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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 8-7 win over Oakland

Posted on 24 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their first series since early August in an 8-7 final against Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. There was never going to be an ideal time for Zach Britton to finally blow a save, but it was good to see the Orioles save him after an incredible 60 conversions in a row. What a remarkable streak to watch over these last two years.

2. It was quite a homestand for Manny Machado with walk-off home runs in the first and last games. He’s now hitting .352 with 12 home runs since July 6 when his season average sat at an alarming .215.

3. Wednesday’s win likely doesn’t change the Orioles’ not-so-encouraging outlook in the crowded race for the second wild card, but squandering a late 6-1 lead and then losing after Britton’s blown save sure would have felt like the proverbial final nail in the coffin.

4. Relievers don’t often deserve the wins attached to their name, but Miguel Castro did enormous work with 3 2/3 scoreless innings. I’m not as high on him as a potential starter because of his low strikeout rate, but he’s provided a strong shot in the arm for the bullpen.

5. Extra rest for a starting pitcher sounds great in theory, but I’ve been impressed with how crisp Dylan Bundy has been after the long layoffs. He deserved a much better fate despite finding trouble the third time through the order in the seventh inning.

6. Bundy’s 19 swinging strikes were a new career high. His average fastball velocity of 91.7 mph was hardly his best of the year, but he induced swings and misses on 10 of the 29 sliders he threw against the Athletics.

7. The news of Britton undergoing an MRI exam on Thursday may turn out to be of little consequence, but the two-time All-Star closer having a knee issue on the heels of the forearm strain that sidelined him for most of the first half won’t help his trade value this offseason.

8. Tim Beckham doesn’t always show the best instincts, but he had three hits after having cooled off a bit recently. I have tremendous respect for what J.J. Hardy has done in Baltimore, but I’m amazed anyone can think it’s a real debate over who should start when the latter returns.

9. It may have sounded worse on TV, but I only heard a few nitwits booing Britton after he blew his first save since Sept. 20, 2015. There’s no excusing that foolish reaction after such a historic run of success, regardless of how frustrating the club’s mediocrity can be.

10. The Orioles have gone 6-9 since climbing back to the .500 mark on Aug. 7. Those games came against teams with a combined .485 winning percentage. That’s just not the work of a serious playoff contender with September rapidly approaching.

11. Continuing to give starts to Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman in late August isn’t the stuff of a contender, either. Jimenez has the worst ERA (6.57) in the majors among all qualified pitchers while Tillman (7.75) is dead last among pitchers with at least 60 innings.

12. Onetime Oriole Rich Hill lost a perfect game in Pittsburgh because of an error in the ninth inning and then lost a no-hitter — and the game — when he gave up a solo homer to Josh Harrison in the 10th. Someone give that man a stiff drink. Or a hug.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following West Coast trip

Posted on 17 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles dropping their final two games in Seattle to finish a 4-6 trip on the West Coast, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A losing road trip doesn’t cripple their playoffs chances, but the Orioles entered Thursday with six clubs ahead of them for the second wild card. They’ve played better since the All-Star break, but repeatedly falling to the back of the line among so many mediocre teams isn’t encouraging.

2. With a bullpen in good shape going into an off-day, Buck Showalter stayed with Ubaldo Jimenez entirely too long in the fifth inning Wednesday. The already-struggling veteran was facing the top of the order a third time, but Showalter instead saved his best relievers and lost the lead.

3. Showalter letting Chris Davis bat against lefty Marc Rzepczynski was a tougher call. He’s 8-for-24 over the last week after being lowered in the order, and Rzepczynski has been tough against righties, too. If you’re trying to get Davis going for the stretch, I understand not testing his confidence further.

4. Of their six losses on the road trip, the Orioles held a lead in five of those defeats. Whether it was shaky pitching or the offense going to sleep after scoring an early run or two, the trip should have been better. That’s just another sign of mediocrity.

5. Tim Beckham will cool off eventually, but it’s fun thinking about the possibility that there was more to the idea that he didn’t like hitting at Tropicana Field than anyone thought. In 16 games, he already ranks seventh on the 2017 Orioles in wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

6. I’ve said this before, but Trey Mancini’s development has a left fielder continues to amaze after he only began learning the outfield this past offseason. I would never bet on him winning a Gold Glove, but he looks very capable, which is a nice bonus to accompany his dangerous bat.

