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Which Orioles should receive 2016 All-Star Game nod?

Posted on 27 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Orioles third baseman Manny Machado continues to lead the way at his position as Major League Baseball released the final 2016 American League All-Star voting update on Monday.

The 23-year-old leads Toronto’s Josh Donaldson by more than 600,000 votes with the voting period set to conclude on Thursday night. The All-Star Game starters, pitchers, and reserves will be announced on July 5.

Slugger Mark Trumbo is the only other Baltimore player with a realistic chance to win a starting spot via the fan vote as he ranks fifth among AL outfielders and trails Boston right fielder Mookie Betts by just over 100,000 votes for the final starting spot. Matt Wieters ranks second among AL catchers, but he trails Salvador Perez of Kansas City by more than 2.7 million votes.

Chris Davis ranks a distant third behind Eric Hosmer and Miguel Cabrera among AL first basemen and Adam Jones is 13th among AL outfielders.

With the Orioles off to an impressive 45-30 start and in first place in the AL East, a number of their players have reasonable claims to make the trip to San Diego on July 12.

Below is a look at each of the Orioles’ All-Star candidates:

3B Manny Machado
The case for: In addition to leading the voting at his position, the two-time Gold Glover ranks fourth among AL position players in wins above replacement and entered Monday fourth in average, seventh in on-base percentage, second in slugging percentage, and tied for seventh in home runs in the league.
The case against: If Machado loses the fan vote, maybe Kansas City manager Ned Yost decide to hold a grudge because of his altercation with Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura in early June?
The prediction: As a starter or not, Machado is a slam-dunk choice to make his third All-Star team.

C Matt Wieters
The case for: The 30-year-old entered Monday ranked first among AL catchers in RBIs and homers and is second behind Perez in on-base plus slugging percentage among catchers with 175 at-bats.
The case against: Wieters has a strong argument behind Perez, but you never know if another team needing a representative could squeeze him out in favor of someone like Oakland’s Stephen Vogt.
The prediction: As a three-time All-Star selection, Wieters has a good reputation around the league and should return to the Midsummer Classic next month.

1B Chris Davis
The case for: Davis leads all qualified AL first basemen in WAR and home runs, ranks second in RBIs, and is third in OPS in addition to playing really good defense this season.
The case against: Hosmer and Cabrera both have strong cases for spots and own far superior averages, and Joe Mauer could factor in as the potential lone representative of the Minnesota Twins.
The prediction: Even with his low batting average, Davis would be a sound choice as a reserve first baseman on the AL squad and will receive the second invitation to the All-Star Game of his career.

2B Jonathan Schoop
The case for: The 24-year-old entered Monday tied for third among AL second basemen in home runs and is fourth in RBIs and OPS.
The case against: Jose Altuve and Robinson Cano are legitimate AL MVP candidates so far this season and Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia are well-known veterans also sporting worthy profiles.
The prediction: Schoop has a .978 OPS in June and is deserving of recognition in a perfect world, but there’s too much strong veteran competition here to expect him to grab a reserve spot this year.

RF Mark Trumbo
The case for: The powerful right-hander entered Monday leading the majors in home runs, ranking third in the AL in RBIs, and sitting sixth among AL outfielders in OPS.
The case against: As terrific as Trumbo has been in the power department, his defense hurts his overall value while other outfielders such as Ian Desmond and George Springer are well-rounded players.
The prediction: Sabermetricians will look at an underwhelming 1.2 WAR and argue others are more deserving, but being at or near the top in traditional categories will earn Trumbo an All-Star invitation.

SP Chris Tillman
The case for: The right-hander entered Monday second in the AL with 10 wins and is tied for seventh among AL pitchers in WAR.
The case against: After back-to-back poor starts, Tillman has fallen to 15th in ERA in the AL among qualified pitchers and is tied for 12th in the league in strikeouts.
The prediction: A brilliant performance in his next start to lower his ERA from 3.52 would help his case, but he’ll be on the outside looking in with pitcher wins no longer celebrated like they once were.

