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Showalter lets down when Orioles needed him most

Posted on 05 October 2016 by Luke Jones

You may not think so right now, but Buck Showalter is a very good manager.

To borrow a phrase he likes to use, I’ve got a long memory.

Without him, the Orioles wouldn’t be the winningest team in the American League over the last five years and wouldn’t have three trips to the playoffs under their belts, but that doesn’t change the truth about what happened in the AL wild-card game on Tuesday night.

He let his players down in the 5-2 loss to Toronto in 11 innings.

The story of the defeat that ended the season really should have been about an Orioles offense that continued its second-half swoon by managing only two runs and four hits in the biggest game of the year. Baltimore rarely made good contact and didn’t even register a hit over the final five innings against a mediocre Blue Jays bullpen. The offense falling off a cliff — not the pitching — was the biggest reason why the Orioles struggled to play .500 ball after the All-Star break.

It was frustrating to watch on Tuesday, but players don’t always perform the way you want them to. That’s just the way it goes sometimes in the athletic arena with the opponent trying to win, too.

But there’s no defending not using your best pitcher — the closer many believe could be the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner — with your season on the line.

The clamoring for All-Star selection Zach Britton began in the eighth inning when Brad Brach entered and continued when the right-hander got into trouble against the heart of the Toronto order in the ninth. Instead of turning to Britton to escape the jam, Showalter summoned veteran right-hander Darren O’Day, who missed much of the season due to injuries and had rarely even pitched since being activated from the disabled list in mid-September.

But the moves worked, whether you agreed with them or not. At the very least, you could concede that Showalter was showing trust in two individuals who had been All-Star relievers the last two years. Brach and O’Day have pitched in plenty of high-leverage spots and likely would have pitched if the game had stretched into one or two extra frames anyway.

That’s when any attempt to defend Showalter has to end, however.

Lefty Brian Duensing had pitched well in a handful of appearances down the stretch, but the journeyman with a career 4.13 ERA started the bottom of the 11th inning. Even so, he struck out Ezequiel Carrera to once again save face for the manager.

Now was finally the time for Britton with one out in the 11th and the top of the Blue Jays lineup coming up, right?

Right?

Instead entered the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, who had pitched admirably over the last six weeks but fared poorly as a reliever earlier in the season. In reference to his unorthodox mechanics alone, he’s a high-maintenance pitcher who undoubtedly benefits from the lengthier warm-up session in the bullpen and the normal routine before a scheduled start.

Simply put, he was out of his element in a high-leverage relief setting and looked like it, giving up two singles and the game-winning three-run home run to Edwin Encarnacion on three consecutive pitches. Jimenez clearly didn’t do his job, but he was being asked to fulfill a role he wasn’t used to and hadn’t done well out of the bullpen earlier in the year.

That wasn’t the spot for him with better options available, and that’s on the manager.

This all took place as Britton — with his historic 0.54 ERA — watched from the bullpen and was forced to wait for that save situation that never came.

Inconceivable.

Showalter said after the game that Britton was healthy and available, the last morsel of information observers needed before crushing the Baltimore skipper. He preferred saving Britton while going to other options in the bullpen – inferior ones – despite the fact that the lefty had warmed up a few different times.

It’s true that using Britton in a tie game on the road deviates from the tired by-the-book way managers have handled closers for the last 25 years, but we thought Showalter was better than that. In fact, he had used Britton in the ninth and 10th innings of a tie game at Rogers Centre back on July 31, a contest the Orioles eventually won in 12 innings as Logan Ondrusek pitched the final frame.

If a game was important enough in late July to use Britton in a non-save situation on the road, how can you not use him with your season hanging by a single thread?

Maybe pitching him wouldn’t have mattered with the Orioles failing to generate any offense beyond Mark Trumbo’s two-run homer in the fourth, but you could more easily stomach Jimenez or Duensing or Tommy Hunter or Dylan Bundy – or even Britton himself — giving up the game-winner if they’d at least exhausted their best options to that point.

