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Five questions pondering Joseph, Garcia, others

Posted on 17 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions

1. Does Caleb Joseph make it easy to wait for Matt Wieters to take his time to return?
No, I don’t expect the former to continue hitting .375, but it’s difficult to argue how good his defense has been as Orioles pitching posted a 3.00 ERA with him behind the plate in 2014, he threw out 40 percent of runners trying to steal, and his pitch framing rates better than Wieters’ did in either of his his last two full seasons. The question isn’t whether Joseph is better than or as good as the pre-injury Wieters — he’s clearly not — but it remains to be seen if the post-surgery Wieters will be the same defensively and whether he’ll provide enough offense to justify being the undisputed starter if he’s a shell of his old self behind the plate.

2. Does Buck Showalter need to figure out exactly what he has with Jason Garcia sooner rather than later?
I know the Orioles love the Rule 5 pick’s arm and he has nice potential at age 22, but they can’t afford to carry him if it means they essentially have a 24-man roster. If his arm is special enough to warrant keeping him, he should be able to get some meaningful outs along the way. The early-season struggles of Tommy Hunter and and the rest of the bullpen have magnified the situation, of course, but Showalter needs to be able to use Garcia in some legitimate situations, especially if he’s not going to give the Orioles length in the same way that T.J. McFarland did as a Rule 5 pick in 2013.

3. Should third base coaches take more chances around baseball?
I thought about this at different times this winter after Kansas City elected not to send Alex Gordon home as the potential tying run in Game 7 of the World Series, and the question returns with Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson drawing the ire of fans with some questionable sends at the start of the season. Historically, a runner standing on third base with two outs will score only 27 percent of the time, but data shows only five percent of runners being sent home from second base on a single with two outs are thrown out at the plate. Yes, that success rate looks great, but how many potential runs are ultimately being stranded at third base to avoid the chance of a runner being thrown out in favor of the potentially lower-percentage chance of the next batter driving him in. Of course, there are many variables involved such as the speed of the runner, the location of the ball, and the arm strength of the fielder, but it’s still interesting to ponder how many potential runs are lost due to the fear of failure and the criticism that a third base coach can face.

4. Is the exuberant friendship between Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop a joy to watch?
I first watched these two play together when they were at Single-A Frederick in 2011, and it’s scary to think how young both still are with so much untapped potential. Of course, scenes like this don’t hurt, either:

5. Do we still not appreciate Jim Palmer enough? The Hall of Fame pitcher celebrated the 50th anniversary of his major league debut Friday and he continues to remain a fixture on Orioles telecasts five decades later. As someone who only remembers Palmer the broadcaster, I marvel at his numbers, which included a period of nine times in 10 years from 1969-1978 in which he posted an ERA below 3.00 and at least 4.1 wins above replacement. His 211 complete games, 53 shutouts, and four seasons of 300 or more innings are numbers we don’t even see in video games today.

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Early thoughts on Orioles lineup

Posted on 16 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Providing the ever-popular caveat that “it’s still early” in making any observations, below are some thoughts on each regular member of the Orioles lineup — with an additional nod to Delmon Young coming off the bench — through the first nine games of the 2015 season.

While many are understandably pining for former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz with him homering in five straight games, Baltimore leads the majors in home runs and has had few problems scoring runs so far.

Each player’s slash line, which includes batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, is noted in parentheses.

1. Alejandro De Aza (.314/.333/.571)

The left fielder’s .905 on-base plus slugging percentage is impressive, but he’s walked only once and has struck out 13 times, second on the club to only Chris Davis. He is the most experienced option that Buck Showalter has for the leadoff spot and he’s seen 4.28 pitches per plate appearance so far this season (the major league average is 3.81), making you think he’ll begin to draw more free passes as the year goes on. The high volume of strikeouts (36.1 percent of plate appearances) sticks out, but De Aza’s 21.2 percent career strikeout rate makes you believe this is more an early-season aberration.

2. Steve Pearce (.161/.278/.355)

Drawing starts at four different spots already (first base, left field, right field, and designated hitter), Pearce looked like he was picking up where he left off in 2014 by hitting a home run in each of the first two games. Since then, however, it’s been a struggle as he’s been mired in a 2-for-26 slump with eight strikeouts over that time. Showalter gave Pearce the night off Wednesday, so hopefully that coupled with Thursday’s off-day will allow the 32-year-old to clear his head. The Orioles don’t expect him to repeat his .930 OPS from a year ago, but they are counting on him to provide above-average offense.

3. Chris Davis (.226/.273/.387)

The cries have already started for Davis to be lowered in the order as he’s struck out in 45.5 percent of his 2015 plate appearances, which is alarming even for the first baseman’s standards. That said, he’s still found a way to contribute offensively, including three RBIs in Wednesday night’s win. It’s difficult to know what to expect from Davis at this point, but Showalter will — and should — keep writing his name in the lineup. You can happily live with him striking out 30 percent of the time like he did in 2012 and 2013 if he hits 35 home runs, but his contact rate continues to trend in the wrong direction.

4. Adam Jones (.406/.459/.844)

The Orioles may need to drag Jones onto the plane to Boston as he just finished one of the best homestands of his career by going 12-for-21 with four home runs and nine RBIs while hitting safely in all six games. As Showalter noted, several of those big hits came on pitches outside the zone as Jones was completely locked in. We know the drill as Jones will go through stretches where he’s not producing and many will complain about him failing to draw walks and expanding the zone. You take the good with the bad, and Jones has certainly provided much more of the former with a 1.303 OPS.