7. Davis has fairly received plenty of heat in the midst of his worst season since 2014, but Mark Trumbo has been just as disappointing. Expecting him to match what he did in 2016 was unrealistic, but his .711 on-base plus slugging percentage is the second-worst mark of his career.

8. Since the All-Star break, the Orioles are 1-5 in games in which they’ve had an opportunity to move back to the .500 mark. Talk about beating your head against a brick wall as the second wild card sits there begging for someone to take control.

9. Kevin Gausman has allowed two or fewer runs in five of his last six starts and sports a 3.13 ERA when Caleb Joseph catches. Welington Castillo was behind the dish for that one non-quality start, and Gausman owns a 7.30 mark with him behind the dish. Stick with what’s working.

10. I don’t have a major problem with temporarily sending Joey Rickard to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for Anthony Santander, but Rule 5 players since 2012 have netted the Orioles a combined 2.4 WAR, per Baseball Reference. That’s a minimal return for so often playing with a shorthanded roster.

11. Speaking of questionable value, Jimenez and Chris Tillman have combined for a minus-2.4 WAR despite making a total of $23.55 million in 2017. That’s a heck of a price tag for below-replacement-level production.

12. The 25th anniversary celebration of Camden Yards will be a nice nod to the 1992 Orioles, who showed a 22-game improvement from the previous year. I’m a little bummed Randy Milligan — one of my favorites as a kid — won’t be there though. His .391 career on-base percentage was underappreciated.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 9-7 win over Houston

Posted on 23 July 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles salvaging the finale of a three-game set in a 9-7 win over Houston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It was a long time coming, but Zach Britton set a new American League record with his 55th consecutive save conversion and first since April 14. If he is indeed traded before the Orioles return home next Monday, it was a fitting final appearance for him at Camden Yards.

2. A balanced offensive attack was the difference as seven different Orioles collected an RBI. The offensive showing could have been even better if not for grounding into four double plays in the first six innings.

3. Dylan Bundy will continue receiving extra rest when off-days allow it, but he’s now posted a 7.85 ERA over his last seven starts after surrendering a career-high seven runs. He handled quite a workload over the first 2 1/2 months, and you wonder how much fatigue is factoring into his struggles.

4. Houston hitters were able to work their way back from multiple 0-2 counts as Bundy wasn’t able to finish them off. The walk to Alex Bregman preceding Nori Aoki’s game-tying three-run home run in the sixth was particularly frustrating for the young pitcher.

5. Mark Trumbo reminded us why he only plays sparingly in the outfield, but he made up for it with the game-tying home run in the last of the seventh. He was one of three Baltimore hitters to collect their 50th RBI of the season on Sunday.

6. Trey Mancini drove in two runs and improved his average with runners in scoring position to a whopping .431. You keep waiting for him to start looking more like a rookie at the plate, but it hasn’t happened.

7. Jonathan Schoop saw his streak of five straight games with multiple RBIs come to an end, but he’s had at least one in seven consecutive contests. His three-hit afternoon raised his season average to .307.

8. Jose Altuve’s greatness is hardly breaking news, but he collected four hits to finish off a .500 batting average for the series. He sure is something special to watch.

9. A move to the leadoff spot has sparked a recent surge for Adam Jones, who had four hits and passed former teammate Nick Markakis to move into sole possession of sixth place on the Orioles’ all-time hit list. He’s been in the middle of plenty of scoring rallies of late.

10. The sixth inning is a separator in today’s game as teams need starters capable of getting through six innings or an incredibly deep bullpen to survive. The Orioles gave up 11 runs in the sixth frame over this series.

11. Much was made about Dan Duquette’s trade deadline comments Saturday, but remember he was addressing season-ticket holders as players were within earshot. His actions, not his words, are what matter over the next week.

12. Had the Orioles gone 7-3 or better on this homestand to get back to .500, I could maybe understand not selling, but they have no more than six wins in any 10-game stretch since May 9. Winning five of seven isn’t enough to overlook 2 1/2 months of .379 baseball.