RP Zach Britton
The case for: The lefty closer leads the AL with 23 saves in as many tries and is tied for first in the league among pitchers with at least 30 innings with an incredible 0.83 ERA.
The case against: Barring a dramatic collapse over the next week or closers no longer being selected, there is no reasonable case to be made against Britton being on the team for a second straight year.
The prediction: This might be the easiest call of them all to make, and that’s saying something on a club that includes one of the five best players in baseball in Machado.

RP Brad Brach
The case for: The right-handed setup man is tops among AL relievers in WAR and is 13th overall in WAR among all AL pitchers with his 1.05 ERA in 42 2/3 innings.
The case against: Non-closer relievers are beginning to receive notoriety as we saw with Darren O’Day last year, but Brach isn’t as well known as the likes of Andrew Miller and Kelvin Herrera.
The prediction: The 30-year-old has arguably been the Orioles’ most valuable reliever — maybe even more than Britton — but he’ll unfortunately be overlooked in favor of more established names in the AL.

CF Adam Jones
The case for: A five-time All-Star selection and one of baseball’s more marketable players, Jones has rebounded from a rough start to rank seventh among AL outfielders in homers and eighth in RBIs.
The case against: Even with his impressive resurgence in June, Jones ranks 14th in OPS and 17th in batting average among qualified AL outfielders.
The prediction: His popularity and the fact that he’s from San Diego make him a reasonable candidate to be included among the “Final Vote” candidates, but he’ll fall short of an outright All-Star invitation.

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Unorthodox as they might be, Orioles won’t apologize for success

Posted on 27 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Orioles manager Buck Showalter likes to warn against overlooking an orchid when in search of a rose.

A mantra repeated often over the last several years in Baltimore, perhaps it’s never been more appropriate than now as the Orioles take a 45-30 record and a multi-game division lead out west for a nine-game road trip.

We know the starting pitching is a substantial weakness. Everyone beyond the Oriole Bird and his mom will remind you of that. It’s become the required caveat to attach when trying to compliment a club that began the 2016 season with seven straight wins and has rarely stumbled, remaining in first or second place in the AL East all season.

Perhaps our not-so-lofty preseason expectations — from media and many fans alike — have conditioned us to dwell on the negative while anticipating the fall that simply hasn’t happened despite a 4.96 starter ERA that ranked 12th in the AL entering Monday. But that mindset shouldn’t diminish the many ways in which the imperfect Orioles have been special this season.

Unorthodox as it might be, it’s working.

The Orioles have followed a blueprint echoed in every team sport by thriving at home and trying to hold their own on the road. Their 31-13 record at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is sensational, but they now begin a stretch of 16 of their next 19 on the road where they have been an underwhelming — but hardly disastrous — 14-17.

Having already stacked 45 wins in their first 75 games, merely playing .500 ball on the road is an acceptable outcome in terms of playoff aspirations. Going just three games above .500 overall the rest of the way is the simple formula for 90 wins, which puts into perspective how good the Orioles have been to this point despite their starting pitching.

Baltimore begins the week ranked second in the AL in runs, first in home runs, second in doubles, fourth in hits, third in batting average, and first in slugging percentage.

Impressive for sure, but what about that on-base percentage for all these free-swinging sluggers who lack plate discipline?

The Orioles rank second in the AL with a .332 OBP and are a respectable seventh in walks, significant improvement from each of the last three years when they ranked 13th or 14th in the AL in free passes. The additions of a few more patient hitters such as Hyun Soo Kim, Joey Rickard, and Pedro Alvarez have certainly helped, but the movement goes beyond that.

Unconventional leadoff hitter Adam Jones has already drawn 20 walks, four shy of his total from last year and more than he drew in all of 2014 when the Orioles ran away with the division. Jonathan Schoop, more of a free swinger than Jones, has two more walks than he had last year in 29 fewer plate appearances. Incremental improvement is still improvement.

That’s fine, but they still don’t play “small ball” and are too homer-happy, aren’t they?

