Baltimore’s Lead Birds

It was an interesting offseason for the Baltimore Orioles. Maligned owner Peter Angelos finally allowed general manager Dan Duquette to open up the checkbook. The first order of business was to give former all-star backstop Matt Wieters a one-year $15.8 million qualifying offer, followed by a four-year $31 million offer to all-star set-up man Darren O’Day, and last but not least, a seven-year $161 million break-the-bank contract to two-time American League home run champion Chris Davis. Along with offensive all-stars Adam Jones, Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy and new slugger Mark Trumbo (acquired in an offseason trade with Seattle), this team was expected to hit, and hit they have. The Orioles are currently second in the American League in team OPS at .757 (as of April 8th). That is 43 points higher than league average.

The question with the Orioles continues to be, as it has been for several seasons now, whether they can get enough out of their starting pitchers. Ubaldo Jimenez is still inconsistent game-to-game. The Yovani Gallardo signing for two years costing the Orioles $22 million plus draft pick compensation, is already looking like it is going to be a disaster. The fate of the Orioles then turns on Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, who make a small fraction of the overall pitcher-budget at less than $7 million combined.

The de facto Ace of the Orioles staff, Chris Tillman entered 2016 coming off a career-low season across the board. Not only was his ERA a career-high of 4.99, but his strikeout percentage (16.2%) and walk percentage (8.6%) were also the worst he has had in a season since becoming a full-time big-leaguer in 2013. Walking more batters while also getting less strikes is not a good combination for a pitcher. However, seven starts into 2016, including Sunday’s win over Oakland, Tillman appears to have righted the ship. Tillman’s velocity is up on his fastball to a career-high 93.8 mph (per Brooks baseball), a mile an hour faster than in 2015. This has increased his strikeouts this season. After Sunday’s seven strikeout performance, Tillman has 40 strikeouts in 38.1 innings, on par with the stats you typically see from most of the league’s top hurlers. And “Tilly,” as Sean, one of my colleagues here at H&H, refers to Tillman as, is not only throwing his fastball harder, he is throwing it up in the zone more effectively. Heading into Sunday’s start, opposing hitters were hitting just .133 on Tillman’s fastballs up in the zone, compared to .245 on fastballs that opposing hitters hit up in zone off Tillman in 2015 (per FanGraphs). And while home runs have always plagued the 28-year-old in the past, so far in 2016 he has suppressed his home run to fly ball rate to 2.9%.  A rate like that will not be maintainable all season, especially in a hitter friendly park like Camden Yards. Still, I am willing to bet that if the new skills Tillman has shown through seven starts hold up, he will be able to keep his homer to fly ball rate below his career mark of 10.8%.

The other key to Orioles staff is young stud Kevin Gausman. He unfortunately started 2016 on the disabled list with a shoulder issue, but has shown plenty of promise in his first three starts this year. Despite the small sample size, it is easy to be impressed by what he has done in just 19 innings. Entering 2016, the criticism on the 25-year-old was his lack of secondary pitches. While his fastball and split finger were both good pitches for him in 2015, there was not much happening with his slider and change up. It has been encouraging so far this season that Gausman is using both the slider and change up more often, with more success as a result. In 2015 Gausman actually had reverse platoon splits – he held lefties to a .224 batting average whereas right handed hitters hit .275, the opposite of what you would expect to see for most right handed pitchers. In 2016, lefties are hitting .118 off of Gausman and righties are down to .188. An improved slider has also resulted in batters chasing outside the zone more often, now at 38.9%, up from 32.5% in 2015 and 27.2% in 2014 (per FanGraphs). And then let’s look at Gausman’s walk rate, he has only walked three batters in 19 innings. If a walk rate even close to that 4.3% continues, Gausman could be in for a giant step forward this season.

This Orioles team has the potential to be one of the most well rounded ballclubs in the league. The team will continue to hit. Along with having one of the top bullpens, they should also be one of the better defensive teams in the league. With continued success from Tillman and Gausman, this rotation can be good enough to supplement the already talented Orioles and hopefully get this team back to the playoffs.

-Randy Haines

Photo Credit: Getty Images Sport/Greg Fiume
All statistics courtesy of baseballreference.com and sportac.com

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