Instead, Showalter was too worried about not having Britton around later in the game if that save chance ever materialized. He’ll spend all winter pondering what might have been if he’d simply been more concerned with extending the game.

As a man often praised for being two steps ahead of the opposition, Showalter needed to be more in the now and not thinking so much about the hypothetical inning or two later in an elimination game. It was overthinking, not terribly different from the decision to leave Wade Miley in too long during Saturday’s costly loss at Yankee Stadium.

That failure late in Tuesday’s game coupled with the invisible bats ultimately cost the Orioles their season.

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Orioles choose body of work over hot hand for AL wild-card game

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The question would have been a terrible joke in mid-August.

Who should pitch for the Orioles in the American League wild-card game: No. 1 starter Chris Tillman or the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez?

Manager Buck Showalter has chosen experience over the hot hand with Tillman slated to take the ball against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to make an argument in favor of the 28-year-old who’s served as the club’s de facto ace over the last four seasons and started the opener of both playoffs series in 2014, but Jimenez was arguably the biggest reason the Orioles stayed afloat in September to qualify for the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.

Less than two months ago, Tillman was in the midst of a career year and had improved to a sparkling 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA after a win over Oakland on Aug. 11. Meanwhile, Jimenez sported an ERA just south of 7.00 and was lucky to be pitching out of the bullpen in mop-up duty once per week as questions persisted about his future with Baltimore.

Circumstances changed, however, with Tillman missing the better part of a month with a right shoulder issue that surfaced the morning after that outing against the Athletics. In his four starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 11, he’s posted a 3.79 ERA with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings.

Solid, but not great.

Meanwhile, Jimenez has experienced an improbable renaissance with his two-seam fastball and improved command of his other pitches over his last seven starts, producing a 2.45 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, he tossed the only complete game of the season for the Orioles and allowed three or fewer runs in all but one start.

Both performed well against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, but Jimenez was better with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit. Tillman gave up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings last Wednesday.

Tillman infamously pitched to an 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto last season, but his 3.63 mark in four starts against the Blue Jays this season has been more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the right-hander over the years. In 2016, Jimenez has a 6.43 ERA against the Blue Jays in six games — five of them starts — this season and retired only one batter against them in his worst start of the year on June 12.

And that’s where the decision likely comes down to trust for Showalter and the Orioles.

Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for turning his season around, but who do you trust more pitching in a game of this magnitude? Jimenez probably provides the greater upside right now, but Tillman still feels like the one who has the best chance to figure out a way to keep the Orioles in an elimination game if he doesn’t have his best stuff. The last thing you want is the “bad” Jimenez showing up in the biggest game of the season and not being able to even throw a strike in the bottom of the first inning.

If we’re being realistic with both teams having a specialized roster for a single game, this one is more likely to come down to the bullpens with neither Tillman nor Stroman being a great bet to hang around much longer than two times through the order. Under such a scenario, the Orioles have the edge with the better bullpen and the best closer in baseball looming at the end of the game.

Showalter told reporters that both Jimenez and rookie Dylan Bundy will be available out of the bullpen, giving the Orioles plenty of long-relief options should Tillman struggle early.

Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the first three games of the best-of-five AL Division Series (see below) as the winner of Tuesday’s game will face the top-seeded Texas Rangers with games being televised on TBS. Should the Orioles advance to the ALDS, they would host Texas for Game 3 at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, the same day the Ravens host Washington at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., which would likely create plenty of traffic headaches in the afternoon.

2016 ALDS vs. Texas
Game 1 (at Texas): Thursday, 4:38 p.m.
Game 2 (at Texas): Friday, 1:08 p.m.
Game 3 (at Baltimore or Toronto): Sunday, 7:38 p.m.

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Bats warming, but pitching has carried Orioles over final month

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles hope their highest run output in nearly three weeks on Friday night is the harbinger of an offensive awakening for October, but their pitching is what’s made that kind of talk still possible.

