Tag Archive | "Chris Tillman"

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Orioles pitching staff making history for wrong reasons

Posted on 23 June 2017 by Luke Jones

Frustration turned to astonishment at some point over the last week watching the Orioles try to pitch.

Even the best clubs endure a poor stretch from time to time, but a streak of 19 consecutive games allowing five or more runs is nothing short of historic. It’s the kind of American League record a team never wants to set, but the Baltimore staff has been a special kind of bad over the last three weeks after merely being below average before that.

That reality begs the question of where it ranks among the most infamous periods of futility in franchise history. A 6-13 record over the streak isn’t anything memorable from a historical context, but a 7.33 ERA over that long of a stretch is difficult to fathom. Since starting a surprising 22-10 with a respectable 3.85 ERA, the Orioles have gone just 13-27 while pitching to a horrendous 6.13 ERA.

Those pitching numbers are worse than virtually any other stretch that Orioles fans have tried to forget over the years.

Remember that 14-42 conclusion to 1986 that sent the Orioles to the first last-place finish in club history? The team ERA of 5.05 over that stretch pales in comparison to the current club’s streak.

The historic 0-21 start for the 1988 Orioles was accompanied by a 5.96 ERA. That number is worse than it looks today in what was a lower scoring environment at the time, but it still doesn’t measure up to the current pitching streak on the precipice of a major league record.

The Orioles posted a 5.63 ERA over their unthinkable 4-32 finish to complete the 2002 season. It was an incredible collapse after that young club had reached the .500 mark in late August, but the pitching still wasn’t historically poor.

The only notable period of time that stands out as being worse statistically than the current staff’s run is a 3-18 stretch for the 2007 Orioles that included an absurd 8.95 ERA as well as the previous club record for the most consecutive games (11) allowing five or more runs. That run included the humiliating 30-3 loss to Texas – which does skew the team ERA during that stretch – but removing that outlier still leaves a 7.89 ERA over the other 20 contests.

Even if you give the 2007 Orioles the nod for the most pathetic run of pitching in club history, there’s no denying the current staff being on a very short list of the worst.

“The Streak” has just put it under an unwelcome spotlight for the entire baseball world to see.

Positive signs for Gausman

If you’re looking for any semblance of hope in regards to the starting rotation, Kevin Gausman showed positive signs despite so-so final results in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Cleveland.

The right-hander struck out a season-high nine batters and walked only two, showing improved fastball command and throwing strikes on 66 percent of his pitches. An obvious difference in his performance was the increased use of his split-changeup, which had been his best secondary pitch in the past and has fallen by the wayside too frequently this year. Gausman threw it a season-high 23.2 percent of the time against the Indians, inducing swings and misses on nine of the 26 he threw.

It’s worth noting that the Cleveland order did include six left-handed bats and the split-change plays better against lefties, but Gausman also threw it effectively against right-handers, twice striking out the dangerous Edwin Encarnacion with the pitch. It was a welcome change after seeing the 26-year-old rely too much on his slider this season with such underwhelming results.

Another potentially interesting development from his start came from BrooksBaseball.net. According to the data-collecting site, Gausman threw his sinker more than 54 percent of the time after barely throwing the pitch all season. Statcast data still reported his fastball as a four-seamer, however, and Gausman made no mention of a change in his post-game interview Wednesday. It’s worth noting that his average fastball velocity was down a bit from recent starts, which could also support the possibility of him using a different grip.

Of course, Gausman ran into trouble in a three-run fifth inning as his command wasn’t as sharp and he relied too heavily on his fastball at times despite getting into plenty of favorable counts that called for secondary stuff. But the overall eyeball test showed a better Gausman than we’ve seen throughout 2017.

Now he needs to prove whether that was a turning point or a mere aberration.

Buyers or sellers?

Much has been made about reports of the Orioles’ intentions to be buyers at the trade deadline, but we’re still four or five weeks away from any definitive calls needing to be made.

It’s understandable not to want to concede anything publicly as Baltimore entered Friday just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card, but even the eternal optimist would have to scoff at the notion of the Orioles being a legitimate contender if there isn’t some substantial on-field improvement sooner than later. And then there’s the issue of what exactly the Orioles have in their system to give up if they want to try to add any pieces to truly move the meter.