5. Travis Snider (.333/.467/.500)

We haven’t seen Snider in the outfield since a critical three-run error against Toronto on Sunday, but he leads the club with six walks and a stout .467 on-base percentage so far. He won’t continue to draw walks in 20 percent of his plate appearances, but Snider does give the Orioles more patience in the lineup, which is something they’ve obviously lacked over the last few years. Even with the rough defensive day against the Blue Jays, the left-handed hitter has given the Orioles everything they could have asked for so far and should continue to see regular at-bats.

6. Manny Machado (.161/.250/.290)

A .161 average would suggest we should be asking what’s wrong with the young third baseman, but he’s hit a number of balls hard for which he didn’t receive a return. Machado connected on his first homer of the season in Wednesday’s win, but the part of his offensive approach that’s been most impressive has been the willingness to take pitches. Machado walked in just 4.1 percent of his 2013 plate appearances, increased that rate to 5.7 percent last year, and has drawn free passes in 11.1 percent of his trips to the plate in 2015. It’s only a matter of time before good at-bats produce good results.

7. Jonathan Schoop (.292/.346/.708)

Jones has been the Orioles’ best offensive player, but Schoop has taken the largest step forward so far as he’s second on the club in home runs (three) and RBIs (seven). He’s only drawn one walk, but his power has been impressive as four of his seven hits have gone for extra bases. Showalter complimented Schoop’s approach in his final at-bat Wednesday that followed his home run to jump-start the five-run sixth inning. He didn’t get a hit, but Schoop drove a ball hard to right-center that was flagged down by Jacoby Ellsbury. The second baseman has a long way to go, but he has scary potential at age 23.

8. Everth Cabrera (.269/.310/.269)

Cabrera has filled in nicely for Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy by playing strong defense and offering a few singles here and there at the plate. The interesting question will be what the Orioles decide to do with Cabrera and utility player Ryan Flaherty once Hardy is ready to return to his starting role. Cabrera has been solid at shortstop and provides speed, but he hasn’t played any other positions and we know Flaherty can play good defense at more than one spot. Of course, both players have options, making this a good problem to have once Hardy is ready to be activated from the disabled list.

9. Caleb Joseph (.375/.444/.542)

It remains unknown when Matt Wieters will be ready to return, but Joseph has held his own in the three-time All-Star catcher’s absence and even picked up the Orioles’ first triple of the season. He is 0-for-4 throwing out runners trying to steal, but his 40 percent success rate from last season proved he can do the job defensively. The offense has been a nice development after Joseph posted a .618 OPS as a rookie. Showalter reminded reporters this week that the 28-year-old had a career .753 OPS in the minors, suggesting the Orioles might be able to expect a little more from him with the bat this year.

PH – Delmon Young (.333/.375/.333)

Young hasn’t played as much as some might have expected so far, but he recaptured his 2014 magic coming off the bench with a pinch-hit RBI single in the Orioles’ comeback win over the Yankees on Wednesday night. The 29-year-old will receive plenty of opportunities as the DH against left-handed pitching and the occasional start in the outfield, but Showalter loves having his bat as a weapon off the bench. The likes of De Aza, Snider, and Pearce producing in regular roles for this club will allow that to continue to happen.

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Jimenez offers reminder why Orioles wanted him

Posted on 12 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — In the same way that it would be premature for the Orioles to bury Bud Norris after his poor start in the home opener, Ubaldo Jimenez can’t erase the memory of an awful 2014 season with one terrific outing.

But catcher Caleb Joseph said it best in describing the right-hander’s seven shutout innings in which he allowed only one hit while striking out eight and walking one in a 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.

“He was like a video game out there,” Joseph said. “I haven’t caught very many major league games, but that may have been one of the [most fun]. What he’s been through over the last year or so and then working really hard and getting better each and every spring training start, and then when the lights really come on — playing for real — he did such a great job.”

Despite the frustration of a fan base that expected big things from the 31-year-old when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract 14 months ago, it’s easy to see how well liked Jimenez is by teammates and coaches. Working hard to simplify and repeat his delivery this offseason, Jimenez has been praised for his commitment to improve from the time he arrived in Sarasota for spring training two months ago.

Asked what impressed him most about Jimenez this spring prior to Saturday’s game, manager Buck Showalter was direct in saying it was the results and how the veteran had improved a little bit each time he went to the hill. Jimenez pitched on the road — meaning he would face more of the opposition’s regular hitters — in all but one of his seven spring starts, posting a 2.88 ERA in his final 25 Grapefruit League innings and walking just six batters over that span.

That success carried over and then some on Saturday as Jimenez stifled a Blue Jays lineup that had piled up 12 runs and 16 hits just a day earlier. It began with fastball command and impeccable control as Jimenez delivered first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced. He also effectively mixed in his split-fingered fastball and curveball while his two-seam fastball induced 11 grounders that were turned into outs by the excellent defense behind him.

Jimenez is gradually learning to trust that defense, adopting pitching coach Dave Wallace’s philosophy of pitching to weak contact and not always needing to rely on the strikeout. Unlike other starters in the current rotation, Jimenez has the ability to consistently miss bats — he still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season — but it can’t come at the expense of control.

Yes, it’s only one start, but it was a glimpse into what the Orioles envisioned when they made a four-year commitment to the 2010 All-Star Game starter for the National League. While a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings average and a 4.81 ERA from last year are fresh in observers’ minds, Jimenez has pitched at a high level at various times in his career, which is the upside that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was attracted to.

For now, Jimenez can only take it one start at a time, one strike at a time while observers will understandably remain skeptical until he proves himself consistently.

“The only thing I’m worried about is being there for the team,” Jimenez said. “If I pitch good, they will forget [last year], but my main goal is be there for the team. I can’t be worried about what everyone is thinking.”