A six-run, three-homer fifth inning was the story in Friday’s 8-1 victory over the New York Yankees that put Baltimore in the lead for the top wild card with two games to play, but veteran starter Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed and continued a month-long trend that’s saved the season. Allowing only one run over six innings to earn the win, Gallardo lowered the starter ERA to a very respectable 3.83 for the month of September.

For a group that was the Achilles heel of a contending club for the better part of five months, the substantial improvement couldn’t have come at a better time as the Orioles’ bats entered Friday averaging just 4.0 runs per game in September, continuing the second-half frustration for a lineup increasingly dependent on home runs. The offensive struggles had been even worse over the last 12 games prior to Friday as the Orioles scored more than three runs only twice while still managing to post a 6-6 record over that stretch to stay afloat in the race.

The survival was because of the pitching, which leads the American League with a 2.90 ERA in September.

The surge has been led by Ubaldo Jimenez, who has rebounded from an appalling 7.38 ERA in the first half to pitch to a 2.31 mark over his last five starts. The recent performance may not forgive his many missteps that hurt the Orioles earlier in the season, but where would they have been without him over the last five weeks with Chris Tillman not himself for most of that time?

Jimenez hasn’t been alone as fellow maligned starters Gallardo and Wade Miley have also had their moments in recent weeks. It’s easy — and fair — to ask what took so long for this group to finally pitch better, but the Orioles are just grateful to see the necessary improvement after the rotation’s previous best ERA for a month was a mediocre 4.55 in April.

Assuming good health, Tillman and Kevin Gausman were always locks for a potential postseason rotation, but Jimenez has easily secured the No. 3 spot with Dylan Bundy, Gallardo, and Miley all vying for the fourth and final starting spot.

Though known for being the backbone of the Buck Showalter era in Baltimore, the bullpen has also rebounded from a nightmare August (6.43 ERA) to post a 1.38 mark over the final month, eclipsing the previous best month of a 2.24 ERA in April. The Orioles still don’t know if Darren O’Day — who pitched for the first time in a week on Friday night — can reclaim his status as one of the best setup men in baseball in time for the playoffs, but Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart have continued to do admirable work in bridging the gap to the impeccable Zach Britton in the ninth.

The best closer in baseball remains a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities with eight coming in September.

It’s no secret that the Orioles will need offensive performances similar to Friday’s if they’re to make any noise in October, but the improved pitching will need to accompany the bats into the postseason.

For now, however, the pitching staff deserves a tip of the cap for making any of this excitement possible.

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Unlikely sources providing late lift for Orioles

Posted on 25 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Teams hoping to play in October often need help from unexpected sources along the way.

The Orioles acquired Steve Pearce at the trade deadline to aid their lineup against left-handed pitching, but the veteran was lost for the season after undergoing right forearm surgery last week. Minor-league prospect Trey Mancini received the call to the majors to take his place on the roster just a week ago.

The 24-year-old has responded by becoming the third player in major league history to homer in each of his first three starts to begin his career. His solo blast off Arizona lefty Robbie Ray gave the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the fourth as they’d ultimately win 6-1 to retake the lead for the second wild card in the American League.

Mancini has yet to collect a single in the majors as all four of his hits — three homers and a double — have gone for extra bases. Whether it’s short-lived success or the start of a good major league career, the spark has provided a lift at a time the Orioles have needed it with the memory of the four-game sweep to Boston still in their minds.

Of course, the rookie hasn’t been alone as Wade Miley turned in Baltimore’s second-longest start of the year on Saturday, allowing one run over 8 2/3 innings and nearly pitching the club’s first complete-game shutout in over two years. Miley matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and has now allowed one run over his last 12 2/3 innings dating back to his injury-abbreviated start last Sunday.

Who would have predicted that 10 days ago?

Facing two last-place teams has certainly helped, but Miley has commanded his fastball much better over his last two outings and is pitching with more confidence. With Kevin Gausman pushed back due to an intercostal strain and the Orioles wanting to give Dylan Bundy extra rest between starts, Miley’s improvement couldn’t have come at a better time.