“I don’t want them to apologize for being strong,” Showalter said. “It’s the product of a good approach and a good swing and a good process that that’s the endgame — that [the ball] goes a little further than maybe some of them do. I love how some guy scratches out a walk and maybe they bunt him over and he gets over to third and some guy hits a sac fly and it’s 1-0. Then, the [opponent’s] first two guys strike out, a guy walks, and a big hairy guy hits it in the bleachers and it’s 2-1. Boy, you worked real hard for that one run. That’s good.

“But there’s a time and place. We try to play to our team’s strength.”

The home run is unquestionably a strength as the Orioles have four hitters — Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Jones — on pace for 30 or more home runs. Schoop is currently on track for 28 and two others — Matt Wieters and Pedro Alvarez — aren’t far off the pace to hit 20.

With three games remaining in June, the Orioles are seven shy of the major league record for homers in a single month — the 1987 Orioles and the 1999 Seattle Mariners each hit 58 in May — and are on pace to hit 259 this season, only five shy of the major league record held by the 1997 Mariners.

But the explanation for the prosperity goes beyond the powerful offense as the Orioles displayed over the weekend by turning double plays and making sparkling defensive plays throughout the four-game sweep over Tampa Bay. A superb infield defense can go a long way in helping your questionable-at-best starting pitching to survive just long enough to turn the ball over to the bullpen.

The Orioles rank second in the majors with a 2.91 bullpen ERA, and they’ve done that without Darren O’Day for almost a month. Closer Zach Britton is 23-for-23 in save opportunities and sports a 0.83 ERA while setup man Brad Brach owns a 1.05 ERA that should also draw All-Star consideration.

The bullpen’s 253 1/3 innings rank 10th in the majors, but Showalter is better at handling a bullpen than any manager in baseball and will do whatever he can to preserve his best arms, even if that means living to fight another day during the occasional close games in which his best relievers need rest.

Kansas City won the World Series last year despite sporting a starting rotation that pitched fewer innings than any other AL club in the regular season. It’s not that great starting pitching is any less valuable these days, but teams are finding success using a collection of high-impact bullpen arms in lieu of pushing the envelope with non-elite starters going through a lineup a third or fourth time in a game. Of course, there’s a critical balance between game strategy on any given night and maintenance of your pitching health over a 162-game schedule that Showalter seems to understand better than anyone.

To be clear, the Royals’ reliance on their bullpen is not a blueprint to proudly follow as much as it’s proof that you can survive — even thrive — without having strong starting pitching.

You just have to be exceptional in other areas of the game.

And the Orioles are doing that.

Yes, they’d really like to improve their rotation and should try to over the next several weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but the Orioles have been so good in other ways that it’s becoming more difficult to doubt their ability to remain in contention, especially with their divisional rivals having their own flaws.

It may go against conventional wisdom, but the Orioles won’t apologize as they keep winning.

The starting pitching may not be a rose, but the rest is blooming like an orchid as we approach the halfway point of the season.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 12-5 win over Rays

Posted on 26 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 12-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday afternoon?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 75th game of the 2016 season.

1st Chris Davis was nearly given the day off against Tampa Bay’s Drew Smyly, but he instead served as the designated hitter and clubbed a grand slam to left field in the bottom of the first inning. The big blow came on a 1-2 fastball after the Rays lefty had made Davis look foolish on three consecutive sliders to begin the at-bat. It was the seventh grand slam of Davis’ career and his first since Aug. 15 of last season. The slugger added a walk and a single and scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the eighth as the Orioles busted the game wide open.

2ndAdam Jones continues to thrive in the leadoff spot, collecting a walk and four hits to elevate his season average to .265 after a difficult beginning to 2016. The center fielder bunted for a hit to score Nolan Reimold on a safety squeeze in the top of the second. Jones’ walk was his 20th of the season, which is just four shy of his total from 2015 and exceeds the 19 he drew in 2014. He has hit safely in 14 of his last 15 games and has posted a .369 average with three doubles, six homers, 16 RBIs, and a 1.098 on-base plus slugging percentage over that stretch.