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Which Oriole(s?) should receive 2017 All-Star Game nod?

Posted on 27 June 2017 by Luke Jones

The Orioles haven’t been in this position in some time.

Having sent no fewer than three representatives to each of the last five All-Star Games, Baltimore has struggled to remain relevant in the American League with a number of past selections either injured or performing below career norms. No, the Orioles haven’t reverted all the way to a time when they once sent journeyman Ty Wigginton as their required All-Star selection in 2010, but identifying a clear-cut candidate to represent the club in Miami on July 11 is a complicated task.

The latest All-Star voting update showed no Orioles even ranking in the top three at their respective positions — Welington Castillo ranks fourth among AL catchers and Manny Machado fifth among AL third basemen — making it clear that no player from Buck Showalter’s club will be elected as a starter. The All-Star voting concludes Thursday with the teams announced on Sunday night.

Below is a look at the Orioles’ most appealing All-Star candidates:

Who will be the Orioles' 2017 All-Star selection?

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2B Jonathan Schoop
The case for: The 25-year-old is on pace to set new career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles, walks, and runs batted in. Entering Tuesday, Schoop ranks fourth in the AL in doubles and also leads the Orioles in hits, homers, RBIs, and total bases.
The case against: The AL is stacked at second base with MVP candidate Jose Altuve as well as former All-Star picks such as Robinson Cano, Starlin Castro, and Dustin Pedroia having reputations working in their favor. Schoops’s defense drops him to third in wins above replacement among AL second basemen.
Outlook: Even a couple weeks ago, I didn’t like Schoop’s chances in such a crowded position group, but Altuve is the only clear choice ahead of him and the Orioles need a rep, giving him a pretty good chance.

OF/1B Trey Mancini
The case for: If it weren’t for Aaron Judge, Mancini would be receiving plenty of Rookie of the Year hype as he leads the Orioles in batting average, OBP, and slugging and ranks in the top seven among AL hitters with at least 220 plate appearances in average, slugging, and on-base plus slugging percentage.
The case against: It’s difficult for most rookies to receive All-Star acclaim and it doesn’t help that Mancini has split time at first base and in the outfield as well as at designated hitter. He ranks just 15th in WAR among AL outfielders and, like Schoop, is competing with a deep talent pool in the outfield.
Outlook: AL manager Terry Francona could view Mancini as a bit of a wild card capable of playing more than one spot, but his chances appear totally dependent on whether Schoop gets the club’s bid.

RP Brad Brach
The case for: Look no further than the closer spot over the years for any so-so club needing an All-Star representative, and Brach ranks a respectable sixth in the AL in saves. He hasn’t come close to duplicating his amazing 2016 first half, but last year’s All-Star nod likely helps keep him on the radar.
The case against: Being 13-for-16 in save opportunities and a 2.43 ERA are numbers that hardly stand out when trying to put together an All-Star bullpen. Brach filling in as Baltimore’s closer may even hurt his case if we continue seeing more of a recent emphasis on taking a dominant setup man or two.
Outlook: Other than a rough patch from late April through mid-May, Brach has been very good with a club-best 0.87 walks and hits per inning pitched and has some history on his side to help his cause.

SP Dylan Bundy
The case for: Being Baltimore’s best starting pitcher is hardly a high bar, but Bundy is tied for second in the AL in quality starts and tied for fifth in innings, a surprising feat for a 24-year-old in his first full season as a starter. According to Baseball Reference, his value of 2.2 WAR leads all Orioles players.
The case against: Bundy’s 5.93 ERA in June has dropped him to 12th in the AL in that category among qualified pitchers. His 4.76 fielding independent pitching mark also reflects his underwhelming strikeout and home run rates compared to many of the top starting pitchers in the league.
Outlook: The right-hander looked like Baltimore’s most promising choice a month ago, but recent struggles and the Orioles’ desire to back off his workload around the break hurt his chances.