After Saturday’s gem, the lefty cited a recent conversation with Scott McGregor in which the former Orioles pitcher advised him to try “easier” on the mound and to relax. Whatever he said has at least worked temporarily for the veteran starter whom many wanted to be banished to the bullpen for the remainder of the season after posting a hideous 8.41 ERA in his first eight starts for the Orioles.

He isn’t the first maligned Orioles pitcher to reverse his fortunes recently as Ubaldo Jimenez has served as one of their top starters over the last month. Recent performance doesn’t erase either pitcher’s giant missteps in 2016, but at least they’ve salvaged some good grace in helping down the stretch.

Jones sets career high

Often criticized for his aggressive approach at the plate, Adam Jones set a new career high when he drew a leadoff walk in Saturday’s first inning.

The 31-year-old now has 38 walks this season, surpassing the 36 he drew in his first All-Star campaign back in 2009. His 6.0 percent walk rate isn’t as high as his 6.9 percent mark from that season, but it’s substantially higher than where it’s been in recent years.

Jones owns a .366 average with a 1.012 on-base plus slugging percentage when swinging at the first pitch in his career and is hitting .316 with a .979 OPS on the first pitch this season. He surely goes through stretches when that approach hurts him, but I’ve always argued that the five-time All-Star center fielder would not be the same hitter if not for his aggressiveness early in the count.

Say what you want about how it might look at times, but Jones now has six straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 82 RBIs and has produced an OPS of no worse than .764 in any year over that time. He’s bounced back admirably from the rib injury that hurt his production over the first six weeks of 2016.

Drake quietly impressing

The Orioles bullpen recently welcomed back 2015 All-Star selection Darren O’Day, but right-hander Oliver Drake has quietly impressed since being recalled in late August.

In his last 11 innings, Drake has pitched to a 1.64 ERA with 14 strikeouts and only two walks and earned his first major league victory with a scoreless inning on Friday night. Manager Buck Showalter has cited improved fastball command and a tighter splitter as the reasons for his improvement at the major league level.

That splitter makes Drake particularly effective against left-handed hitting.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 6-2 loss to Minnesota

Posted on 29 July 2016 by Luke Jones

What went wrong in the Orioles’ 6-2 defeat to the Minnesota Twins on Thursday night?

In trying to identify the top three losing factors with the addition of home plate for any not-so-honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 101st game of the 2016 season.

1st — Despite collecting 11 hits, the Orioles scored fewer than three runs for the seventh time in 14 games since the All-Star break. Other factors played a part in the defeat, but Baltimore continues to flounder with the bats in the month of July, scoring just 3.3 runs per game. Adam Jones homered on the first pitch of the game from Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson and J.J. Hardy added an RBI single in the fourth, but too many other hitters simply aren’t pulling their weight over the last few weeks. The Orioles went a respectable 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position, but one of those hits didn’t even score a run. With a weekend series against second-place Toronto looming, the bats must wake up.

2nd — The offensive output would have been better, but two runners were thrown out at the plate in the fourth inning. With runners at second and third and no outs and the Minnesota infield playing back, Chris Davis broke on contact when Jonathan Schoop hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Eduardo Escobar, who threw Davis out at the plate. An even bigger problem was Mark Trumbo not advancing from second to third on the tag play at the plate. Had Trumbo also broken on contact and just moved to third, he would have jogged to the plate on Pedro Alvarez’s single to right field. Instead, an ill-advised send by third base coach Bobby Dickerson resulted in Trumbo also being nailed at the plate.

3rd — Odrisamer Despaigne and Chaz Roe didn’t do their jobs in the seventh, but manager Buck Showalter was clearly saving his bullpen bullets for the Toronto series. As if it weren’t already obvious that the Orioles were punting on Thursday night by starting Ubaldo Jimenez — allowing Kevin Gausman to go against the second-place Blue Jays — Showalter sent Despaigne back out for the seventh inning of a tie game when Brad Brach hadn’t pitched since Sunday and Darren O’Day had only pitched once over the previous three nights. After allowing the game-tying homer in the sixth, Despaigne allowed three of four hitters to reach in the seventh and Roe followed by surrendering a single and a triple to give the Twins a 6-2 lead. This was a winnable game, so you hope the strategy pays off over the weekend.