Keep in mind there are various degrees of buying or selling that could play out. Even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette concludes that contention isn’t in the cards by the time late July rolls around, that doesn’t mean a full-blown fire sale would take place. Moving the likes of Seth Smith, Welington Castillo, Hyun Soo Kim, and Wade Miley in the short term might fetch a complementary piece or two and not necessarily wreck the potential to make another run in 2018, regardless of whether that’s the wisest way to proceed.

However, it’s difficult envisioning the Orioles trading Manny Machado or Zach Britton before ownership at least determines the long-term status of Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, who are both under contract through only next year. At this point, moves of that magnitude feel more like offseason agenda items.

Regardless of how the next few weeks play out on the field, these conversations need to happen before any meaningful roster decisions should be made to shape the present and, more importantly, the future of the organization.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 5-2 loss to White Sox

Posted on 15 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles losing another series in a 5-2 defeat to the Chicago White Sox, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Chris Tillman persevered through five solid innings before things unraveled for him in the sixth, but the Orioles lineup scoring one measly run until the ninth inning won’t cut it, especially with a pitching staff struggling to even be competitive most nights.

2. We haven’t discussed it much since the Orioles have rarely even been in games over the last week, but it’s alarming how undermanned the bullpen is with both Zach Britton and Darren O’Day on the disabled list. I could understand Buck Showalter trying to push Tillman longer in the sixth.

3. Even the best clubs go through periods when they struggle to pitch or hit, but botching a bunt coverage in a tie game in the sixth is the stuff of bad teams. Tillman took responsibility for it, but that cannot happen when the opposition is giving you an out.

4. Jimmy Yacabonis pitched well enough at Triple-A Norfolk to receive a promotion, but his performance Thursday should probably send him back in the minors. Allowing hits is one thing, but walking three out of the four hitters you face is unacceptable.

5. Jonathan Schoop’s drive in the sixth looked like the go-ahead three-run home run off the bat, but Melky Cabrera caught the ball in front of the left-field wall. It was one of many opportunities in which the Orioles failed to capitalize as they went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

6. There was no doubt about the fourth-inning homer off the bat of Matt Davidson, who hit a long ball in all four games of the series. He’s just the latest hitter to wear out the Orioles in recent weeks.

7. The unflattering result shouldn’t entirely dismiss some encouraging signs from Tillman, who showed solid fastball velocity and threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 28 batters he faced. The struggling veteran entered the day throwing first-pitch strikes only 44.4 percent of the time in 2017.

8. Tillman is still struggling to put away hitters as was the case in an 11-pitch at-bat with Kevan Smith in the second. Despite quickly getting ahead 0-2 on a catcher sporting a .637 on-base plus slugging percentage, Tillman couldn’t finish him off as Smith eventually singled.

9. I understood Showalter not wanting to remove Joey Rickard against right-hander Anthony Swarzak in a key spot in the fifth because of his short bench, but Hyun Soo Kim should have been used as a pinch hitter for Rickard against closer David Robertson in the ninth.

10. Manny Machado swung at three pitches outside the zone for a fourth-inning strikeout. After making great strides to improve his plate discipline over the last few years, the third baseman has walked only six times over his last 131 plate appearances. That’s very telling of his approach.

11. Seth Smith (back) and Mike Wright (shoulder) were both unavailable on Thursday. The Orioles’ health continues to plummet almost as rapidly as their record.

12. Baltimore has now allowed five or more runs in 12 consecutive games. I’d be curious to know what the major league record is, but it was sobering enough watching the 1-7 road trip as it was.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 8-3 loss to Yankees

Posted on 31 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering their eighth loss in nine games in an 8-3 final against the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The good vibes from Monday’s win vanished in a matter of nine pitches as Chris Tillman allowed a pair of solo home runs. We’ve seen Tillman straighten himself out after rough first innings numerous times in the past, but it was apparent that wasn’t happening Tuesday.

2. Tillman allowed nine of the 17 New York hitters he faced to reach base in what was easily his worst start of the year. His command wasn’t there as he either missed his spots badly or left pitches over the heart of the plate. That’s a lethal combination.

3. It was only a matter of time before the home runs allowed began to normalize as Tillman hadn’t allowed one over his first 20 1/3 innings of 2017. That was one of the lone factors keeping his ERA at a tolerable level through his first four starts.