Saturday reinforced that the Orioles were right to give Jimenez a chance to reestablish himself in the rotation. He’ll need to prove he can remain there, but owing a pitcher $39 million over the next three years has a way of making an organization provide as many opportunities as humanly possible to fetch a return.

The Jimenez who’s surfaced over the last month dating back to spring training is one the Orioles would like to see pitching meaningful games in September and beyond. It’s the reason why they brought him to Baltimore in the first place despite his opening act being a dud.

“Nobody’s worked harder than him. You can tell he did it in the offseason, too,” Showalter said. “He came in here with a real purpose. Tonight was a good reminder why he’s been a good quality major league starter for a long time.”

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2015 Orioles preview: Caleb Joseph

Posted on 24 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman
March 18 – Alejandro De Aza
March 19 – Tommy Hunter
March 20 – Manny Machado
March 21 – Brad Brach
March 22 – Steve Pearce
March 23 – Darren O’Day

C Caleb Joseph

Opening Day age: 28

Contract status: Will become a free agent after the 2020 season

Minor-league options remaining: Three

2014 stats: .207/.264/.354, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 22 R, 0 SB, 275 PA

Why to be impressed: After seven seasons in the minors, Joseph had a reputation for not being very good defensively, but he threw out 23 of 57 runners (40 percent) trying to steal when he was promoted in May to replace the injured Matt Wieters. Joseph had only 171 plate appearances in Triple A, but he showed solid power as a rookie, hitting nine homers in a 47-game span.

Why to be concerned: Joseph was hitting .236 with a respectable .697 OPS in early September before he tired down the stretch and went 0-for-30 with 13 strikeouts to close the regular season. With pitchers having seen Joseph at the major league level, he’ll need to make significant adjustments to improve on his 25.1 percent strikeout rate from a year ago.

2015 outlook: With Wieters sidelined for at least the start of the season, Joseph is expected to handle the bulk of the catching duties in his place, which could allow him to solidify his standing as the backup. If you eliminate his 1-for-26 start and 0-for-30 finish, Joseph put up some respectable numbers (.263 average) in his rookie season. Finding enough consistency to raise his average to the .240 range will be the challenge, but his track record as a hitter in the minor leagues suggests it’s a reasonable expectation along with an ability to hit a few homers in the process.

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Recovering Wieters focused on 2015 season despite looming free agency

Posted on 28 February 2015 by Luke Jones

SARASOTA, Fla. — Watching Orioles catcher Matt Wieters during the first few days of full-squad workouts, you could almost forget he’s less than nine months removed from having Tommy John surgery.

He may not yet be cleared to fire bullets down to second or third base to gun down a runner trying to steal, but there have been no signs of apprehension to this point as he’s participated in other fielding drills and caught bullpen sessions. The Orioles hope it stays that way as Wieters will catch in the club’s first intrasquad game on Sunday, which won’t include any throwing for him beyond tosses back to the pitcher.

“He’s doing everything [else],” manager Buck Showalter said. “I saw him throw a ball [the other day] and I had to catch myself because it looked like normal and I thought to myself, ‘Jeez.’ There wasn’t that recoil or decel at the end that you see with a lot of guys that are [recovering from arm injuries].”

It’s so far, so good for Wieters, who is part of a small group of major league catchers to have undergone the elbow ligament reconstruction surgery more commonly associated with pitchers. The track record of catchers coming back from the surgical procedure isn’t encouraging, but most in the group were fringe major league catchers to begin with and lacked Wieters’ ability behind the dish and in the batter’s box.

Defense has been Wieters’ biggest strength throughout his major league career as he’s thrown out 33 percent of runners trying to steal. Until the 28-year-old is fully cleared to throw behind the plate, however, uncertainty remains about what kind of catcher he’ll be in his seventh season and beyond.

The three-time All-Star selection and two-time Gold Glove winner may not have to worry about throwing breaking balls or preparing for 100-pitch outings like a hurler coming back from Tommy John surgery, but making a high volume of throws from different angles behind the plate does make projecting an exact timetable for recovery tricky compared to the expected 10 to 14 months for most pitchers or the six to eight months for other position players not throwing as often as catchers.

“The rehab is going as well as we could have expected, which is a blessing in itself,” Wieters said. “To be able to get out there and just do partial throwing and be able to just be with the guys is great. I’m going through the throwing program, and it feels good throwing. I haven’t gotten into actual positional throwing yet, so that will be the next step of getting into a squat and making throws as a catcher. I’ll do that for a little bit before actually getting behind the plate in a game.”

The Orioles are currently targeting March 17 for Wieters’ first game behind the plate in Grapefruit League action. In the meantime, he’ll receive at-bats as a designated hitter and catch in minor-league spring games — once again with no runners trying to steal — at the organization’s Twin Lakes facility. Showalter plans to have Wieters’ legs fully in shape to allow him to catch five to seven innings when he makes his Grapefruit League debut behind the plate.

The organization and Wieters remain hopeful that he’ll be ready for Opening Day on April 6, but returning to the lineup for good is the 2007 first-round pick’s ultimate goal in not wanting to experience a setback or to need to baby the surgically-repaired elbow over the course of a 162-game season.

“I think about what’s going to be best for the team and what’s going to be best health-wise going forward,” Wieters said. “It’s something where missing all that time last year was tough. I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to make the decision, ‘What’s the best way for you to be on the field as much as possible?’ This game is what I love playing, and we’re going to do whatever is going to give me the best chance to be on the field the most this year.”