Home — Still looking for his first RBI of the season, Caleb Joseph twice came up with runners in scoring position and failed to deliver. … Jimenez threw 51 pitches to complete the first two innings, but the right-hander pitched well after that, allowing just one run and striking out eight over five frames. … Alvarez collected his sixth three-hit game of the season. … Manny Machado went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and is hitting just .216 in 97 plate appearances in July. … Davis went 2-for-4 to collect only his fourth multi-hit game of the month. … The four earned runs and five hits allowed by Despaigne were season highs and elevated his ERA to 4.43. … On Friday night, the Orioles send Gausman to the hill against Toronto right-hander Marco Estrada.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 6-3 loss to Colorado

Posted on 27 July 2016 by Luke Jones

What went wrong in the Orioles’ 6-3 defeat to the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night?

In trying to identify the top three losing factors with the addition of home plate for any not-so-honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 99th game of the 2016 season.

1st — After spoiling the Orioles with an outstanding 1.29 ERA in four July starts, Chris Tillman just couldn’t put away hitters with two strikes in the four-run third inning. The right-hander appeared to be carrying good stuff early, but he ran into trouble with one out in the third as Colorado loaded the bases with three singles all coming with two strikes. After Nolan Arenado popped out, Carlos Gonzalez hit a two-run double to the opposite field on a 2-2 count and Trevor Story singled in two more runs on a 1-2 pitch. Tillman credited Colorado for hitting some good pitches, but he got a couple key pitches up and just didn’t have the good swing-and-miss slider that we’ve seen so many times in 2016. His six runs allowed matched his season high as he took just his third loss of the season.

2nd — Rockies starter Chad Bettis effectively used his sinker and hard slider, and the Orioles just couldn’t take advantage of the few opportunities they had against a pitcher who entered the night with a 5.31 ERA. Going 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position is rarely going to get the job done unless you’re hitting the long ball, but the No. 3 through No. 8 hitters went a combined 1-for-23 with one walk. On a rare off-night for Tillman, you would have liked to see his offense be able to pick him up.

3rd — He wasn’t the only one who struggled on Tuesday night, but Chris Davis continues to look lost at the plate. The first baseman is hitless in his last 24 at-bats and has seen his average plummet to .223. His most frustrating at-bat came in the eighth with runners at the corners, one out, and the Orioles trailing 6-2. After getting ahead 2-0 against lefty reliever Boone Logan, Davis expanded the strike zone and struck out on the next three pitches. Of course, we’ve seen Davis go through plenty of stretches like this in the past before going on a monster tear, but you wonder if a day off to clear his head might help.

Home — It was correctly ruled a wild pitch, but Matt Wieters failed to backhand a pitch that could have been blocked, allowing Colorado’s sixth and final run to score. … The Orioles saw their five-game winning streak snapped as they suffered their first loss at home since July 8. They had won six straight contests at Camden Yards. … Adam Jones hit a two-run homer in the fifth and walked twice as he’s already eclipsed his walk total from 2015. … In his return from the disabled list, Hyun Soo Kim went 1-for-3 with a walk and now owns a .412 on-base percentage to lead the team. … Tyler Wilson pitched four perfect innings of relief to save the rest of the bullpen after Tillman lasted only five innings. … Buck Showalter announced that Ubaldo Jimenez will make Thursday’s start in Minnesota as the manager wants to give the other members of his rotation an extra day of rest. … Dylan Bundy will take the hill on Wednesday in search of a series win while right-hander Jon Gray will start for Colorado.

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After missing out on Upton, Orioles welcome Kim back to lineup

Posted on 26 July 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After learning earlier in the day that veteran outfielder and trade target Melvin Upton was instead going to Toronto, the Orioles thankfully welcomed back Hyun Soo Kim on Tuesday.

The 28-year-old Korean outfielder was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list and was back in the starting lineup for the first time since straining his hamstring on July 10, the final game before the All-Star break. Kim was batting second and playing in left field for the second game of an interleague set with the Colorado Rockies.