4. Tillman showed his best average fastball velocity of the season at 90.8 miles per hour, but that’s still below his career average. He again said after the game that his shoulder feels good physically, but you wonder if this is the best we’re going to see from him moving forward.

5. Yankees starter Luis Severino deserves credit as he lowered his season ERA to 2.93 after 6 1/3 superb innings, but the Orioles scored fewer than five runs for the seventh straight game. Most of the lineup just looked lost as the quality at-bats were few and far between.

6. Manny Machado struck out four times in a game for the second time in his career as his average fell to .210. You could lower him in the order or sit him down, but perhaps a game at shortstop would get him to focus on something other than his struggles.

7. J.J. Hardy had an RBI single in the eighth, but three straight swinging strikes on Severino sliders with the bases loaded in the second were deflating as the Orioles had a chance to fight back against an early deficit. The 34-year-old shortstop has a .561 on-base plus slugging percentage.

8. Trey Mancini continues to be a bright spot as he went 3-for-3 with an RBI and a walk. His .873 OPS continues to lead the Orioles, and he continues to have impressive at-bats for a rookie.

9. Matt Holliday and Brett Gardner continue to be Oriole killers in 2017 as they each hit two home runs on Tuesday. Holliday has five homers against Baltimore this season while Gardner has four.

10. I hate the mentality of immediately blaming coaches when players aren’t performing, but hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh has to find a way to help get Machado going. The inconsistency of Chris Davis is one thing, but Machado is too good to be struggling this long.

11. Buck Showalter was asked about the possibility of shaking up the lineup Tuesday, and the time feels right to try it. With few hitting well, I’m not sure which direction to go, but maybe he should just draw names out of a hat like his mentor Billy Martin once did.

12. At some point, the obvious question needs to be asked about the Orioles’ starting rotation: How do you go about cloning Dylan Bundy?

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-3 loss to Minnesota

Posted on 24 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering a three-game sweep in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A team is never as bad as it looks in the midst of a losing streak, which is reassuring considering how ugly it’s been for the Orioles over this 3-10 stretch. I didn’t believe they were as good as their 22-10 start, but I’m not pushing the panic button, either.

2. Chris Tillman is typically a slow starter in his outings, but a 36-pitch first inning in which he allowed three runs was the last thing the Orioles needed. Similar to his first start of 2017, Tillman was consistently missing to his arm side early, and it cost him.

3. Tillman was eventually able to settle in and complete five innings after Jayson Aquino was warming up in both the first and second innings. The slider was particularly useful as he got five of his six swinging strikes with it. Still, the Orioles need better from him.

4. The pitching receives more attention, but the Orioles scored only five runs over the final 25 innings of the Twins series. With the current state of the pitching staff, it’s going to be very difficult to win if this offense can’t score at least five runs per game most nights.

5. J.J. Hardy’s third-inning home run broke a stretch of 21 consecutive Orioles hitters being retired dating back to the fifth inning of Tuesday’s 2-0 loss. The Twins pitched very well over the final two games, but there were far too many listless at-bats over that stretch.

6. After being aggressive early in the game, Chris Davis looked at three straight strikes with the tying run on second in the eighth. I’ve rarely harped on Davis’ strikeouts, but he’s now gone down looking a whopping 31 times this year, which is many more than anyone in the majors.

7. Jonathan Schoop hit his first home run since April 24 to make it a 4-3 game, but that came after he struck out with the bases loaded in the fourth. As Buck Showalter noted after the game, it’s home run or bust with this offense at the moment.

8. Jose Berrios gave up three solo shots over his 6 1/3 innings, but you can see why the Twins are so excited about the 22-year-old. That curveball was filthy while his two-seam fastball had sharp downward movement.

9. Despite doing a respectable job in the outfield so far, Trey Mancini looked the part of someone who’s never played there on Wednesday as he threw to the wrong base at one point and later misplayed a single into an extra base in the fifth. He’s still learning.

10. Alec Asher continued to draw praise from Showalter after two more scoreless innings, but you wonder if that outing took him out of play to start in place of Ubaldo Jimenez on Sunday. Besides Dylan Bundy, Asher has been Baltimore’s best pitching story so far.

11. I’m very reluctant to question a player’s concentration level or effort, but it was tough to watch Manny Machado’s play and body language over the last few days and not think that his slump at the plate is really wearing on him.