There’s also the reality of looming free agency to consider as Wieters is scheduled to hit the open market next winter. The catcher insists his singular focus is on getting ready for the season, but he and agent Scott Boras have to be thinking about his health and showing the Orioles and potential suitors that his elbow problem will be completely behind him.

It isn’t an easy position for a soon-to-be 29-year-old catcher to be in after he’s already logged 5,533 innings behind the plate in his major league career. In that way, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of his body in 2014 as he was only able to contribute from a mental standpoint, which even included some advanced scouting of the Detroit Tigers ahead of the American League Division Series.

Showalter has frequently pointed to Wieters as a potential manager one day and credited his work with catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley as a major reason why the pitching staff thrived in his absence.

“It just verified what we thought. That doesn’t surprise anybody,” Showalter said. “He was in the film room with those guys every day. His words carry a lot of weight. He projects a real self-confidence when you’re willing to help other people like that.”

Wieters is confident that his familiarity with the club’s pitching staff — which lost only lefty reliever Andrew Miller in the offseason — will allow for a smooth return behind the plate.

Having not played in a game since May 10 of last year, Wieters is itching to return to action, whether it’s as soon as Opening Day or a more conservative track. He gained perspective from watching Showalter in the dugout and believes the mental side of his game has improved over the last year, but watching his teammates play in the 2014 postseason wasn’t easy.

“It was tough and great at the same time to be able to watch those guys have the success they had last year,” Wieters said. “I felt a part of it but not as much a part of it as I would have liked to be. When the season ended last year, I was probably the only guy in that clubhouse that was already thinking about spring training. Those guys deserved their time off, but I was ready to come down here and get going as soon as possible.”

Wieters can see the light at the end of the tunnel in the rehabilitation process, but the last few hurdles remain. Meanwhile, the Orioles know the clock is ticking before the catcher hits free agency, with few expecting him to sign an extension to stay with the organization that drafted him.

Those realities present an interesting juxtaposition as Wieters must understandably focus on the big picture while the Orioles would like to maximize their return in their final season of control before free agency. Unclear of his future beyond 2015, Wieters is hoping to take advantage of a healthy season while trying to help the Orioles defend their 2014 AL East title.

“I love Baltimore and Baltimore’s a great town,” Wieters said. “Right now, I’m really thinking about getting back on the field, which could be a blessing. [Free agency is] something that always looms for players, but for me, it’s really just about getting back out there and enjoying it.”

Listen to my exclusive interview with Wieters from Sarasota HERE.

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Orioles must slow speedy Royals in quest for AL pennant

Posted on 09 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles manager Buck Showalter almost sounded coy when asked about the speed of the Kansas City Royals as his club made final preparations for the American League Championship Series scheduled to get underway Friday night.

With five Royals players recording double-digit steals in the regular season and another rookie — Terrance Gore — stealing three bases in his first four postseason games, the Orioles face a tall order in slowing Kansas City’s speed demons, a factor many view as a potential tipping point between two clubs that are very similar beyond their contrasting offensive styles.

“They’re not automatically going to all of a sudden run slower tomorrow,” Showalter said. “If anything, they’re going to run faster. You don’t control that. It’s impossible. It’s one of those givens. Try to keep them off base as much as you can.”

Sure, there’s no better remedy for neutralizing speed than preventing runners from reaching first, but the Orioles don’t sound nearly as concerned about the Kansas City running game Thursday as the many outsiders trying to break down this matchup. As some ponder whether the season-ending elbow injury to Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters will finally catch up to Baltimore in this best-of-seven series, the Orioles spent Thursday pointing out that their regular style of play always involves containing an opponent’s running game.

Most of the attention falls on the shoulders of the catching tandem of Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, but the ability to stop potential thievery runs deeper.

Even with the two-time Gold Glove selection Wieters limited to just 22 games behind the plate this season before an elbow injury eventually led to Tommy John surgery, opponents still attempted the fourth-fewest number of steals in the AL against Baltimore this season. The Orioles ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners trying to steal with Joseph — a 28-year-old rookie not known for his defensive work in the minors — and the veteran Hundley handling the catching duties for much of the season.

And that’s when you begin to see where the real responsibility lies in controlling an opponent’s running game.

“The easiest way [to neutralize it] is quick times to the plate, no question,” said former Orioles outfielder and current vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, who swiped 315 bases in his 15-year career. “As a base stealer, you steal bases off the pitcher. It doesn’t matter to me if [13-time Gold Glove winner] Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate; if the pitcher was slow, I’m going.”

Look no further than Game 1 starter Chris Tillman to see how much emphasis the Orioles have placed on pitchers being fast to the plate and holding runners since Showalter’s arrival during the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was admittedly poor when it came to holding runners during his early years with the Orioles before Showalter and Wieters preached the need for him to shorten his delivery to prevent runners from going wild on the bases.

It was a mindset that several pitchers have needed to learn the hard way during Showalter’s tenure, with some even earning demotions to the minors as a result.

Tillman has not only posted back-to-back 200-inning seasons to emerge as the ace of the Baltimore rotation, but the 26-year-old has allowed only two stolen bases since the start of the 2013 season.

“When Buck got here, it was a big pet peeve of his,” Tillman said. “You’ve got to be quick and give your catchers a chance. Anytime the opposing guys get an extra 90 feet for free, you’re not doing yourself a favor. It’s an organizational thing now. Early on, I don’t think it was. I was young and immature and didn’t know any better, to tell you the truth.”

Of course, the Royals aren’t just any other club in stealing 153 bases to lead the majors in the regular season, and they appear to have only gotten better in that department with the addition of the speedy Gore to go along with Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, and Nori Aoki. They have gone a remarkable 12-for-13 attempting to steal in four postseason games.