3B Manny Machado
The case for: The 24-year-old is a great case study in the debate over whether the All-Star Game should be a true showcase of the game’s brightest stars or a mere reward for having three good months. Machado’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked as he’s played third base better than anyone in the AL.
The case against: Entering Tuesday with a .228 average and a .299 OBP doesn’t help his cause while other third basemen such as Jose Ramirez and Miguel Sano have been far superior at the plate. His OPS ranks ninth among qualified AL third basemen, showing the overall quality of the position offensively.
Outlook: Little about his 2017 profile says he’s deserving, but he’s a Miami native and still celebrated as one of the game’s greatest stars, meaning I wouldn’t rule out his inclusion entirely.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 15-7 win over St. Louis

Posted on 17 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles scoring a season-high total of runs in a 15-7 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles lineup took out some frustration by scoring nine runs over the first two innings and producing their highest single-game total since Aug. 16, 2015. With Baltimore scoring 10 or more runs twice in the last four games, you hope it’s the start of some extended prosperity.

2. Jonathan Schoop continues to be one of the club’s best players as he homered twice and tied a career high with four hits. He’s struggled defensively as an error led to a run in the first, but his .888 on-base plus slugging percentage is easily a career high thus far.

3. Even with 15 runs, Buck Showalter was forced to use his best two active relievers to record the final 10 outs after St. Louis had cut the deficit to five and loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth. The current state of this bullpen is frightening.

4. Mychal Givens cleaned up the mess created by others and calmed down a suddenly-uncomfortable situation with a strikeout of Eric Fryer to end the top of the sixth. He would throw a career-high 42 pitches in completing 2 1/3 scoreless innings. That was critical work.

5. Wade Miley would have liked to have been more productive after being staked to a 9-1 lead, but the standard is so low with this rotation right now that he received a standing ovation after 5 2/3 frames. At least his outing wasn’t as awful as others we’ve seen recently?

6. Manny Machado sent a 113.2 mph missile into the Orioles bullpen for a two-run homer in the second and made a fantastic defensive play to end the top of the eighth. Yes, he has struggled in 2017, but he’s still special to watch.

7. J.J. Hardy delivered a two-run double to begin the scoring in a seven-run second and later added another RBI double. Any offense you get from the 34-year-old shortstop is a rarity at this point, but he had a strong day.

8. Alec Asher was moved back into a relief role this weekend in an effort to help solidify the bullpen, but he couldn’t record an out in the process of giving up a home run and two singles in the sixth inning. Yikes.

9. Adam Wainwright has now allowed nine earned runs in two of his last three starts. I suppose it’s comforting to know Orioles starters aren’t the only ones putting ugly numbers on the scoreboard recently.

10. Had you ever heard of Paul DeJong before? The No. 9 hitter extraordinaire has looked like Babe Ruth against Baltimore pitching this weekend as he homered for the second straight game.

11. How often do you see a line drive just past a lunging shortstop go all the way to the left-center wall? Trey Mancini absolutely smoked that ball with a 108.7 mph exit velocity in the second inning.

12. Even in victory, the Orioles allowed at least five runs for the 14th consecutive game, which is a franchise record. The 1924 Philadelphia Phillies hold the major league record at 20 games, according to Baseball Reference play index data going back to 1913.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 14-3 loss to Yankees

Posted on 11 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles being swept in a lopsided 14-3 loss to the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Who would have guessed that Orioles pitching giving up eight runs Friday would be the group’s best performance of the weekend? The club already entered Sunday with the worst road ERA in the majors, and it only grew worse in the series finale in the Bronx.

2. Putting aside any hopes of Kevin Gausman becoming an ace, this is a young pitcher who posted a combined 3.77 ERA from 2014-16 to establish himself as no worse than a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’s way too talented to be pitching this horribly 2 1/2 months into the season.

3. Fastball command borders on being a cliché used to explain any pitcher’s problems, but just look where Gausman’s fastball consistently ended up in relation to Welington Castillo’s target. The 26-year-old hasn’t commanded it all year and doesn’t have the secondary pitches to survive without it.

4. No matter how resilient and mentally strong you fancy yourself being, watching a starting rotation give up 15 first-inning runs in a four-game stretch will suck the life out of anyone. The Orioles needed a lift after Chris Tillman’s debacle Saturday, but Gausman only increased the frustration.

5. That reality was evident with a few defensive miscues and Chris Davis barely rounding first on a ball to the right-field wall that should have been an easy double leading off the sixth. The Orioles rarely look like a team that’s given up, but they did on Sunday.

