The Beginning of the End: What Lies Ahead After the Break

The second half of the season begins tonight.  It actually began three weeks ago – tonight’s game will be game 97 of the season, 16 over the true halfway mark – but I can’t think of a better term describe this second part of the season.  Post-All-Star break has far too many hyphens in it.

Whatever you call it, it begins tonight.  There is a lot to look forward to.

Hammerin Hank

Henry Urrutia arrives in the Majors this weekend.

Henry Urrutia arrives in the Majors this weekend.

Henry Urrutia will join the Orioles this weekend for the series in Texas.  The Cuban born player tore through the AA Eastern League and AAA International League by batting a combined .365/.427/.531 in 288 plate appearances between the two levels.  The O’s continue to search for a solution at designated hitter.  Urrutia might provide that solution – or at least, part of it as the left-handed side of a platoon.

With the recent successes of Cuban players like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig and Urrutia’s eye-popping minor league numbers, expectations are relatively high for the 26 year-old.  I think there are reasons to believe that Hank can transition into a solid major league hitter right away, which is really all you can ask for from a mid-season call up during a playoff run.  He is older and more experienced than most rookies, which will hopefully lessen the steepness of the learning curve.  I don’t expect him to take the baseball world by storm like some of his fellow countryman – both Cespedes and Puig were considered far better prospects – but if he can hold his own, that will be more than enough.

The Rotation Moves Forward

Many reasons were given last season as to why the Orioles could not possibly stay in the American League playoff race much passed the All-Star break.  One of the reasons most often cited was the team’s below-average starting pitching.  As we head into post-break play in the 2013 season, that argument is rearing its ugly head once again.  Baltimore’s starter’s ERA is 4.79 which is bad enough for 27th out of 30 MLB teams.  The starter’s ERA is almost .50 points higher than the American League average.  How can a team like that continue to compete?

In 2012, the team answered that question by turning over their rotation.  Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter were swapped out for Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and [what only seemed like] a cast of thousands attempting to play the role of 5th starter.  The changeover improved the rotation and the starting pitching solidified over the second-half of the season.

This season such a dramatic personnel makeover is likely not necessary.

Here is how the five projected Orioles starters stack up in terms of ERA against the 148 starters who have pitched 50+ innings in 2013:

#18 Wei-Yin Chen (2.82 ERA)

#50 Miguel Gonzalez (3.48 ERA)

#74 Scott Feldman (3.86 ERA)

#78 Chris Tillman (3.95 ERA)

#130 Jason Hammel (5.24 ERA)

In theory, an average MLB team would have one pitcher in each group of 30.  The Orioles have one pitcher in the top tier, one in the second, two in the third, and one in the fifth.  That is a rotation that can contend.  If those performances continue collectively – and there is little reason to believe they will not – then they should have a solid or better rotation down the stretch.

With Wei-Yin Chen returning from the DL, the Orioles now have a very respectable starting rotation to go to battle with down the stretch.

With Wei-Yin Chen returning from the DL, the Orioles now have a very respectable starting rotation to go to battle with down the stretch.

The reason the starter’s ERA is inflated is clear when looking at these numbers.  Hammel drags it down a bit but it is the others – the 5th starters before the Feldman trade and injury replacements for Gonzo and Chen – that most inflated the ERA.  The rotation that the Orioles expect and hope to ride out the season with is a lot better than the 4.79 combined ERA would suggest.  If you are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the starting staff over the final 66 games, one only needs to look at their performances thus far this season.  The combined ERA is deceiving – this is a solid starting five.

Masters of their Own Destiny

The 2012 playoff run brought a lot of new experiences with it – mostly good, but some that were incredibly stressful to be dealing with as a fan for essentially the first time.  One of those experiences was the stress related with having to rely on another team to help out the Orioles.  On my couch in or in the stands, I am helpless enough but at least it is my team I am counting on.  Pulling for another team really gives you a feeling of no control.  September moments like watching Joe Nathan blow a save on the OPACY scoreboard to deny the Birds a chance to clinch a playoff spot and seeing Raul Ibanez hit a walk off home versus the Red Sox two days later to keep the Yankees a game ahead in the division was more than I could take.

For me and those like me, there is good news.  As we sit here right now – with 66 games to be played in the 2013 season – the O’s have a chance to perhaps decrease the amount of help they will need at the end of the season.  The Birds are 4.5 games back of Boston and 2.5 games back of Tampa Bay in the AL East.  They are 2.5 back of Tampa and 1.5 behind Texas for the Wild Card.  They hold a 1.5 game advantage over both the Yankees and Indians in the Wild Card race.  The Orioles have at least three games over their final 66 versus each of these teams:

Boston (12 games)

Tampa Bay (7 games)

Texas (3 games)

New York (7 games)

Cleveland (3 games)

The Texas and Cleveland series are potentially interesting not only because it is an opportunity to gain some ground, but also looking ahead to potential tiebreaker scenarios.  The Orioles split 4-game home series versus both teams.  Winning the upcoming series versus these teams would put the O’s in position to play at home in either the Wild Card game or Wild Card play-in game if that situation arose.  They could ensure the same by winning the season series versus New York and Tampa.