With reserve outfielder Joey Rickard out with a thumb injury until September, the Orioles were attempting to acquire Upton in exchange for struggling right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and a prospect or two. However, the sides could not finalize the financial realities of a deal — with one report saying owner Peter Angelos changed an agreement — as Jimenez is still owed just over $18 million through next season and Upton will make roughly $22 million through 2017.

It would have been interesting to see how manager Buck Showalter would have used both Upton and Kim in the outfield. Upton plays better defense and hits more home runs, but Kim’s .410 on-base percentage dwarfs the veteran’s .304 mark and his skill set complements the rest of a homer-driven lineup nicely.

The optimal solution would have been a platoon with Kim playing against right-handed starters and Upton starting against lefties, but might the Orioles have been tempted to overlook the latter’s inferior hitting profile to utilize his speed and defense?

Coincidental or not, the Orioles enjoyed their best offensive month of the season (6.6 runs per game) in June when Kim became a regular against right-hand starters. In contrast, Baltimore has averaged just 2.9 runs per game in Kim’s absence since the All-Star break.

To make room for Kim and right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez — who was reinstated from the paternity leave list — the Orioles designated outfielder Julio Borbon for assignment after optioning outfielder Dariel Alvarez to Triple-A Norfolk late Monday night. This means the Orioles entered Tuesday night’s game with 13 pitchers and 12 position players on the roster.

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Patience, perspective needed for Bundy in Orioles rotation

Posted on 18 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Questioning the Orioles’ decision to put Dylan Bundy in the starting rotation is fair, but scrapping the experiment after one disappointing start as some have already suggested would lack patience and perspective.

The results weren’t pretty on Sunday as Bundy was too slow to establish his secondary stuff and gave up three home runs — matching the total surrendered in his first 38 innings this season — but his 70 pitches were the most he’d thrown in a professional game since a 73-pitch outing for Single-A Frederick on Aug. 5, 2014. It was an important step for a 23-year-old who has experienced a cruel number of physical ailments since being selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft.

We all know that the Orioles giving Bundy this opportunity isn’t as much about his success out of the bullpen as it is a reflection of the failures of their starting rotation, which entered Monday ranked 14th in the American League and 28th in the majors with a 5.14 ERA. Given his restrictions in terms of pitch counts and innings, expecting Bundy to be the rotation savior would be unfair, but he could at least help stop some of the bleeding as executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette looks for starting pitching help on the trade market.

Even if Bundy isn’t going to be unleashed for a 110-pitch outing in the immediate future — nor should he be with his history since undergoing Tommy John surgery three years ago — giving him the ball for abbreviated starts still beats the alternative of giving more starts to Ubaldo Jimenez, doesn’t it? Other internal options physically equipped to throw 100 pitches haven’t exactly gotten the job done this season, have they?

It’s certainly against the norm, but I’d rather take a multi-start look at Bundy for 70 or 75 pitches — with a long reliever behind him — over any other internal option the Orioles have behind Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and Yovani Gallardo in the current rotation. It’s not as though Baltimore was getting consistent and successful 100-pitch outings from Jimenez, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson to preserve its bullpen anyway.

We just can’t expect Bundy to morph into a conventional starter overnight. The fact that he’s already contributed in meaningful ways is a great bonus for a contending club, but the most important goals for him this season continue to center around his long-term health and development, the reason why some were opposed to making Bundy a starter this soon in the first place.

His 1.42 ERA and 23 strikeouts over his last 19 innings in relief put Bundy in the rotation conversation, but starting is a different animal when the opposition is specifically preparing for you to take the hill that night.

It will be interesting to see how the Orioles proceed with Bundy, whose fastball velocity dropped to the low 90s in his final inning of work on Sunday after it sat in the mid-90s over his first three frames. That isn’t exactly a sign that he’s ready to further increase his pitch count — his 2016 high before Sunday’s 70 was 57 — but remember he wasn’t blowing hitters away through the first two months of the season until manager Buck Showalter began giving him at least three days of rest between relief appearances.