3rdMark Trumbo provided the pick-me-up the Orioles needed after Tyler Wilson was unable to protect a five-run lead as he hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning to increase the lead to 8-5. On the same day fans at Camden Yards received a Trumbo t-shirt giveaway, the 30-year-old hit his 22nd long ball of the year to match his total from 2015 in 224 fewer plate appearances. He added an RBI single in the eighth.

HomeDylan Bundy tossed three scoreless innings in relief of Wilson, striking out four and allowing two hits to ease the load on the rest of the bullpen. The young right-hander threw a season-high 57 pitches. … Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado each had three-hit performances with the former hitting his 13th home run of the season and the latter scoring three times. … The Orioles completed their first ever four-game sweep of the Rays to improve to a season-best 15 games above .500. Baltimore also increased its lead in the American League East to a 2016-high four games over second-place Boston. … The Orioles will spend their off-day in San Diego before beginning a brief two-game set Tuesday night as Ubaldo Jimenez takes the hill against Padres right-hander Erik Johnson.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 5-0 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 25 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 5-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 73rd game of the 2016 season.

1stKevin Gausman downplayed whether it was wearing on him that he had yet to secure a win in 2016 and that pitcher statistic has certainly been marginalized in recent years, but the 25-year-old needed a strong outing to not only boost his confidence in a rough month of June but to also keep the Orioles bullpen intact for the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader. Gausman tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only two hits until eclipsing the 100-pitch mark and allowing two singles in the eighth. His fastball command was much better than it’s been in recent starts as he effectively used his sinker to induce grounders and his four-seamer to miss bats and finish off hitters. Gausman was the beneficiary of some fine defensive plays, but retiring 19 of 20 at one point and striking out seven without walking a batter will typically put you in line for a win and that’s exactly what the young pitcher received on Saturday.

2ndJonathan Schoop started two scoring rallies with a leadoff double in the bottom of the second and a one-out single in the sixth to elevate his average to .287. The 24-year-old has hit .337 with a .953 on-base plus slugging percentage in the month of June. In addition to scoring two runs in the victory, the second baseman played terrific defense highlighted by a backhand play and terrific throw from shallow center to throw out Tim Beckham to end the top of the seventh.

3rdPedro Alvarez entered the day just 2-for-19 against left-handed pitching in 2016, but the designated hitter delivered a two-run single off Tampa Bay lefty Enny Romero in the bottom of the seventh to give the Orioles a five-run cushion that they wouldn’t relinquish. Alvarez walked and scored in Baltimore’s two-run second inning and is now hitting .236 after a rough start to the year.

HomeJ.J. Hardy delivered the first run of the afternoon with an RBI single up the middle in the second. The veteran shortstop added another single in the sixth and is 8-for-27 with two doubles and three RBIs since returning from the disabled list last week. … Adam Jones singled twice and drove in a run to raise his season average to .250, the first time he’s concluded a game at that mark since May 18. … Matching their 2016 high-water mark of 13 games above .500 in the Saturday afternoon win, the Orioles improved to 6-1 at Camden Yards this season in games in which they’ve failed to homer. … Saturday marked Gausman’s first win since Sept. 30, 2015 when he beat Toronto in the second game of a twin bill. … The Rays suffered their ninth consecutive loss on Saturday afternoon.

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Orioles stats to ponder in late June

Posted on 23 June 2016 by Luke Jones

As we rapidly approach the halfway point in the 2016 season, below are some statistics to ponder as the first-place Orioles prepare for a four-game weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

1. Baltimore is thriving at Camden Yards and against sub-.500 opponents.

“Protect your home field and beat the teams you’re supposed to beat” is the oft-quoted formula for winning teams in any sport, and the Orioles have fit that description beautifully with a 27-13 home record and a 17-7 mark against clubs under .500 entering Thursday. Their .675 winning percentage at home ranks third in the AL behind only Kansas City and Texas and fourth in the majors. Twenty of the Orioles’ next 23 games come against teams who were .500 or worse entering Thursday, but only seven games during that stretch will be played at Camden Yards, making it critical for Baltimore to improve upon its underwhelming 14-17 road record.