But the Orioles feel confident in their scouting and preparation and their biggest weapon in helping to neutralize an opponent’s running game, which is none other than bench coach John Russell.

“A lot of it comes from the bench,” Hundley said. “John Russell does an unbelievable job knowing tendencies, knowing when to throw over, knowing when to pitch out. He doesn’t get enough credit. He controls all the pick-offs and all that stuff. How good he is at it helps us out — me and Caleb — a bunch. And it takes a lot of pressure off the pitchers, because they know he’ll put them in a very successful position.”

It remains to be seen how Showalter will distribute the catching duties over the course of the series, but Hundley is expected to start Game 1. The 31-year-old veteran acquired from the San Diego Padres in late May handled a larger portion of the playing time down the stretch despite throwing out only 19 percent of runners trying to steal this season. In contrast, Joseph gunned down 40 percent during his rookie season even though his defense was often viewed as a hindrance in his minor-league development for years.

Regardless of who might be behind the plate, the mindset isn’t expected to change for Orioles pitchers as they will do what they always do — even against the speedy Royals.

“All the pitchers feel comfortable with it, because it’s something we’ve always put the onus on,” Wieters said. “It shouldn’t be anything different in their minds as far as what they need to do. They stick with their same times to the plate, and it gives us a chance. As a catcher, that’s all you want. There are certain guys that you won’t throw out, but we feel like every pitcher out there is giving the catcher a chance to make a good throw and hopefully get an out.”

Ultimately, the Orioles know they can’t reinvent the wheel when trying to slow a club that ran wild against the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card Game and continued their aggressiveness against the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series. They’ll simply stick with their regular habits of being quick to the plate and holding runners effectively while likely being savvy in attempting to interrupt runners’ timing with pick-off attempts or by simply holding the ball a little longer in some instances.

Showalter isn’t going to change who the Orioles are at this late stage, nor should he try to with a club that won 96 games this season with plenty of its own strengths. And he saw firsthand in September how a pitcher can fall apart on the hill if he’s dwelling on a fast runner and not focusing on the hitter at the plate.

“We’ve talked about it, but we’re not going to rob from Peter to pay Paul,” Showalter said. “I think one time we had Quintin [Berry] pinch‑running for us late in the year, and without naming the [opposing] pitcher, you could tell his whole delivery changed trying to keep him from stealing second. He gave up three hits, back to back to back. We didn’t steal a base, but we didn’t have to.

“But we’ve got some things that they might have to adjust to, too.”

The biggest key will be maintaining their mental toughness by not allowing Kansas City’s preference for a track meet to take away from what they do best.

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Ten talking points for Orioles-Royals ALCS matchup

Posted on 08 October 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Orioles prepare to play the Kansas City Royals for the first time ever in the postseason and for the right to advance to their first World Series in 31 years, here are 10 talking points to break down their meeting in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday night:

1. It isn’t Eddie Murray vs. George Brett, but the tradition of yesteryear in each city makes this series a blast.

Yes, it’s been three decades since either the Orioles or Royals found themselves playing in the Fall Classic, but that’s what makes this series so much fun as younger baseball fan will be exposed to the history of each franchise. From 1973 through 1985, Baltimore and Kansas City combined to win two World Series titles, four AL pennants, and 10 division championships and were regarded as two of the model franchises in the major leagues. This history may not mean much to the current players or have any impact on the play on the field, but the fans’ thirst for a World Series will be palpable at both Kauffman Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

2. You won’t find more contrasting offensive styles with the stakes so high.

It’s thunder against lightning as the Orioles led the major leagues with 211 home runs while the Royals stole more bases (153) than any of the 29 other clubs. Meanwhile, Baltimore stole the fewest number of bases (44) in the big leagues and Kansas City ranked 30th with only 95 home runs. Five Royals players hit double digits in swiped bags while the Orioles’ leader in the category was David Lough with eight. Seven Orioles hit 12 or more homers — Manny Machado and Chris Davis will not play in this series — compared to just three for Kansas City. Despite their contrasting styles, the Orioles finished the regular season ranked sixth in the AL in runs with 705 compared to Kansas City coming in ninth with 651. Baltimore has the better offense over the long haul, but the Royals will try to turn a short series into a 100-meter dash while the Orioles emphasize their advantage in the shot put.

3. The Royals stack up more favorably to the Baltimore defense that Detroit did.

The Orioles still have the edge in the field, but Kansas City has a number of Gold Glove-caliber players including catcher Salvador Perez and outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. The Orioles rank third in the AL in BaseballReference.com’s defensive efficiency statistic while the Royals came in sixth in the regular season. Baltimore made the third-fewest number of errors (87) in the AL this season while Kansas City ranked 10th with 104. Both clubs made sparkling plays in the Division Series and rely on their defense to make a difference in close games.

4. Scoring early will be a high priority for both clubs.

Unlike the luxury the Orioles had against Detroit in the Division Series, they cannot expect to wait out starting pitchers for scoring opportunities in the late inning against the Royals, whose trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera might be even better than their own triumvirate of Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day. The Orioles’ 3.10 bullpen ERA ranked third in the AL while Kansas City’s 3.30 mark ranked fifth, which will cause both lineups to feel the urgency to break through prior to the sixth inning. Even with so many other great names in each bullpen, the wild cards could be right-hander Kevin Gausman and Kansas City lefty Brandon Finnegan, who made a major impact in the Wild Card Game after only being drafted in the first round out of Texas Christian a few months ago.