12. Even before Wednesday’s loss, Showalter complimented the Twins’ makeup as they continue to lead the AL Central. I still expect Cleveland to eventually take off to win that division, but let’s not forget the youthful Twins were 83-79 in 2015 before last year’s disastrous start from which they never recovered.

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Time for Orioles to reset bullpen — and find more quality

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

The idea of a six-man bullpen sounded good in theory for the Orioles.

Wanting to keep an extra position player for more flexibility off the bench late in games and having a collection of long relievers with minor-league options on the Norfolk shuttle, manager Buck Showalter tried to maneuver his way through games with at least one fewer reliever available on any given night. The plan may have worked had All-Star closer Zach Britton not re-injured his left forearm upon being activated from the disabled list in early May.

But the failure of the experiment came to a climax in Detroit Tuesday night with the kind of bullpen meltdown that’s been rare in these parts for a long time. Before putting Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Donnie Hart on full blast for their efforts in Detroit — and, yes, their performance was brutal — realize there are multiple reasons why the six-man bullpen hasn’t worked.

Many have fairly pointed to the lack of quantity in the bullpen, but the issue is as much about the need for more quality. You can argue that Showalter has relied too heavily on his top relievers in Britton’s absence if you want, but then you have to accept those times when he’s tried others in tight spots — like Alec Asher and Vidal Nuno during the recent four-game losing streak — and it hasn’t worked. Last year’s wild-card game in Toronto reminded us that the Orioles manager is hardly beyond reproach and maybe Darren O’Day’s recent shoulder issue should have landed him on the DL in favor of another healthy arm, but Showalter’s track record for managing a bullpen speaks for itself over the last five years and any skipper is going to look foolish when his top relievers perform like they have recently.

The Orioles need to find another bullpen arm — maybe two — who can be trusted in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of a close game, whether that guy is currently in their minor-league system or elsewhere. Frankly, a seventh pitcher in the bullpen isn’t going to help much if he can only be relied upon in mop-up situations.

The starting rotation hasn’t helped with Dylan Bundy being the only one offering both quality and length in his outings this season. Wade Miley’s 3.02 ERA looks good at first glance, but he’s averaging just over five innings per start and walking nearly six batters per nine innings. Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez both have ERAs above 6.00 while Chris Tillman is still building shoulder strength in his recent return from the disabled list. It doesn’t take a pitching guru to figure out what strain that kind of a rotation can have on a bullpen.

Until scoring 21 runs over the last two games, the offense also deserved blame for scoring at a below-average level over much of the first six weeks of the season and putting so much pressure on late-inning relief. All those narrow, low-scoring victories that we saw in April and early May take their toll on higher-leverage relievers when the starting rotation is averaging 5.4 innings per start and the best closer on the planet is on the DL. This roster was constructed to have an above-average offense that will hit gobs of home runs to give the pitching some breathing room from time to time at the very least. Instead, the Orioles continue to lead the league in save opportunities.

You can only hope the recent awakening of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo is a sign of better things to come for the offense.

Even without Britton, the rest of the bullpen is too good to continue like this. There’s little reason to think guys like Brach, O’Day, and Givens can’t return to pitching at a high level if they can stay healthy and relatively fresh, but they also have to take accountability for their own performance and rise up to get the job done without their normal ninth-inning man behind them.

The group must find a way to keep its head above water until Britton returns, which the Orioles hope will be sometime next month.

Still, you get the sense that the Orioles will need to average five or six runs per game more consistently to continue winning games in the short term. That and some reasonable improvement from the rotation would go a long way in calming the current relief crisis.

It’s time to reset the bullpen by adding a seventh man and auditioning the likes of Edwin Jackson, Stefan Crichton, and Jimmy Yacabonis for a legitimate middle-relief role. Perhaps the idea of using Mike Wright in middle relief should be revisited with several starting options ahead of him in the pecking order backing up the current rotation.

But a return to a seven-man bullpen may not matter if the group doesn’t get help from the rest of the roster.

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What has happened to Kevin Gausman?

Posted on 15 May 2017 by Luke Jones

There’s been plenty to dislike during the Orioles’ season-worst four-game losing streak, but the latest poor outing from Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman tops the list.

