I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but the Orioles’ starting pitchers haven’t been very good during the first month of the 2014 season. In fact, they’ve been downright dreadful: A quick trip to Fangraphs shows that the O’s starters rank 12th in the American League in ERA, 14th in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that seeks to assess pitching performance independent of a pitcher’s defense), 13th in innings pitched, and dead least in HR/9. Interestingly they’re also last in the league in the rate at which they induce ground balls, and by a very wide margin, keeping the ball out of the air just 34.8% of the times a ball has been put in play against them. That would be an exceptionally low number for an individual pitcher, and is borderline mind-blowing for an entire starting rotation.
For the most part, the blame for this performance can be evenly distributed. Chris Tillman gets a pass, because even after last night’s disastrous start he still boast a 3.38 ERA, but Bud Norris (4.42 ERA), Wei-Yin Chen (4.91), Miguel Gonzalez (5.40), and Ubaldo Jimenez (6.75) have all registered disappointing starts to the season when it comes to keeping the opposing team from scoring runs (though it’s worth pointing out that Chen has been victimized by an unsustainably high .392 batting average on balls in play and, as such, has an outstanding 2.75 FIP, which gives us good reason to expect his performance to improve when that batted ball luck turns around). Additionally, other than Tillman only Norris is currently averaging at least six innings per start, which is likely taxing the bullpen and may well have contributed to recent meltdowns in Boston and Toronto.
So, having established that the current batch of starters aren’t performing to a satisfactory level (to say the least), is there anything Buck Showalter can do with the rotation to fix things sooner rather than later?
One popular idea that’s been floated around town is moving Zach Britton out of the bullpen and back into the rotation. Britton has certainly been impressive in his current role and is a former top prospect as a starter, but beneath the headline numbers there’s good reason to think his success as a reliever wouldn’t directly translate into a starting role. Most obviously, he’s got a pretty pronounced platoon split, holding lefties to a .143/.182/.143 slash line against him while right-handed hitters are batting a much more respectable .222/.323/.407 against him (adduitionally, two of the six hits right-handers have against him have been doubles, and Britton has walked four right handed batters while striking out just six). As a reliever that’s perfectly fine, as Showalter can put him in a position to face a lot of left-handed batters in the later innings, but as a starter opposing teams will obviously do their best to load up their lineups with right-handed batters when facing him, and that by itself would make his top-line numbers less impressive if he maintained his current performance.
More problematic for Britton is the fact that he would necessarily have to change his approach on the mound if he were to become a starter, in that he’d have to start throwing more pitches. According to the Pitch F/X data at Texas Leaguers, Britton has literally been a two-pitch pitcher out of the pen this year, throwing only a fastball (combining the pitches Pitch F/X identifies as two seam fastballs and four seam fastballs) and a slider. What’s more, a whopping 91% of his pitches have been fastballs. Suffice it to say, you can’t make it as a starter in the big leagues with such a limited pitch arsenal. So while it’s not impossible that Britton could be an upgrade over Gonzalez or Norris, it’s not a given either, and he simply wouldn’t be able to pitch that same way he has been so far this year out of the pen.
Other potential rotation replacements have similar issues. Brian Matusz, another former top prospect turned reliever, has shown time and time again that he can’t repeat his mechanics consistently over multiple innings, and has found relief success by parring down his array of pitches and dominating same-side hitters. And current top prospect Kevin Gausman still has developing to do at Norfolk, and simply isn’t ready to be tasked with turning in a quality start every five days for a team with playoff aspirations.
So the best course of action for the Orioles right now is to stay the course, and hope the “game of averages” balances out for them a bit, and Ubaldo, Chen, and Gonzalez are able to turn in solid six inning outings with more regularity. That’s not the most appealing option to a restless fanbase with hish expectations by any means, but there is a silver lining to the current dark cloud hanging over the rotation: All of these guys have shown in the past that they’re capable of being much better than they have been, and despite the woeful production they’ve given the team so far (and having their best player sitting on the disabled list all season), the Birds are still sitting just 1.5 games out of first place with a .500 record.