Staying the Course

As frustrated as everyone is with the Orioles record being where it is, it probably is not the time to talk about wholesale changes to the roster.

For one, the lack of minor league options makes such changes difficult if not totally unrealistic.  Secondly, the roster as constructed is filled almost top to bottom with players who have track records of success.  Some are underperforming (mainly the starting pitching).  It is far too early to throw out prior performances and talk about ways to bump Bud Norris or Chris Tillman from the rotation.  Their histories suggest they are better pitchers than they are currently showing.  The odds still suggest that Tillman and Norris will perform significantly better than they have to date.  It is nerve wrecking to sit and around and wait for them to perform better, but it is probably also the most prudent course of action at this point.

The same can be said for the team as a whole.  This has not been the start that everyone dreamed up but it is far from a disaster.  The trouble areas are clear and there are reasons to believe those problem spots have a chance of clearing up. 

Straightening Out Tillman & Norris 

If you didn’t look at the statistics, it might be tempting to say that the shaky starting pitching is simply the regression (to FIP) that analysts have been predicting over the past few years.  The reality is that FIP-slayer Miguel Gonzalez is STILL outperforming his FIP (3.26 ERA to 4.24 FIP).  Wei Yin Chen – who has historically pitched relatively in-line with his FIP – is significantly outperforming it.  Chris Tillman and Bud Norris still wouldn’t be pitching well if their ERA matched their FIP, but they are both underperforming significantly.  It is difficult to gleam from those facts that the Oriole starters are simply seeing a run of good fortune reverse on them.  They aren’t.  Some are pitching in-line with what they have done historically from both an FIP and ERA context (Gonzalez, Chen) while others are pitching worse than they historically have by those two metrics (Tillman, Norris).  This is a case of Tillman and Norris not pitching well rather than sort of “luck catching up with them” scenario.

The culprit of Tillman’s struggles is rather obvious – he is walking too many batters.  All of Tillman’s other underlying statistics are in the vicinity of his career norms.  He has thrived in the past with similar strikeout, groundball, and homerun rates.  He is allowing a few more hits than usual which probably speaks to a general command problem, perhaps in addition to some BAPIP randomness that may sort itself out.  12.8% walk rate is what jumps off the page.  Since solidifying himself as a major league starter halfway through the 2012 season, Tillman has walked batters at about a league average rate of 7.7%.    He is averaging more than one walk for every two innings pitched this season which is far too many.  He struggled with control early in his career, but only once to this magnitude (2010).  Maybe this is a down year for Tillman but he has shown the ability to make adjustments to his mechanics before to improve his command.  It would be surprising – based on his track record – if he didn’t cut down the walks and see a spike in results coming off of that improvement. 

Bud Norris’ struggles our slightly less simple to pinpoint.  Norris has always walked batters at a higher-than-ideal rate (9.1% career walk rate compared to an 8.2% league average during that time).  Norris was particularly effective last season in no small part due to the fact that his 7.6% walk rate was the best of his career.  The 9.8% walk rate he currently boasts is out of line with his overall career performance and is amplified by the fact that he is not going deep into games.  The walks are hurting more because he is packing them into a small number of innings.  However, Norris is also allowing 12.5 hits per nine innings.  His 13.5% strikeout rate is well below his 21% career average.  He isn’t pitching well in any facet and that is concerning.  His velocity is where it always is so this would not appear to be the result of an injury.  There is no way to sugarcoat things – Bud just is not pitching well.

What we can hang our hopes on with Norris is that he is pitching so much worse than he ever has in his career.  It is not unheard of for a 30 year old to completely lose it without a drop in velocity but it is also not very common.  Even performing as poorly as he has – and without an obvious root cause to those issues – I would still be very surprised if Norris wasn’t significantly better going forward.  How much better is anyone’s guess.

A Hassle Free Swap 

Given the lack of roster flexibility the Orioles have, there are not many opportunities to swap out a struggling player for another player.  There does seem to be one piece of low hanging fruit in that department, however, and that is swapping out Alejandro De Aza for David Lough.

