If you want to know what the end result of the 2014 Orioles starting rotation might look like if things go reasonably well, look no further than the 2013 Cleveland Indians.
The Tribe’s starting pitchers pitched to a combined 3.92 ERA over 924 2/3’s innings of work last season. That was good enough to be a few ticks below the MLB average in starter's ERA (4.02) and quite a few ticks below the American League average (4.17). From a context-adjusted, individual player standpoint however, there was little remarkable about the Indian’s starting pitching staff.
Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez led the club in run prevention. Masterson ended with a 109 ERA+ while our good friend Ubaldo put up a 114 ERA+. Zach McCallister made 24 starts to the tune of a 100 ERA+, while Scott Kazimir (29 starts) and Corey Kluber (24 starts) ended with ERA+ in the 90’s (slightly below average). Rookie Danny Salazar was very effective in 10 fill-in starts (123 ERA+) while Brett Myers, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer were far less effective in picking up the other 14 starts for Cleveland.
Cleveland starters averaged 5.7 innings pitched per game compared to the 5.8 innings per start averaged by the Orioles' starters last season.
What the Indians had was a front five that made a lot of starts (138 out of 162 or 85%). Of those five, the top two starters were above league average but not by a lot and the other three were more or less league average (or a tick below). They got very good production from their 6th starter in 6% of the team’s total games and poor production from the rest, but fortunately for them those other pitchers were needed in only 8.7% of the club’s total games.
The Indians rotation in 2013 was a rotation that was solid #1 – #6 and stayed healthy. That allowed them to be effective despite no real standout performances.
The Indians did benefit from their environment. Those ERA+ statistics do not look like anything special, but because Cleveland played in a pitcher friendly environment, their top six starters all had ERA’s of 4.04 or below. By way of comparison, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez led Baltimore starters with an ERA+ of 113 and 111, respectively. However, due to playing in the American League East in a hitter friendly ballpark, Tillman and Gonzo’s earned run totals were 3.71 and 3.78 – well above the 3.30 and 3.45 marks tallied by Jimenez and Masterson despite comparable ERA+ results. So when comparing the 2014 Orioles rotation to the 2013 Cleveland rotation, it is important to remember that the O’s starters will have to be a little bit better in order to get the same end results in terms of runs allowed.
I think the comparison fits nonetheless because as the Indians proved, a team can get by with six good, but not great starters if the rotation is able to maintain its collective health. Aces are not necessarily needed. Long outings by the starters on a regular basis are not necessarily needed. A good, consistent, and healthy rotation can produce playoff caliber results. That’s good news for the Orioles because that route will be their most likely route to the playoffs barring anything unexpected.
It is not overly presumptuous to see how that could play out. Maybe Tillman more or less repeats his 2013 results. Chen stays healthy and closer to the 32 starts he made in 2012 (compared to 23 starts in 2013). Gonzalez more or less repeats while Ubaldo ends up with an ERA+ similar to Chen’s (103 ERA+). Norris might fall in the 90 – 100 ERA+ range he has nestled into the past three seasons. That sort of performance – if it comes over a combined 135+ starts – would have the Orioles well on their way to playoff contention.
As mentioned, 23 year old Danny Salazar chipped in 10 starts for Cleveland in which he allowed 4 runs only twice. It is not an exaggeration to state that the rookie’s strong contributions played a role in the Indians not only making the postseason, but also avoiding the wild card play-in game that was ultimately contested between Texas and Tampa Bay. All teams – even those with good health like the 2013 Indians – need a competent sixth starter which Salazar proved to be for his team.
The obvious comparison here is Kevin Gausman. If the Grapefruit League can be any indication, Gausman should almost certainly be ready to help the big league team this upcoming season. If the Orioles can get a 10, 12, 15 or even 20 game boost from Gausman in 2014 on par with what Salazar gave his team in 2013, that will be an important piece of the puzzle. Your mileage on Gausman might vary but I have held the opinion the entire winter that if healthy and if the need arises, he will be a major contributor to the big league club this season. I would say that with the potential Gausman carries, the Orioles might be able to prosper even if their front five make less than 85% of the team’s total starts since Gausman should be able to pick up a lot of that slack.
With a 162-game regular season, there are a multitude of ways in which a team can succeed or fail. I am not suggesting that the only way for the Baltimore rotation to be successful is to stay healthy and get consistent results #1 through #6. However, given the nature of that group – no top of the line starters but no clunkers either – good pitching results through a consistent and healthy rotation is the most direct route to success.
If that plan becomes unattainable – the injury bug hits or pitchers under perform – all is not necessarily lost. The Orioles do have potential depth with Suk-min Yoon, Dylan Bundy, Johan Santana, Steve Johnson, TJ McFarland, and others. As we saw in 2012, it is not that teams cannot be successful when they are forced to dig that deep into their starting pitching reserves. It just decreases the odds the deeper you have to go. That once again points to the notion that the most likely – although not necessarily the only – way for the O’s rotation to be successful as currently constructed is for 85%+ of their starts from the top six guys with those top six all performing above or around league average levels.
One other variable I want to point out is that the Orioles will be better off if they need replacement starters due to injury rather than under performance. Chen, Gonzalez and Norris have minor league options but I believe they would have to struggle mightily or for an extended period of time to be sent down. Jimenez and Tillman are more or less in it for the long haul. Therefore, it stands to reason that if Kevin Gausman or someone else is needed due to poor performance, a good bit of damage will have already been incurred to the major league team by the time a chance is made. It is not like the Orioles have a 5th starter who they have no problem jettisoning after a few bad starts. It is almost certain that if any starter struggles, those struggles will be endured longer at the major league level than what would be ideal.
The hope, of course, is that the Orioles have five major league quality and proven starters, which would render the above paragraph moot. That’s the big difference between this year’s rotation and past year’s rotation. The organization is not betting on a rookie pitcher or a pitcher with no track record of success to hold down the 3rd, 4th, or 5th spot. All five projected starters have recent track records of being major league pitchers.
It is not the sexiest rotation in the world. There are no monster names and nobody with recent big performances. It is however a rotation that goes six deep with quality major league pitchers. As Cleveland proved during the 2013 season, if those pitchers stay healthy, that setup can be enough to propel a team on a playoff run.