Let’s see how the young right-hander responds to the heavier workload and a set schedule between outings before we just send him back to the bullpen for the rest of the season.

Whether you agree with making Bundy a starter right now or not, drawing definitive conclusions from Sunday’s outcome is premature. The fact that we’re even having this conversation shows how far Bundy has come after a long and frustrating three years.

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Five biggest Orioles disappointments of 2016 first half

Posted on 13 July 2016 by Luke Jones

In the midst of the tightest division race in the majors at the All-Star break, the Orioles have still endured their share of disappointing performers during a 51-36 start.

While plenty has gone smoothly for the first-place club, several players have turned in underwhelming performances in comparison to their expectations for the 2016 season. Those shortcomings make it more impressive that Baltimore has been able to excel in the competitive American League East.

After examining the biggest surprises of the first half earlier this week, below are my five biggest individual disappointments:

Dubious mention: Kevin Gausman, T.J. McFarland, Brian Matusz, Tyler Wilson, J.J. Hardy

5. Darren O’Day

The 2015 All-Star reliever’s inclusion on this list is obviously much more about his extended absence than his performance as his hamstring injury has put great strain on a bullpen trying to compensate for one of the worst starting rotations in the majors.

It also came after the Orioles invested a four-year, $31 million contract in O’Day this past offseason, but the club should feel good about the right-hander’s track record in coming back to contribute in meaningful ways in the second half.

Injury aside, O’Day would likely be the first to tell you that he wasn’t pitching at his best despite a respectable 3.15 ERA in 20 innings of work through June 1. His five home runs allowed are still the most surrendered by any Baltimore reliever this season and match his total in 65 1/3 innings last year. His walk rate of 4.1 per nine innings is also the worst of his career and substantially higher than the 2.1 per nine he averaged over his first four seasons with the Orioles.

It remains unclear exactly when O’Day will be ready to be activated, but manager Buck Showalter is itching to have the backbone of his bullpen back in the mix.

4. Caleb Joseph

It almost feels cruel to include the backup catcher on this list after his gruesome testicular injury suffered on Memorial Day that required surgery and sidelined him for a month, but failing to collect a single RBI in 81 plate appearances can’t be ignored.

There was a fair argument this winter that the Orioles would have been better off not extending a qualifying offer to Matt Wieters and going with Joseph as the starting catcher at a fraction of the cost, but the latter has batted .160 with only two extra-base hits and a .409 on-base plus slugging percentage. In his defense, Joseph hasn’t received nearly as much playing time as he did last season when he posted an acceptable .693 OPS with 11 homers and 49 RBIs, but his struggles at the plate have been so extreme that you’d worry about an injury to Wieters at this point.

Joseph’s defense remains a clear strength and Wieters has had no perceived issues moving back to a heavier workload now being two years removed from Tommy John surgery, but the Orioles are likely going to need the understudy to get his bat going at some point in the second half.

3. Mike Wright

Perhaps it’s unfair to include a pitcher who had just 44 2/3 major league innings under his belt entering 2016, but the Orioles thought enough of Wright being in their rotation that they jettisoned veteran Miguel Gonzalez in an effort to save $4 million before the season.

Needless to say, the decision hasn’t worked out as Wright has posted a 5.97 ERA in 69 1/3 innings that included 12 starts. He has twice been optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and did not fare well in his latest return to the major leagues just before the break.

Wright has held right-handed batters to a .237 average, but lefties are hitting .355 with a 1.023 OPS, leaving many to continue to believe the hard-throwing 26-year-old is better suited for a relief role reminiscent of former Oriole Tommy Hunter. He has a plus fastball, but it’s fair to wonder whether his secondary stuff — or his composure — is cut out for a long-term starting role.

The reality is that the Orioles probably could have lived with a 4.50 to 4.75 ERA from Wright at the end of the rotation, but he’s fallen well short of that mark.