6. Buck Showalter should go a step further from his famous decision years ago to intentionally walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and just give Aaron Judge a free pass when he’s still standing in the on-deck circle. That guy is unbelievable to watch.

7. Trey Mancini drew two walks in a game with few offensive highlights for the Orioles. The rookie has drawn only 11 free passes in 169 plate appearances this season, but nine have come in his last 31 games.

8. The debut of Jimmy Yacabonis started well with a strikeout of Chris Carter on a 98 mph fastball, but it crumbled quickly after that. Given the state of the bullpen, you hope his performance was more a product of nerves as the Orioles need all the help they can get.

9. I thought the Yankees were a year away from being a serious contender at the start of the season, but their plus-115 run differential and the highest-scoring offense in the majors tell me their first-place standing is no fluke. That’s bad news for the rest of the division.

10. Remember that crazy extra-inning win the Orioles had in Detroit last month? They haven’t had a road victory in nine tries since. Their .333 road winning percentage is behind only Oakland (.281) for the worst in the American League.

11. I’m the last person to start calling for drastic changes nor am I suggesting that will happen, but this is the kind of stretch in any sport that can get someone fired. There’s no sugarcoating how embarrassing this series was.

12. The Orioles dropped behind Tampa Bay for fourth place in the AL East, and you have to wonder if these are the last few days they’ll spend above .500 without a dramatic turnaround. Since starting an impressive 22-10 to begin the season, Baltimore has gone 9-20.

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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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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 6-4 win over Washington

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their season-best fifth game in a row in a 6-4 victory over the Washington Nationals, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With the recent challenges for his pitching staff, Buck Showalter wanted to see Kevin Gausman go deep into the game and couldn’t have asked for much more against the best statistical offense in the major leagues. This was the Gausman we saw over the final two months of 2016.

2. Gausman had his best fastball command of the season, especially over his first four innings as 41 of his first 53 pitches were fastballs. He had some difficulty with it leaking to his arm side after that, but he finished strong with a 1-2-3 seventh inning.

3. His seven innings, 116 pitches, and eight strikeouts were season highs, but the most encouraging statistic was only one walk issued. His 5.2 walks per nine innings over his first seven starts were unseemly for a pitcher who rarely had control issues over his first four seasons.

4. After hearing about how potent the Washington offense has been so far, the Orioles hit three home runs in the first to remind us of their firepower. Staking any pitcher to a 4-0 lead is a plus, but it meant more for one who’s struggled over the first five weeks.

5. Mark Trumbo would be the first to tell you that the result didn’t stem from a conventional approach or pitch location, but his first-inning tomahawk shot was nothing short of amazing to watch.

6. Caleb Joseph collected his first four-hit game since Aug. 31, 2014 and his fourth RBI of the season. Regular playing time has certainly helped his cause with Welington Castillo on the disabled list, but he’s beginning to show respectable offense more in line with what he did in 2015.

7. I can’t help but wonder if having Joseph behind the plate is a positive for Gausman right now. It’s not a knock on Castillo, but someone with more familiarity catching the struggling young pitcher might have been just what he needed to get back on track.

8. Gio Gonzalez entered Monday with the best ERA (1.64) among qualified NL starters, but you wouldn’t have known it watching him against the Orioles. The six earned runs and three homers surrendered by the Washington lefty were one shy of his season totals in each category.

9. Of course Trey Mancini was going to hit a long home run on his T-shirt giveaway night at Camden Yards. His production continues to be critical with Trumbo and Chris Davis not providing their usual power in the middle of the order so far.

10. Brad Brach turned in a shaky ninth inning, but he still converted his eighth save in nine chances. Before panicking too much, remember he’s filling in for a closer who was in the midst of a historic stretch. That’s an unfair standard for someone still adjusting to a new role.

11. Even if you’re not familiar with the TOOTBLAN acronym, you won’t see worse baserunning than what the Nationals exhibited in the ninth inning to bail out a pitcher on the ropes. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, right?

12. Matt Wieters received the great reception that he deserved in his return. A video tribute in the first and a standing ovation for his first at-bat were perfect. He never became the next Johnny Bench, but he helped leave the Orioles much better off than they were when he arrived.

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