2. Despite their reputation, the Orioles lineup is walking at a respectable rate.

We’ve heard plenty about their free-swinging ways and lack of plate discipline over the last several years, but the Orioles quietly entered Thursday sporting the third-best on-base percentage (.328) in the AL and ranked a respectable seventh in walks. This represents dramatic improvement from 2015 when they finished 12th in OBP (.307) and 13th in walks in the AL. Baltimore’s 8.1 percent walk rate is slightly above the league average (8.0) and is substantially higher than last year (7.0 percent) or even 2014 (6.5 percent). Patient approaches from the likes of Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Pedro Alvarez aren’t surprising, but even free-swinging hitters such as Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop have shown some modest improvement in the walk department.

3. The bullpen workload is as concerning as it looks.

We know the starting pitching has been ugly with a 4.93 ERA ranking 13th in the AL, but the bullpen has held up remarkably well with a 3.07 ERA that ranks behind only Kansas City in the AL and fourth in the majors. The problem is the heavier workload as relievers have pitched 38.2 percent of the Orioles’ innings compared to 36.1 percent last year and 34.7 percent in 2014. June has been particularly taxing with the bullpen handling 41 percent of the innings after handling 40 percent in April and a more-reasonable 34.4 percent in May. With limited trade chips in their organization, the Orioles might want to consider adding another impact bullpen arm to go with Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens. That would likely be easier to acquire and might provide similar value to the kind of starting pitcher the Orioles can realistically afford with few attractive assets to offer in a trade.

4. Hyun Soo Kim and Jones are at opposite ends of the spectrum for batting average on balls put in play.

Both have had their best months of the season in June, but Kim is sporting a .389 BABIP — fifth highest in the majors among those with 120 or more plate appearances — compared to Jones’ .261 mark this season. The 2016 league average mark has been .298 and BABIP typically normalizes for players over time. The South Korean left fielder has been an important contributor, but his 59.4 percent ground-ball rate leads the team and will unsurprisingly make it difficult for him to sustain his .339 average over time, especially if more teams begin successfully shifting on him. The good news is that Kim has the fourth-lowest soft-contact rate on the club, which should help more of those grounders find the outfield for hits. Meanwhile, Jones owns a career .309 BABIP and is sporting his best hard-contact rate since 2013, indications that he should expect a much better second half after dealing with an early-season rib issue and some tough luck at the plate.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 7-2 win over Padres

Posted on 23 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 7-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 71st game of the 2016 season.

1stMark Trumbo entered the night with just 10 hits in his last 55 at-bats and hadn’t homered in his last 59 plate appearances dating back to June 7, but that changed with his leadoff homer to right-center to tie the game in the bottom of the second. The right fielder followed that with a leadoff double that led to another run in the fourth and a single in the bottom of the seventh. Trumbo is now tied with Todd Frazier and Nolan Arenado for the most homers in the major leagues with 21. He’s now one home run shy of his total from last season in 241 fewer plate appearances in 2016.

2ndUbaldo Jimenez wasn’t great in walking four batters in addition to surrendering four hits, but manager Buck Showalter summarized it nicely by saying he would have signed up for the right-hander allowing two runs in six innings at the start of the night. His fastball command was better than we’ve seen in several weeks as he registered his first quality start since May 7, and he finished on a high note with four straight strikeouts to conclude the outing. However, his solid night against a last-place club probably shouldn’t guarantee Jimenez anything beyond the temporary quieting of calls for him to be designated for assignment. Showalter was noncommittal about whether he’d start again on Tuesday.

3rdJonathan Schoop started a game hitting out of the No. 3 spot in the order for the first time in his major league career and went 2-for-3 with an RBI double, a walk, and a run scored to raise his average to .285 with an .808 on-base plus slugging percentage. The 24-year-old second baseman is now hitting .320 with six walks, seven doubles, four homers, 16 runs, and 14 RBIs in the month of June.