Seemingly poised to become a top-of-the-rotation starter after a superb final two months of 2016, the 26-year-old has instead been one of the worst pitchers in baseball to begin the new season.

The fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft entered Monday last among qualified American League starters with a 7.19 ERA over his first nine starts and is better than only the 43-year-old Bartolo Colon in the major leagues. In blowing a 5-0 lead in Sunday’s 9-8 loss to Kansas City, Gausman surrendered at least five earned runs for the fourth time in his last six starts, an alarming stretch considering he entered the season with a total of 12 outings of five or more earned runs allowed in his entire career. Forgetting any visions of Gausman becoming an ace, where’s the solid pitcher who posted a combined 3.77 ERA over the previous three seasons to serve as a middle-of-the-rotation starter?

That’s what makes his horrendous start so troubling. Contrary to the many frustrated fans comparing him to Jake Arrieta — though his sudden fourth-inning collapse against the Royals on Sunday was quite “Arrietian” in nature — and Brian Matusz, Gausman has had much more success than either of those two ever did as starters in Baltimore. The right-hander hasn’t struggled to this degree since early in his rookie season when he was a year removed from being drafted and hadn’t pitched above Double-A Bowie.

So, what’s wrong with the talented young pitcher?

A career-low 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a career-high 4.6 walks per nine are red flags that beg to question whether Gausman is healthy, but his average fastball velocity is nearly identical to what it was last year and is in line with where it sat when he was exceptional over the final two months of 2016, according to PITCHf/x data. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t still be hiding an injury as diminished command can be an early sign of an ailment, but manager Buck Showalter has volunteered more than once that Gausman is in a good place physically after dealing with bouts of shoulder tendinitis in 2015 and early in 2016.

Gausman has spoken more than once about his mechanics being out of sync as the novice can see how frequently his fastball has leaked to his arm side this season. Even his biggest critics over the last few years acknowledge that he never had a problem with issuing free passes after walking just 2.5 per nine frames over his first four seasons. If his delivery is out of whack and causing his poor command, what is new pitching coach Roger McDowell doing to help matters?

Regardless of how hard he’s been hit overall, Gausman simply isn’t throwing as many strikes — a career-low 60.6 percent of his pitches have been strikes compared to 64.4 percent over the previous two years — and that’s clearly a problem.

There have been some changes to Gausman’s pitch usage early in 2017 that could either help explain or merely reflect his overall problems.

The development of an effective breaking ball has been a well-documented obstacle throughout his professional career, but he revealed in the spring that he was going back to his slider after leaning more on a curveball the previous two years. Gausman is throwing the slider more frequently than ever — with the occasional curve mixed in — and his average slider velocity of 84.3 mph is much faster than he’s ever thrown it, but the results still haven’t been there.

Making matters worse has been the regression of his split-changeup, which had easily been his best secondary pitch over his first four major league seasons. According to Brooks Baseball, Gausman is throwing his split a career-low 14.8 percent of the time, and the sharp break and consistent command of the pitch just haven’t been there. Though that pitch has been more effective against left-handed batters and he did face some righty-heavy lineups early in April, a 1.5-percent decrease in lefty hitters faced from a year ago is hardly meaningful enough to justify such a decrease in his usage of the split.

Has his spring focus and increased velocity on the slider somehow compromised the reliability of the fastball-split combination that had made him consistently competitive in the majors over the last few years?

Only Gausman can know this for sure, but could at least part of the problem be mental?

Despite looking every bit the part of an ace over the final two months of 2016, Gausman had to hear about the increased expectations throughout the offseason, especially with veteran Chris Tillman sidelined throughout the spring and over the first month of the season. Has the emergence of Dylan Bundy prompted Gausman to put more pressure on himself to be great since the 24-year-old has spent a fraction of the time in the majors compared to him?

After Gausman received little run support a year ago, no one can complain about the lineup’s contributions as he’s received the best run support of his career so far in 2017. Staked to a 9-1 lead at Yankee Stadium last month, Gausman gave up five earned runs and was chased in the seventh inning of a game the Orioles inexplicably lost in extra innings. On Sunday, it took him only minutes to squander a 5-0 lead as MASN broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer questioned his concentration level during the telecast.