5. The spotlight will be much brighter on Adam Jones to produce in this series.

It’s cruel to judge any player on a sample size of only 37 at-bats, but the Orioles center fielder has amassed only four hits in his postseason career and will feel the heat if his bat doesn’t wake up in the ALCS. Being an aggressive hitter throughout his career, Jones must fight the urge to over-swing, especially when he has opportunities to drive in runs. The 29-year-old singled and walked in his final two plate appearances of the ALDS, which the Orioles hope are signs of better things to come this October for a player who’s meant so much to the club’s success over the last three years. Nelson Cruz carried the Orioles in the ALDS, but Jones waking up would make them even more difficult to beat in a best-of-seven series.

6. The Orioles are better equipped to handle Kansas City’s jackrabbits on the base paths.

The Royals are an incredible 12-for-13 attempting to steal in the postseason, which has certainly provided Buck Showalter with some restless nights this week. However, the Orioles will have more success in slowing Kansas City runners than either Oakland or the Angels because of their focus on slowing an opposing club’s running game. Baltimore ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal, but the fact that they faced the fourth-fewest number of stolen base attempts is a reflection of how well pitchers hold runners and how quick they are to the plate to help catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Of the two, Joseph is more adept at gunning down runners (a 40 percent success rate to Hundley’s 19 percent), so it will be interesting to see how much more Showalter might lean on the younger catcher in this series after Hundley started two of the three ALDS games.

7. Former Oriole starter Jeremy Guthrie pitching against his former club in the ALCS will be somewhat surreal.

With apologies to Baltimore reserve Jimmy Paredes, Guthrie is the most intriguing name to face his former team in this series and had the misfortune of being dealt away from the Orioles just before their resurgence in 2012. The classy right-hander has found a home with the Royals where he’s continued to be a solid member of the rotation and has been rewarded with a taste of the postseason after pitching respectably on some otherwise awful Orioles clubs from 2007 through 2011. Though Guthrie probably wouldn’t be slated to start before Game 4 unless the Royals elect to go with Danny Duffy in the rotation and put him in the bullpen, it will be interesting to see the Orioles face the 35-year-old, who acts as a symbol of the club’s past as they seek their first AL pennant in 31 years.

8. Neither club received enough credit for its starting pitching during the regular season.

The Orioles and Royals are known for their stout bullpens, but their rotations have been very effective despite lacking big names. The projected Game 1 starters, Chris Tillman and James Shields, are two of the better pitchers in the AL — the latter for a longer period of time — but each has just one All-Star appearance to his name. Baltimore’s starter ERA of 3.61 ranked just a hair below the Royals’ fourth-ranked 3.60 mark in the AL. The strong bullpens for both sides decrease the chances of any starter pitching particularly deep into games, but there’s no reason to think either side will have problems in this department.

9. This series may feature the two best relievers in baseball right now — and neither are closers.

While Britton and Holland have been two of the best ninth-inning men in baseball in 2014, Miller and Davis are the scariest weapons in their respective bullpens as they combined to strike out 212 hitters in 134 1/3 innings during the regular season. Miller’s ERA was 1.35 in 23 regular-season appearances for the Orioles after being dealt by Boston while Davis posted a 1.00 ERA in 71 appearances for Kansas City this year. Showalter has already demonstrated he’s not afraid to use Miller for more than one inning in the postseason while Davis was a starter as recently as last season, making you think he can be stretched out as well. Regardless of who ends up winning this series, it would be shocking if Miller and Davis aren’t the busiest bullpen arms in the best-of-seven showdown.

10. Buck Showalter has a sizable advantage over Ned Yost on this stage.

The strong sentiment shared among many around baseball is that the Royals have won in spite of their manager, who prefers the small-ball tactics detested by sabermetricians. Meanwhile, Showalter often speaks of his preference to not waste his offense’s 27 outs per game and rarely calls for sacrifice bunts and other tactics such as the hit and run. You do wonder if the Orioles’ strong bullpen will press Yost to lean even more on manufacturing runs than he normally does, but Showalter is more likely to stay the course with his lineup — even against the Royals’ stingy relievers. As for bullpen management, the skipper who is more willing to break the standard thinking of when to use his relievers will give his team the edge. Showalter is the superior tactician and has already shown his willingness to stretch his best relievers during the Division Series.

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Aiming high only way to go if Orioles want to add starting pitching

Posted on 16 July 2014 by Luke Jones

You can never have too much starting pitching, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has repeated that sentiment despite the Orioles enjoying a four-game lead in the American League East at the All-Star break.

The Orioles rank fifth in the American League in pitching and 11th in starting pitching, but unlike the last couple seasons in which they were often desperately looking for just a warm body or two to add to the mix, the starting rotation appears to be moving in the right direction. Even with the season-long struggles of the injured Ubaldo Jimenez, the starting pitching has posted a 3.18 ERA over the last 33 games spanning 198 innings, lowering the starting pitching ERA from 4.61 to 4.09 since June 9.

No one will mistake this rotation for the 1971 Orioles, but Duquette should be picky in any quest to add starting pitching between now and the trade deadline at the end of the month. Wondering whether the club has the quality to compete with the front end of other playoff rotations in October is fair, but the upside of Kevin Gausman and even the second-half track record of Jimenez — who has been dominant for stretches of his career when his mechanics are in order — will be worth monitoring down the stretch with an eye toward the postseason.

Even if the Orioles still lack top-half quality, they have more stability in their rotation than they’ve enjoyed in a long time.

Manager Buck Showalter has used just seven starting pitchers all year with one of them — lefty reliever T.J. McFarland — receiving only one start. In 2013, 14 different pitchers made starts and 10 made at least four starts. The year before that, 12 different hurlers made starts with 10 making at least four starts.