HomeMatt Wieters went 1-for-3 with an RBI single and a sacrifice fly to give him 34 RBIs on the season. … Ryan Flaherty hit his third homer of the year and is now hitting .288 with seven walks, four doubles, three homers, and 12 RBIs in his last 19 games. … In addition to collecting two hits, Adam Jones impressively scored from first base on Schoop’s double to shallow left-center in the third, taking advantage of some lethargic San Diego defense. … Hyun Soo Kim collected two hits and drove in a run while raising his average to a stout .339. … Pitching for the first time since Sunday, Brad Brach struck out two while tossing two perfect innings in relief. … The Orioles won their 1,000 all-time game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. … On Friday, Baltimore will send Yovani Gallardo to the hill to open a four-game series with Tampa Bay, who will start lefty Matt Moore.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 11-6 win over Blue Jays

Posted on 19 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 11-6 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 68th game of the 2016 season.

1st Matt Wieters set the tone for Baltimore’s season-high 19-hit game with a long two-run home run into the bleachers off Toronto starter Marcus Stroman in the first inning and matched his career high with four hits on the afternoon. The veteran catcher drove in a season-high four runs and scored three times while finishing just a triple short of the cycle. Three of Wieters’ seven homers on the season have come against Toronto with two of those against Stroman.

2ndJonathan Schoop homered for the second straight day, this time hitting a 458-foot bomb that nearly landed in the left-field club level in the bottom of the seventh. The second baseman’s RBI single in the fourth gave the Orioles the lead for good and put Chris Tillman in position to pick up his 10th win of the season despite a rocky five-inning performance. Schoop went 3-for-5 on the day.

3rdRyan Flaherty filled in at third base for the first game of the Manny Machado suspension and  answered the Blue Jays’ four-run second inning with an RBI single to tie the game at 4-4. The utility infielder added an RBI double in the fourth to push Baltimore’s lead to 6-4 and also made a couple nice plays in the field.

HomeBrad Brach entered with two outs in the seventh to face Josh Donaldson as the potential tying run and struck out the 2015 American League MVP. The right-handed reliever pitched two scoreless innings, striking out three and walking one. … Tillman extended his career-best winning streak to nine games and is now 9-0 with a 2.78 ERA over his last 11 starts. The right-hander surpassed Dick Hall to move into sole possession of 13th place on the Orioles’ all-time wins list with 66. … Chris Davis collected two doubles, scored three times, and drove in a run in a three-hit performance. … Hyun Soo Kim went 3-for-5 for his 10th multi-hit game of the season. … Every Orioles starter in Sunday’s game had a hit except for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was robbed of a potential home run in the bottom of the seventh. … The Orioles completed a 10-game stretch against AL East foes Toronto and Boston with a 5-5 record. … According to STATS, Baltimore will now have its first one-game road trip sandwiched between home games since June 25, 1967. Kevin Gausman will take the hill while Texas will start left-hander Derek Holland on Monday night.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 4-2 win over Blue Jays

Posted on 18 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday afternoon?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 67th game of the 2016 season.

1st Jonathan Schoop started in the No. 2 spot in the order for just the third time in his career and responded with a home run, a double, a single, three RBIs, and three runs scored in a game in which runs were at a premium. The 24-year-old’s free-swinging ways are hardly conducive to hitting in the second spot in the order, but Schoop provided the early spark against Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey with a one-out double in the first inning and hit the deciding solo shot to the opposite field with two outs in the bottom of the third. The Orioles own a 32-7 record in games in which he hits a home run in his career, which is a remarkable coincidence if nothing else.

2ndYovani Gallardo wasn’t great in his return as he walked four and lasted just five innings, but he surrendered only two runs to earn his second win. It was his improved velocity that was the most encouraging aspect of his first major league start since going on the DL with right shoulder tendinitis on April 22. His fastball sat in the range of 88 to 90 mph, and he touched 92 on a few occasions, including consecutive pitches to strike out Troy Tulowitzki with the bases loaded in the third. He can be more competitive carrying that kind of stuff, but just turning in an outing like this one was a dramatic improvement over what the Orioles were getting from Ubaldo Jimenez and Mike Wright.