Whatever the explanation, the Orioles need Gausman to rediscover himself quickly. With Tillman not pitching at full strength and Bundy still in his first full season as a major league starter, Gausman is too important to the fate of the 2017 club to continue performing like this. His track record as a reliable middle-of-the-rotation arm for the better part of the previous three seasons makes him deserving of at least a few more starts to get back on track and start showing consistent improvement, but he can’t continue holding a rotation spot as one of the worst pitchers in baseball for the long term — even with the lack of viable alternatives.

Those offseason thoughts of Gausman finally becoming a No. 1 starter may look foolish at the moment, but, at this point, the Orioles would take him being the solid pitcher he’s been for most of his career.

Aside from a start or two, even that guy is nowhere to be found in 2017.

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Even by Orioles standards, superb start to 2017 tough to explain

Posted on 11 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We’ve been here before talking about the Orioles.

After another offseason in which the projection models and pundits didn’t like their chances in the American League East, the Orioles are off to their best start of the Buck Showalter era. Now a fifth of the way through the season, Baltimore entered Thursday on pace to win 108 games despite playing 24 of its first 27 games against division opponents and 21 contests against clubs currently above .500. It’s hardly been a cupcake schedule for the Orioles, who own a winning record on the road and the best home mark in the majors.

Veteran starting pitcher Chris Tillman and All-Star closer Zach Britton have missed most of the season with the latter not expected to return until the latter half of June at the earliest. Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman has a 6.63 ERA through his first eight starts. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis have a total of eight home runs and both have slugging percentages under .400 so far. Even Manny Machado is hitting just .227 despite leading the club in homers and RBIs.

Of course, the Orioles have had their share of surprises, too, with Dylan Bundy looking every bit the part of an ace over his first seven starts, Wade Miley overcoming a slew of walks to pitch to a 2.45 ERA, and Trey Mancini ranking second on the club in home runs, but how do you best explain a .667 winning percentage through the first 33 games?

The stock answer for most of their success since 2012 has been home runs and strong bullpen work, but even those assumed strengths have been only slightly above average through the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season.

The Orioles entered Thursday sixth in the AL in both home runs and bullpen ERA. The offense ranks seventh in the league in runs and eighth in on-base plus slugging percentage. The rotation has been better than expected without Tillman, but Baltimore still ranks just seventh of 15 AL clubs in starter ERA. It hasn’t been about elite defense, either, as the Orioles are tied for 12th in the AL in defensive runs saved.

In other words, everything about this club has been ordinary except its win-loss record, which is paramount and clearly nothing for which to apologize. An 8-2 record in one-run games and a plus-13 run differential reflect good fortune in amassing a 22-11 record, but the best way to describe the 2017 Orioles so far is to say they’ve been been really good at being opportunistic.

Their .303 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks second in the AL and their pitcher win probability added (WPA) leads the league, which are both indicators of “clutch” performance. The offense has been good when it’s absolutely needed to be while the pitching has been at its best in many high-leverage moments.

Even the most optimistic of fans would concede that the Orioles won’t continue winning two-thirds of their games, but such a strong start has given them some breathing room to tread water if we assume the young and surprising New York Yankees aren’t going to keep winning at their same impressive rate, either.

It’s reasonable to expect the likes of Trumbo, Davis, and Gausman to pick up their production while acknowledging the likelihood of regression for Bundy, Miley, and Mancini, but the bullpen has to be the biggest concern even before Wednesday’s meltdown in Washington. A healthy Britton was never going to be as dominant as he was in his historic 2016, but you just don’t replace the man who ranked second on last year’s club at 4.3 wins above replacement and led all major league pitchers in WPA by a wide margin. The 2016 AL Reliever of the Year made up for plenty of deficiencies last season that would have otherwise prevented the Orioles from qualifying for the postseason for the third time in five years.

Making matters more difficult for Showalter is the current five-man bench, which leaves the Orioles with just six arms in the bullpen on a given night. Yes, the organization has effectively used the Norfolk shuttle to receive some meaningful contributions in long relief, but you’d prefer having another reliable middle-to-late relief option to use in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning in a given night. It’s a lot to ask of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart to pick up the slack in Britton’s absence, and we’ve seen each struggle at times with Brach and his 10.29 ERA since April 28 most recently receiving the loudest criticism.

