Five biggest Orioles surprises of first half

July 10, 2012 | Luke Jones

3. Jim Johnson

There was a time not long ago when people wondered whether Johnson had the mentality needed to be a closer. A major-league-leading 26 saves, a 1.21 ERA, and 0.75 WHIP have eliminated any lingering doubt in critics’ minds.

Entering 2012 with only 21 career saves, Johnson has headlined a dominating Baltimore bullpen that is the biggest reason the Orioles stand five games above .500 at the All-Star break. The right-handed sinkerballer has blown only one save — a game the Orioles still won in extra innings at Fenway Park — and has frustrated hitters all season long, holding the opposition to a .151 batting average.

Johnson’s strikeout totals (22 in 37 1/3 innings) are much lower than what you’d typically expect with dominating closers, but opponents rave about the 29-year-old’s heavy sinker and biting curve. His first trip to the All-Star Game is much deserved as he became the first Orioles closer since George Sherrill in 2008 to be selected to the Midsummer Classic.

2. Wei-Yin Chen

The signing of Japanese veteran pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada drew more fanfare, but Chen has emerged as the Orioles’ No. 2 starter in his rookie season in the major leagues. Just shy of his 27th birthday, the left-hander has a 7-5 record with a 3.93 ERA and has shown impressive poise facing some of the best teams in the American League.

Chen doesn’t blow you away with his stuff, but his low-90s fastball looks much faster to hitters with his ability to mix in his changeup, slider, and slow curveball effectively. The Taiwanese pitcher has walked 33 batters and struck out 78 in 103 innings this season.

It will be interesting to see how Chen holds up in the oppressive heat of July and August in Baltimore, but he’s adjusted well to the five-man rotation and life in the major leagues. And despite a rocky start on Sunday to conclude the first half, Chen has successfully made pitching adjustments such as improving his time to the plate, making executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette look wise for signing him in the off-season.

1. Jason Hammel

Duquette’s decision to trade former No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom was largely unpopular back in February, but the Orioles have made out like bandits without even considering Guthrie’s struggles with the Rockies.

Hammel has been the Orioles’ best starter with an 8-5 record and a 3.47 ERA that prompted him to be included as a “Final Vote” candidate for the All-Star Game. The 29-year-old has credited improved fastball command — throwing a four-seamer and a two-seam fastball — for his dramatic improvement this season after being demoted to the Colorado bullpen in the second half last year. Of course, escaping the thin air of Colorado probably hasn’t hurt the right-hander, either.

In recent starts, Hammel has begun using his changeup more often in an effort to keep hitters guessing, but his stuff has been mostly overwhelming and the Orioles have reaped the benefits. Though he’s dealt with a sore knee this season, Hammel threw a one-hit shutout in Atlanta and followed that start by throwing eight innings without allowing an earned run in a win over Washington in late June.

Whether Hammel can continue at the same rate in the second half remains to be seen, but his terrific first half has caused many — including me — to eat crow over the criticisms thrown at Duquette for the decision to move Guthrie prior to spring training.