De Aza has not hit well this season.  Entering Monday night’s game versus Toronto, De Aza has a line of .211/.250/.382.  While I don’t place too much emphasize on strikeout totals, De Aza is striking out a lot (31.3%) and not looking good in doing so.  On balls out of the strike zone, De Aza has swung at 35% which is well above his 28.7% career average.  He is also making less contact than he historically has on balls out of the zone, which is a function of swinging at balls that are virtually unhittable (ie. in the dirt). 

The defensive metrics show him as being just about neutral on defense this season or a tick below.  That seems about right as he is getting to most catchable balls but he certainly does not look anything like a plus defender in left field. 

David Lough likely will not hit better than De Aza.  Over their careers, De Aza has been the superior hitter.  However, Lough is also likely to not hit much worse than De Aza has in 2015 and more importantly, brings exemplary defense to the table.  Lough is a significantly better defender than De Aza and would help shore up an outfield defense that is regularly playing a designated hitter (Delmon Young) in right field these days.  Since Lough is already on the roster and De Aza has not done enough to warrant a long leash, benching De Aza for a while in favor of some additional starts for Lough seems a hassle free to attempt to increase production.  Maybe with regular playing time Lough finds his groove at the plate.  If not, the O’s would still get better defense and roughly the same level of offense they are currently getting from De Aza.

Overall, the Offense is not the Issue 

I have seen a lot of fans dump on the offense which I don’t get at all.  The Orioles are 3rd in the American League in batting average, 4th in on base percentage,  and 1st in slugging (good enough for 2nd in OPS).  They are hitting, reaching base, and hitting for power.  They are scoring 4.76 runs per game after scoring 4.35 runs per game in 2014.  The offense has scored four or more runs in 20 of the 29 games played thus far.  They have scored less than two runs only four times this season.  The offense has done their job.

Bad Breaks 

Pythagorean record does not mean a whole lot at this juncture of the season but it is not completely irrelevant either.  Through 29 games, the O’s have a +5 run differential with means we would expect them to have a 15-14 record rather than the 13-16 record they actually have.

The team is 3-6 in one run games.

Furthermore, despite an offense that is top four in average, on base percentage, and slugging, the team is only 7th in the American league in runs scored.  There might be explanations for this.  The team does strike out a lot so perhaps they have been less efficient at scoring without getting a hit than other teams.  Maybe there has been some poor base running that has cost them runs.  It might also be pure bad luck and a reflection of not having many hits grouped together. 

The bottom line is the raw numbers suggest the O’s could have a better record right now with a little luck.  There is no guarantee that the luck will turn around, but there is a chance that it might.  If nothing else, we should not necessarily take the team’s poor record as a clear reflection of how they have actually performed thus far.

Bright Spots 

There are a lot of them.

Adam Jones is off to a tremendous start.  He’s racking up the hits (40 in 111 at bats) and hitting for his usual power (.217 ISO).

Jimmy Parades has done nothing but hit since joining the team.  While I don’t think anybody expects him to maintain a 1.064 OPS the entire season, the longer he goes without cooling down the more convinced I am that he is simply a late bloomer who has blossomed into a great pure hitter.

Manny Machado’s plate discipline and approach has been nothing short of impressive.  Chris Davis appears to be settling into a decent average/high power/high strikeout season that I’ll gladly take from him.  Caleb Joseph has looked very solid at the plate in replacement of the still-recovering Matt Wieters. 

Darren O’Day and Zach Britton have been their usual good selves out of the bullpen.  Tommy Hunter has allowed only five hits and one walk in throwing nine scoreless sinnings over his last eight outings.  In the rotation, Chen and Gonzalez have been good while Ubaldo is off to a very welcomed strong start.

That’s a lot of good production from a team who has collectively produced less than desired results.  With a little bit of luck in terms of run distribution, this is very easily a 15-14 or better team.  A lot of guys are playing well and a lot of will likely play well going forward.  In no way is this a talentless team, no matter what the record says.  Everyone wants quick solutions and easy answers – myself included – but this might be a time where we just have to sit back and hope that a good team plays up to its talent and prior track records.