For now, the Orioles can feel good about their terrific start knowing they haven’t come close to firing on all cylinders yet. But if they’re going to continue to flourish, their old reliables must emerge sooner than later. The home runs need to start flying out of the ballpark more frequently and the bullpen must find a way to tighten up until Britton is hopefully ready to return early in the summer.

The latter is easier said than done, but if anyone can figure out the current relief puzzle, it’s Showalter. Once again, his club is showing to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-0 win over White Sox

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles completing a three-game sweep in a 4-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. No one quite knew what to expect from Chris Tillman after he gave up four home runs in his last rehab start pitching for Triple-A Norfolk, but everyone invested in the Orioles would have gladly taken the five shutout innings he threw in his season debut.

2. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised given his history of first-inning struggles, but seven straight balls and two walks to open the game made you wonder if Tillman would make it out of the first. Despite quite a few deep counts, he walked only one more after those first two.

3. Tillman’s fastball velocity wasn’t his best, but he comfortably sat at 90 mph and went no lower than 88, which is good enough for him to succeed. He also threw good secondary pitches, inducing all eight of his swinging strikes with those over the course of his outing.

4. The results were good to see, but how Tillman feels Monday and Tuesday is more important than anything occurring in his first start. He and the training staff have put a great deal of work into strengthening his right shoulder, so you hope that pays off.

5. The Baltimore lineup didn’t square up many against White Sox lefty starter Jose Quintana, but it was important to get Tillman an early lead after he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first. An early 4-0 lead probably had Chicago thinking about getting out of town more than anything else.

6. Drawing the walk clearly isn’t a big part of the Orioles offense, but Adam Jones and Manny Machado came around to score after reaching on free passes in the first. You’d like to see a few more of those every now and then.

7. After homering off a right-hander the night before, Trey Mancini continues to make a strong bid to become an everyday player with a 3-for-4 performance that included a two-out RBI single in the first. His average now sits at .297 as he continues to maximize his chances.

8. Alec Asher was two outs away from the unorthodox three-inning-plus save before being lifted in favor of Brad Brach, but he did a superb job giving the bullpen a breather. His 2.55 ERA in 17 2/3 innings between starting and relief hasn’t gone unnoticed.

9. Francisco Pena said he’ll be OK for the start of the Washington series after his right thumb and much of his right arm cramped up in the eighth. If not, the Orioles will have an interesting decision on their hands with starting catcher Welington Castillo already on the disabled list.

10. The Orioles are 20-10 despite Tillman and Zach Britton missing significant time, Kevin Gausman struggling mightily, and Mark Trumbo slugging .314 with only two home runs so far. Just like Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette drew it up, right?

11. Jonathan Schoop missed his second straight game after being hit on the hand by a pitch in Friday’s win. The timing isn’t ideal with him swinging the bat so well and having reached base in 22 straight games, but Showalter hopes to have him back for the Nationals series.

12. Sunday marked the 2,000th game in the history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Needless to say, the last six seasons have been far more enjoyable than much of the park’s history. The Orioles are now 11-3 at home in 2017.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-2 win over White Sox

Posted on 06 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles beginning a five-game homestand with a 4-2 win over the Chicago White Sox, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The news of Zach Britton again experiencing left forearm discomfort took the fun out of an improbable win in which the Orioles lost their starting pitcher in the first inning. As I noted after Thursday’s win in Boston, Britton’s sinker didn’t look right in two appearances since being activated.

2. Wade Miley was hit by two vicious liners in a three-pitch period to force him out of the game with two outs in the first. Fortunately, he suffered only a contusion on his left wrist and doesn’t expect to miss his next start, but I’ve never seen anything like that.

3. Gabriel Ynoa couldn’t have been much better in his Orioles debut, turning in six scoreless innings of relief to collect the win. With Miley’s exit occurring two nights after Kevin Gausman was ejected in the second inning at Boston, Ynoa’s 101 pitches were a godsend for a strained staff.

4. Ynoa really impressed with his slider as he used the breaking pitch to record 10 of his 13 swinging strikes. His numbers at Triple-A Norfolk were less than impressive in April, but he showed the kind of stuff Friday that makes him an interesting option moving forward.

5. Few had faith in Baltimore’s starting pitching depth entering the season, but it should be noted that Alec Asher, Jayson Aquino, and Tyler Wilson have all turned in quality starts in addition to Ynoa’s quasi-start on Friday. Those contributions have been huge with other starters ailing or struggling.

