9 games and being the best pitcher for a playoff bound team down the stretch (Miguel Gonzalez).

* A once promising 28-year old pitcher who found himself demoted to the bullpen late in the 2011 season with a near-5.00 ERA. Rather than wallowing, he used the bullpen time to figure some things out and when his old team traded him to Baltimore in the winter of 2012, he responded by having a career year posting a 3.43 ERA and striking over 22% of batters faced (Jason Hammel).

* A former top prospect who had been shuttled between AAA and the Big Leagues for three seasons while letting up close to 6 runs per nine innings in each Major League stint. With his pro career heading south in a hurry, he took advantage of an opportunity to work on his mechanics in AAA in 2012 and returned to the Majors and much improved pitcher to the tune of a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts (Chris Tillman)

I could add other examples – Steve Johnson and Zach Clark’s struggles to even be added to the 40-man roster for one – but you get the idea. The Orioles staff has pitchers that have faced some serious adversity in their pro careers and at least so far, have come out better for it. This is a battle-tested group.

4. Youth – The average age of the above group of pitchers is 26.13 years old. Only on two pitchers – 30 year-old Jason Hammel and 33 year-old Tsuyoshi Wada – are 30 years of age or older.

3. Full Seasons of Gonzalez & Tillman – While the ‘experts’ debate over how effective Gonzalez, Tillman, and even Jason Hammel can be in 2013 relative to their ‘surprise’ performances last season, the point is they really do not have to be. Miguel Gonzalez can pitch to a 3.80 ERA (up from 3.20 in 2012) and if he gives the team 30 starts and 175 innings, that will make the pitching staff better overall for the season. Same with Tillman – he doesn’t necessarily need to have a 2.80 ERA because a 3.50 ERA over the course of a full season still makes the pitching better than it was in 2012. These starting pitchers can regress a bit and the starting rotation can still end up with much improved numbers when all is said and done.

2. A Healthy Dose of CompetitionThis one is sort of obvious, but when you have 15 players who are capable of being considered for 5 roster spots, there is going to be a good dose of competition going on. Realistically, the four top spots in the rotation belong to Hammel, Chen, Tillman, and Gonzalez. The 5th is more open but that doesn’t mean there are 11 guys battling for one remaining spot. The Orioles have pressure to win and win now. If a starter is not cutting it, he knows he might not be given a whole lot of slack – not when there are 10 other pitchers gunning for their spot. This is a good thing. While Dan Duquette has admitted that he’d much prefer to have a set rotation with fewer question marks, healthy competition amongst a group of qualified players is not a bad alternative. Starting pitching hopefuls will have to perform if they want a spot. I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.

1. Quality 2012 performance from returning starters – The Orioles have four returning starters (Hammel, Chen, Gonzalez, and Tillman) who made 15 or more starts in 2012 and finished the season with an ERA+ of over 100 (ie. better than league average). No other team in the AL East has four returning pitchers who made 15 or more starts with an ERA+ of 100 or better. The Yankees have two – Hideki Kuroda and C.C. Sabathia (Andy Pettitte and David Phelps were 3 and 4 games short of qualifying, respectively). The Rays have three such pitchers – Matt Moore, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson – and one would have four if not for the trade that sent James Shields to Kansas City. The Red Sox have no such pitchers returning but offseason acquisition Ryan Dempster otherwise meets the criteria. The Blue Jays only have one such pitcher returning – Brandon Morrow – but would match the Orioles if offseason acquisitions R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle were considered.