Stability — with relatively decent health — has afforded Duquette the luxury of not needing to look for the likes of Scott Feldman, Joe Saunders, Jair Jurrjens, and Freddy Garcia on this year’s market. That’s what made the recent news of the Orioles scouting Colorado lefty Jorge De La Rosa that much more perplexing as he doesn’t represent an apparent upgrade over anyone — including Jimenez — in the current rotation with his 4.56 ERA in 2014 and 4.69 career mark.

The Orioles have also been linked to San Diego’s Ian Kennedy, who has posted a 3.47 ERA in 20 starts, but he’s a career 3.94 ERA pitcher who’s spent most of his career in the National League. The Padres will likely be asking for a lot for the right-hander, and Duquette shouldn’t part ways with the precious few top prospects he has unless he’s positive he’s gaining a substantial upgrade. Kennedy may provide that, but his talent level should only be the baseline at which the Orioles are looking at this point.

More so than even in 2013 or 2012, the Orioles have plenty of quality when it comes to filling out the back of the rotation. They have an abundance of No. 4 and No. 5 starters.

An injury or two could obviously change that tune quickly, but Duquette must aim high if the Orioles are to add starting pitching between now and the end of the July. Jeff Samardzija has already been dealt to Oakland and David Price may not be traded at all — and they probably don’t have the freight to acquire the AL East pitcher, anyway — but those are the types of arms to be examining.

Anything less is just a waste of time and resources.

Standing pat at catcher

Many have asked about the possibility of the Orioles adding another catcher to the mix as Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley have handled the workload since Matt Wieters underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery, but Duquette has said on several occasions that they’re unlikely to make another move in that department.

Boston officially released A.J. Pierzynski on Wednesday, but the Orioles don’t view him as a significant upgrade offensively — the 37-year-old posted just a .633 on-base plus slugging percentage with the Red Sox — to compromise the rapport Joseph and Hundley have built with the pitching staff and the defensive work they’ve displayed over the better part of two months. And that’s not even mentioning Pierzynski’s outspoken personality that could potentially compromise a strong clubhouse.

Hundley has come on lately with the bat, raising his average to a respectable .250, while Joseph has posted a .690 OPS since the beginning of June and had a solid offensive track record in the minor leagues despite his current .187 average. Neither will fool you as quality offensive catchers, but trying to add an impact backstop while bringing him up to speed with the pitching staff will be extremely difficult.

If the Orioles are looking for an offensive boost, they could take another extended look at Steve Clevenger, but Showalter is going to value defensive work behind the plate and the current duo — particularly Joseph — has done an admirable job in that department.

Left-handed bat still needed

The emergence of Steve Pearce has been one of the great stories of the 2014 season, but the Orioles shouldn’t assume the 31-year-old will continue to perform at a rate that warrants everyday playing time with no questions asked.

His .316 average, 11 home runs, and 31 runs batted in are a major reason why Baltimore currently sits in first place, but it’s still a stretch to expect his current .300 average and .846 OPS against right-handed pitching to continue. For his career, Pearce is hitting just .237 with a .667 OPS against right-handers and that’s including his amazing numbers this season.

In other words, a left-handed hitting outfielder that feasts against right-handed pitching should be a priority to add for the stretch as the only left-handed bats to make real contributions this season are Nick Markakis and the struggling Chris Davis. The speedy Lough has been a major disappointment at the plate, and the Orioles must anticipate the possibility of needing to platoon Pearce if he reverts to his career form.

Even if Pearce continues to thrive as an everyday player, the Orioles would benefit from a left-handed version of Delmon Young to come off the bench in the late innings as Lough and utility player Ryan Flaherty just don’t provide formidable options at the plate. The Orioles had looked into the services of Padres outfielder Seth Smith, who feasts against right-handed pitching, before he signed a two-year extension with San Diego earlier this month.

A player of that ilk would make perfect sense for the roster.

Pondering futures of Cruz and Davis

It’s incredible to think how much can change in a year as Orioles fans were clamoring for the organization to sign Davis to a long-term contract as he entered the All-Star break with 37 home runs last year and would go on to hit a franchise record 53 in 2013. Meanwhile, Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz was a couple weeks away from beginning a 50-game suspension stemming from his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.

A year later, Davis sits with a lowly .199 average at the break while Cruz has parlayed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles into what looks like a pending lucrative payday as he’s second in the majors with 28 home runs and has often carried the Baltimore offense this year while Davis and others have struggled.

It’s interesting to see so many fans crushing Davis for his poor first half — that’s not to say criticism hasn’t been warranted — while screaming for the Orioles to sign the 34-year-old Cruz to a long-term contract when many of those same fans wanted to give Davis the keys to the city last offseason.

The Orioles will certainly make Cruz a qualifying offer after the season to at least recover a draft pick and should see if he’s willing to sign a short-term extension at a higher annual cost per year, but giving him more than two or three years at the most would be a mistake for an aging player coming off what looks to be his career year.

Davis’ future will be more interesting to figure out as he tries to rebound from a miserable first half and remains under team control through next season.

 

 

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Orioles hoping for best, bracing for worst with Wieters’ follow-up appointment

Posted on 13 June 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Matt Wieters is scheduled to make his follow-up visit to Dr. James Andrews on Monday while the Orioles hope for the best and prepare for the worst regarding their injured catcher.

On the 15-day disabled list with right elbow soreness since May 11, Wieters hasn’t progressed as well as he’d hoped since beginning a throwing program two weeks ago and faces the prospects of needing season-ending surgery to correct the problem. The Orioles have laid out July 1 as the deadline for Wieters to go under the knife without missing any time at the start of the 2015 season with a normal rehabilitation scheduled.