6. Chris Davis hit his first home run — and collected his first multi-hit game — since April 14 in a 3-for-3 night that also included a walk. The Orioles hope that’s the kind of game that gets the big first baseman going after an extended slump.

7. It’s a bit more understandable after we learned that Britton wasn’t available, but I’m still surprised that Buck Showalter allowed the newly-recalled Stefan Crichton to start the eighth inning with only a 2-0 lead. His leadoff walk issued to Melky Cabrera led to the first White Sox run.

8. Joey Rickard’s RBI double in the eighth proved to be the winning run after Brad Brach ran into some difficulty in the ninth inning. Those insurances runs become even more critical now with the incomparable Britton sidelined once again.

9. Seeing J.J. Hardy mishandle two potential double-play balls in the ninth was disconcerting as he continues to look shaky in the field. His defense needs to remain strong to help offset the decline in his bat over the last few years.

10. Old friend Miguel Gonzalez turned in the type of performance we frequently saw over his four seasons with Baltimore. His outings were rarely fancy and he struggled in the second half of 2015, but jettisoning him last spring was an obvious mistake.

11. Chris Tillman felt good after his workday on Friday and will make his 2017 debut for the Orioles on Sunday. Of course, the results in his four minor-league rehab starts and his underwhelming velocity have everyone holding their breath over whether he can at least be close to himself.

12. They’ve still managed to go 4-4 going back to last Friday, but this is easily one of the strangest weeks of Orioles baseball that I’ve ever witnessed. What else can happen at this point? Well, maybe we shouldn’t answer that.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay

Posted on 26 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles being shut out for the first time this season in a 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles lineup couldn’t even create opportunities with just two hits and three runners reaching scoring position — two in the second inning — over the course of a damp night. The Rays retired 18 of the final 19 Baltimore hitters.

2. Failing to score runs or collect hits is one thing, but the Orioles hit only four balls out of the infield in the entire game. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

3. You couldn’t have asked for much better from Wade Miley, who allowed two runs over seven innings to register his third straight quality start. He won’t sustain his 2.08 ERA, but Miley regaining the form of his early years in Arizona would go a long way in helping Baltimore contend.

4. For the second time in four starts, the walk was Miley’s Achilles heel as he walked six with both runs originating as free passes. For a pitcher with a career walk rate of 2.8 per nine innings, it’s strange to have outings of seven and six walks already this season.

5. After Ubaldo Jimenez gave the Orioles only 3 1/3 innings on Monday, Miley throwing 116 pitches over seven innings was a bulldog effort to spare the bullpen. He’s averaging 6.5 innings per start so far in 2017.

6. It doesn’t excuse the punchless bats, but Rays manager Kevin Cash scratching scheduled starter Erasmo Ramirez 20 minutes before first pitch because of “uncertain weather conditions” was unusual since there was very little rain until late in the game. I’m guessing that didn’t sit too well with the Orioles.

7. Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo are hovering at the Mendoza line, but the former can chalk up some of that to bad luck as he’s hit a number of balls hard with little to show for it. The same can’t be said for Trumbo, who hasn’t homered since Opening Day.

8. Chris Davis struck out looking for the 14th time this year, which is more than his 13 swinging strikeouts. With him going down looking a career-high 79 times last year, it’s becoming apparent that the first baseman needs to be more aggressive with two strikes.

9. Caleb Joseph had another opportunity to collect his first RBI since 2015 with runners on second and third and two outs in the second, but he struck out looking. He continues to do a good job defensively, but the RBI drought has to be torturing his mind at this point.

10. Darren O’Day turned in his fifth consecutive scoreless appearance and is really quelling the concerns stemming from his poor outings over the first week of the season.

11. The Rays turning Tuesday into a bullpen game worked beautifully, but seeing Cash change pitchers with two outs in the fourth and no serious scoring threat fetched more than a few eye rolls in the crowd and the press box on a less-than-ideal night at Camden Yards.

12. The next few days will be big for Zach Britton and Chris Tillman. Britton will complete a bullpen session on Wednesday and may have a rehab outing on Friday. Tillman is scheduled for a 75-pitch outing for Single-A Frederick on Thursday. If all goes well, both could return very soon.

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