3rdMychal Givens struggled in his last appearance against Toronto last weekend, but he did an excellent job bridging the gap to the late innings on Saturday by tossing two scoreless frames on 20 pitches. With the tying run in scoring position with one out in the seventh, Givens induced a grounder from Josh Donaldson and got Edwin Encarnacion to line out to left to retire the side. The 26-year-old has had his issues against left-handed bats this year, but he turned in his 11th scoreless appearance of more than one inning this season, an important contribution to one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Home Zach Britton doesn’t deserve praise for pitching his way into a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the ninth inning, but he reminded us why he’s one of the best closers in baseball by inducing a 4-6-3 double play from Donaldson to convert his 21st save in as many chances to begin the year. Despite allowing a hit and walking two, he extended his scoreless streak to 17 games covering 19 innings since May 5 and lowered his season ERA to 0.93. … In his final action before starting his four-game suspension on Sunday, Manny Machado went 3-for-3 with a double and scored the Orioles’ second run on a passed ball in the first inning. … In his first game since breaking his left foot on May 1, J.J. Hardy went 1-for-3 with a double just inside the third-base bag to lead off the bottom of the fifth and helped turn two double plays. … The Orioles send Chris Tillman to the hill in search of his 10th victory and a series win on Sunday afternoon while Toronto counters with right-hander Marcus Stroman.

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Orioles sitting pretty six weeks into 2016 season

Posted on 16 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Six weeks down, 20 more to go.

Just a simple reminder that it’s still early in 2016 as the Orioles begin a new week holding the best record in the American League by percentage points. But how can you not be optimistic about a club that’s already put together two seven-game winning streaks after no previous run of victories lasting that long since 2005?

Even after Sunday’s disappointing 6-5 loss to Detroit to snap their latest winning streak, the 23-13 Orioles are off to their best start through 36 games in 11 years. It’s quite an improvement from the many preseason forecasts — including this writer’s — expecting Baltimore to be no better than fourth or fifth in the AL East.

We knew the Orioles would hit plenty of home runs — they entered Monday leading the majors in that category — and their bullpen sports the best ERA in all of baseball, but the starting pitching was the major question mark. Through Sunday, Baltimore ranked a respectable seventh in the AL in starter ERA (4.22).

Can the Orioles sustain the success? That’s the question we’ve uttered so many times over the last five seasons whenever Buck Showalter’s club is in the midst of exceeding outside expectations.

No one can predict the future as it relates to injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, but some of the factors their critics have used against the Orioles in past seasons aren’t looking so bad in 2016.

Remember how detractors harped on the 2012 Orioles’ run differential throughout their improbable run to the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 15 years?

Their plus-37 mark so far this season suggests being 10 games above .500 is hardly a fluke. Of course, all it takes is a couple lopsided defeats to throw that mark out of whack when we’re still so early in the schedule, but we are almost a quarter of the way through the marathon.

What about 2014 when Baltimore finished third in the AL with a 3.44 ERA but stat-heads pointed to a 3.96 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark ranking 11th? So far this season, the Orioles sport the AL’s best FIP (3.63) while ranking fourth in ERA (3.53)

Their rotation FIP (3.88) is even better than the rotation ERA, primarily a reflection of Orioles starters allowing fewer home runs than any other AL club. Some regression is likely, but the rotation allowed the second-most homers in the league a year ago, reflecting how much improvement there’s been in that department so far.

Sporting a career-low ERA (2.58) and registering a career-high 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Chris Tillman has led the starter improvement and is so far providing the bounce-back season the club needed. We know the starting pitching will continue to be the hot topic as it relates to staying in games and preventing an exceptional bullpen from wearing out in the second half.

“The pitching’s been solid,” Showalter said. “That’s the thing that’s going to allow us to maintain the level we’re going to have to have to compete in our division. You’re going to have to take care of your own business every night and not expect any help from anybody. But the pitching has been as good as I could hope for it to be so far.”