The big one of course is Boston.  The Red Sox and Orioles matchups were back loaded to the second half of the schedule this season.  It is not necessarily a bad thing.  The quickest and most efficient way to make up ground on the teams in front of you is to beat them head on.  The Birds will have their chance to do that to the Red Sox.  The teams are currently separated by four games in the loss column.  If the Orioles win 8 out of 12 (.667 winning percentage), they would essentially erase the current deficit.  They would need to be just one game better than the Red Sox during the rest of the schedule to finish ahead of them.  

Remember, the Orioles are 23-9 against the Red Sox since September of 2011 and sit at 5-2 so far this season.  They have played at a .719 clip versus their AL East rivals since the end of the 2011 season.  So while it will certainly not be easy to take seven or eight of the twelve remaining games, it is certainly possible.

I don’t expect (nor should I) that the Orioles will take care of all of these opponents in the most favorable manner possible but the opportunity is certainly there to make things a tad bit easier at the end of the season (and much less stressful for me . . .)

Record Chases

A few years ago, a late season pursuit of a significant offensive record by an Orioles player would provide much incentive for baseball watching in Baltimore.  It still does, but with the O’s locked in another playoff pursuit the potentially record breaking seasons of Chris Davis and Manny Machado are shaping up more as side attractions rather than the main event.  That’s a good thing for all those involved.

Chris Davis holding a baseball-throwing monkey brought in by infielder Ryan Flaherty for a team talent show (yes, that's all true . . .)  

Chris Davis holding a baseball-throwing monkey brought in by infielder Ryan Flaherty for a team talent show (yes, that's all true . . .) 

Chris Davis is on pace for 62 homeruns which would eclipse Roger Maris’ American League record of 61.  There has been much talk over the break about whether Davis’ would be the “true” (read: non-PED using) single season homerun champ if he were to surpass Maris.  Davis himself has stated he views 61 homeruns as the true record.  I don’t exactly agree – Bonds sent 73 balls out of the park in an era where there was no PED testing so the record is his like it or not – and really, it is sort of irrelevant.  If Davis were to hit 62 homeruns, he would break the AL record that has stood for 52 years.  It is a record that didn’t fall even during the power-crazy 1990’s and early 2000’s.  That in itself is amazingly impressive and if Davis hits 62, it will be worth celebrating on that merit alone.  There is no need to muddy the waters by discussing what the “real” MLB single season record is.  Chris Davis – American League Homerun Champion sounds like enough reason to celebrate if it happens.

Manny Machado at one point was on pace to break Earl Webb’s single-season doubles record of 67 by a healthy margin, but the doubles have dried up a bit recently.  Nonetheless, with 39 doubles through 96 games, Manny is on pace for 66 so he is still right in the hunt.  As Jeff Sullivan recently pointed out, we should really be counting doubles and triples since there is not much from a pure hitting perspective to distinguish them (the record for which is held by Joe Medwick with 77), but Manny is still on a historical run worth celebrating.  No man has hit 60 doubles since 1936, so Manny’s feat would be truly historic if he is able to pound out 21 additional doubles.

Imagine the excitement at OPACY if in a late-September game, Davis is sitting on 60 homeruns and comes up to the plate with a chance to give the Orioles the lead with a homerun.  The electricity that would be created if Manny hits double number 60 to put the Orioles on the board against the Red Sox in the last series of the season with a playoff spot still up in the air would be ridiculous.  We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that not only are the Birds contending again, but we also have the privilege of watching two historic seasons in our backyard.  Combine both of these elements together and we potentially have the makings of a special end to the season.

Contenders Yet Again

The Orioles have a good team and with good teams come heightened expectations.  These increased expectations are new to Orioles fans and I am not sure we have completely learned how to best deal with them.  There is quite a bit of handwringing and entitled attitudes going around these days whenever things are not going as well as they could be.  It is a natural reaction, I think.  We recognize that the Orioles are a good team who can be very good, so it is frustrating when the results don’t match up with the talent.

Right in the middle of a long, 162-game season it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture.  This break is as good of a time as any to try and regain some perspective on the big picture.

The reality is that the Orioles were not serious contenders from the time I was fourteen until I was twenty-eight.  One time during that run – 2005 – the team got to this point of the season still in the hunt, even though they were never considered true contenders.  Last season the team was written off around every stretch but did contend all season and reach the playoffs.  After going fourteen rough seasons with little to no hope, Orioles fans are treated with a second straight season in which the team is contending late into the year.  I try to remember that every time I get frustrated with a singular loss.

After fourteen rough years, we have been lucky enough to see a good team playing contending baseball late into the season.  That is worth enjoying, regardless of what ultimately happens come the end of September.