Manager Buck Showalter wasn’t about to reveal his gut feeling about how Wieters’ appointment will go with the renowned orthopedic surgeon but didn’t paint a rosy picture about the two-time All-Star catcher’s status for the rest of the 2014 season.

“It’s another one of those where I know a little more than I’m going to talk about,” Showalter said. “I don’t want to say something that’s not honest. He’s still got a chance. I think we’re all curious to see what Dr. Andrews is going to say. We’ve got it set up both ways. He’ll [either] be returning to us and get right back into his program or we can proceed with the other option, which I have trouble saying out loud. There’s only really two options here.”

In Wieters’ absence, the Orioles have used the trio of Nick Hundley, Caleb Joseph, and Steve Clevenger behind the plate. Acquired from the San Diego Padres on May 24, Hundley initially looked like he’d be the starting catcher for the foreseeable future, but Joseph made his fourth start in the club’s last five games on Friday night.

Clevenger has hit .455 in 44 at-bats since being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk, but his less-than-stellar defense was a deciding factor behind his demotion.

Showalter was amused when asked by a reporter if he was satisfied with his current options behind the plate should Wieters’ appointment bring bad news from Gulf Breeze, Fla. on Monday.

“What am I supposed to say, no?” Showalter said. “‘By God, Dan [Duquette] better go get an All-Star catcher right away just like Matt.’ I am [comfortable]. I think they’ve done a good job all things considered. We’ve tried real hard to create some depth here catching.

“We’ve got some things to pick from. That’s really been a challenge for us in the last few years. We always said, ‘What if Matt [gets hurt]? What are we going to do?’ Well, here we are. I hope that we get some good news on Monday, but you better prepare like you’re not.”

Machado appeal date not imminent

Showalter and the Orioles know the date that third baseman Manny Machado’s appeal will be heard on a five-game suspension stemming from the bat-throwing incident against the Oakland Athletics, but the organization is not commenting.

The manager only said that it isn’t imminent and that the 21-year-old will be available for the remainder of the weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Many have speculated that Machado’s appeal could be heard when the Orioles arrive in the Bronx to take on the New York Yankees next weekend, but that’s not a guarantee.

The club will need to add a backup infielder to the mix when Machado’s suspension begins with the assumption that Ryan Flaherty will handle third-base duties. This means Showalter will only have 11 pitchers at his disposal with Machado still counting against the 25-man roster while he serves his penalty.

“It’s not like you can pick the date and take the suspension,” Showalter said. “‘OK, he’s suspended and we’ll take it in September.’ You can’t do that. That’s not the way it’s designed. Once they render a decision, it’s right away. If you look at the precedent for situations like this, we feel like and Manny feels like [five games is a] little strong.”

Rotation still not set for Tampa Bay series

Lefty Wei-Yin Chen will pitch the series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday, but Showalter wasn’t prepared to name his starters for Games 2 and 3 on Friday afternoon.

“I think after [Friday night], I’ll be able to give you [scheduled starters for] Tuesday and Wednesday,” said Showalter. “No, probably [Saturday].”

Many are clamoring for both Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez — who is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list on Sunday — to remain in the rotation while questioning the status of Ubaldo Jimenez, who entered his Friday start with a 5.01 ERA in 13 outings this season. Of course, the $50 million investment the Orioles made in him this offseason provides a longer leash, but a club aiming to win now may want to consider a temporary shift to the bullpen or a trip to the disabled list for the struggling right-hander if his fortunes don’t improve quickly.

Tough day for knuckleballers

Norfolk knuckleball pitcher Eddie Gamboa was suspended for 50 games on Friday for testing positive for exogenous testosterone. His suspension begins immediately after he began the season 4-5 with a 4.06 ERA in 14 games (12 starts).

“I know some people are going to make comments about a knuckleball guy and the connection with whatever,” Showalter said. “They’re missing the point on why. Obviously, I know a lot more about why and looking into it. He was on the radar here, so it’s unfortunate.”

Another converted knuckleball pitcher in the organization received bad news on Friday as UMBC product Zach Clark was released.

 

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Orioles option Clevenger to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for returning Davis

Posted on 27 May 2014 by Luke Jones

As expected, the Orioles activated first baseman Chris Davis from the paternity leave list prior to Tuesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

What wasn’t expected was the decision to option catcher Steve Clevenger to Triple-A Norfolk in order to make room. The Orioles figured to option one of their three catchers on the 25-man roster following the Saturday acquisition of veteran Nick Hundley, but many assumed rookie Caleb Joseph would be sent back to the Tides.

Clevenger had been serving as the starting catcher with Matt Wieters on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow discomfort, but it appears that the 30-year-Hundley will now step into the primary starting role. Hundley is a career .238 hitter and provided the game-winning hit in the top of the 10th inning of Monday’s 7-6 win over Milwaukee.

Joseph is just 1-for-23 with the Orioles since being promoted earlier this month, but the 27-year-old is 4-for-10 throwing out runners attempting to steal. Never known as a strong defensive catcher in the minor leagues, Joseph has impressed manager Buck Showalter with his work behind the plate.

The right-handed-hitting Hundley is only a .199 career hitter against left-handed pitching, making it likely that Joseph will receive regular work against southpaw starters. This alignment would make more sense than Clevenger remaining with the Orioles since he doesn’t hit left-handed pitching well (a .128 career average).

Clevenger was hitting .243 with eight runs batted in and appeared to have the higher offensive upside, but Tuesday’s move appears to be the latest example of manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette going with the stronger defensive option in Joseph. However, it’s a tough sell convincing critics that Joseph’s edge in defense is greater than the discrepancy in offensive production between Clevenger and Joseph in Baltimore this season.

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