Being solid is good enough for the starting pitching, but how great can the offense be?

Beyond hitting home runs, the Orioles entered Monday ranked third in the AL in runs, second in batting average, second in on-base percentage, and second in slugging percentage. Their 8.4 percent walk rate is markedly better than their 7.0 percent mark a year ago, reflecting more patience at the plate.

Manny Machado has looked every bit the part of the 2016 AL MVP after finishing fourth in the voting last year. It was fun wondering this winter if the 23-year-old could be even better than he was in 2015, but he’s been exactly that so far as one of the very best players in baseball.

Newcomer Mark Trumbo was initially viewed as an insurance policy for the potential free-agent departure of Chris Davis in the offseason, but he’s been the club’s second-best hitter while the likes of Davis and Adam Jones struggled through parts of the first six weeks. Expecting him to hit .300 would be unrealistic, but there’s no denying him having a Nelson Cruz-like impact on his new club so far.

Machado and Trumbo have led the way, but the Orioles have three other hitters — Davis, Jones, and Jonathan Schoop — sporting an OPS of at least .770 after recent surges. And that’s not even considering Matt Wieters and Pedro Alvarez, who are hitting well below their career numbers but are capable of being above-average offensive contributors at their respective positions.

Of course, none of this means the Orioles are a lock to win their second division title in three years and secure their third postseason berth in five seasons as we know there’s a very long way to go. Boston has sported the best offense in the league and lost no ground to the Orioles during the latter’s seven-game winning streak that ended on Sunday. Toronto has lagged behind the other two in third place, but the Blue Jays surprisingly sport the best starter ERA in the AL while they wait for their imposing lineup to heat up.

The Orioles aren’t going to run away with this division, but there’s plenty to like about them through the first six weeks, some expected and some of it not. And it’s been more than just smoke and mirrors.

Yes, Baltimore is sitting pretty.

Prettier than expected, which is really be nothing new for these Orioles by now.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 7-5 win over Tigers

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 7-5 come-from-behind win over the Detroit Tigers on Thursday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 33rd game of the 2016 season.

1st — Jonathan Schoop had never tripled in his major league career before lining a ball down the right-field line to plate two runs and give the Orioles their first lead of the night to cap off a five-run seventh inning. The second baseman also drove in Baltimore’s second run of the night with an infield single an inning earlier as the Tigers bullpen began losing its grip on a 5-0 lead. Schoop has hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games with two doubles, a triple, two home runs, and seven RBIs over that stretch.

2ndChris Davis doubled to left-center to plate the first Orioles run off Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey in the sixth, but his next at-bat was even more impressive as he lined an 0-2 fastball from lefty Justin Wilson into right for a run-scoring single to make it a 5-4 game in the bottom of the seventh. Davis would then score the go-ahead run on Schoop’s triple to complete his two-RBI, two-run night.

3rdPedro Alvarez entered the game with just one hit off left-handed pitching this season and had already lined out to center off southpaw Kyle Ryan with two runners on in the sixth, but he became the second lefty to collect a key hit off Wilson in the seventh when he singled past first baseman Miguel Cabrera to drive in the tying run with two outs. He also drew a walk and lifted his season average to .212.

HomeDarren O’Day walked the leadoff hitter in the eighth, but he then retired the heart of the Tigers order to preserve the 7-5 lead. … The Orioles improved to 5-6 in games in which they haven’t homered this season after going 11-39 in that department in 2015. … Mark Trumbo went 0-for-3, but he drew a walk in the sixth to extend his on-base streak to a major-league best 25 consecutive games, according to MLB Network. … Zach Britton earned his ninth save of the season and his 82nd career save with the Orioles, one shy of tying Jorge Julio for fifth place on the club’s all-time saves list. … Adam Jones collected his 662nd RBI with the Orioles, tying Melvin Mora for eighth place on the club’s all-time list. … The Orioles’ five-game winning streak is their second longest of the season, topped only by their 7-0 start to 2016. … On Friday, Chris Tillman goes to the hill trying to improve to 5-1 on the season while the Tigers will start 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.

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