2. Yovani Gallardo

This free-agent marriage began on poor footing when the Orioles’ concerns about his right shoulder prompted them to rework the original three-year agreement into a $22 million deal for two seasons.

Struggling to touch the high 80s with his fastball in March and April, Gallardo pitched to a 7.00 ERA in only four starts before landing on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis and missing nearly two months of action. His velocity has improved since then, but the 30-year-old has completed six innings just twice in his nine starts and hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning or later since June 27, 2015.

Even at his best this year, Gallardo has been no better than a five-inning pitcher as opponents are hitting .333 with an .801 OPS when he goes through the order a third time. The problem is that Showalter can’t always afford to go to his bullpen that early when considering the struggles of the rest of the rotation.

Despite his 3.66 career ERA entering 2016, the warning signs with Gallardo were there this winter with a declining strikeout rate and diminishing velocity. A quarter of the way through the contract, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette’s decision to forfeit a first-round pick and fork over $22 million for Gallardo isn’t looking very wise.

1. Ubaldo Jimenez

Inconsistency has been the calling card throughout Jimenez’s career, but even that doesn’t fit anymore as he’s just been plain bad in 2016.

His 7.38 ERA is the highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 80 innings, leaving most to wonder how the Orioles can continue justifying keeping him on the 25-man roster, let alone in the starting rotation for a contending club. Jimenez is still owed roughly $20 million through the end of next season, but evidence continues to pile up that this is a sunk cost to move on from.

Lost in the countless discussions about his poor command and erratic mechanics is the fact that the 32-year-old’s average fastball velocity has dropped below 90 miles per hour, a far cry from the pitcher whose fastball sat in the mid-90s earlier in his career. His 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings look fine, but his 5.5 walks per nine match his career high and he’s putting on two baserunners per inning.

Jimenez desperately wants to turn around his fortunes to contribute, but his 2.81 ERA from the first half of 2015 — his only extended period of success in his three years with the Orioles — feels like an eternity ago. The command and the stuff may simply no longer be there for Jimenez to turn this ship around in his 11th major league season.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 2016 first half

Posted on 11 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ first half of 2016 that has resulted in a 51-36 start and a first-place standing in the American League East at the All-Star break?

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 first 87 games of the 2016 season.

1st Manny Machado broke out as one of the game’s best all-around players last year, but many wondered throughout the winter if he could soar even higher in 2016. The 24-year-old has done exactly that, hitting .318 with 19 home runs, 29 doubles, 53 RBIs, and a .944 on-base plus slugging percentage as the club’s best offensive player. Already a two-time Glove Glove winner at third base, Machado filled in admirably at shortstop in place of the injured J.J. Hardy for seven weeks and has been worth a combined eight defensive runs saved and 1.2 defensive wins above replacement so far this season. His 4.2 WAR (Baseball Reference) at the All-Star break ranks fifth in the AL and is easily tops on the Orioles. After serving in the leadoff role out of necessity last season, Machado has now settled into the No. 3 spot in the order and is the first Oriole to bat third in the AL All-Star starting lineup since Roberto Alomar in 1996. 

2ndMark Trumbo was expected to be a solid power addition to the Baltimore lineup after being acquired from Seattle in exchange for reserve catcher Steve Clevenger in December, but the 30-year-old has instead put on a great 2014 Nelson Cruz impression. The right-handed slugger leads the majors with 28 homers, six more than the total he had last year in 170 fewer plate appearances and just six shy of his career high. His .288 average, .923 OPS, and 68 RBIs reflect his consistency, which was even more important with lineup mainstays such as Adam Jones and Chris Davis struggling early on. His defense in the outfield isn’t pretty, but Trumbo has played a major part in turning a good lineup into a great one.

3rdChris Tillman has been the shining star in a starting rotation that ranks 14th in the AL and 28th in the majors in ERA for a first-place club. The Opening Day starter not only leads the rotation with a 3.41 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 98 strikeouts, and 12 wins, but he has a chance to become Baltimore’s first 20-game winner since Mike Boddicker in 1984. His strikeout rate of 7.8 per nine innings is his best since 2013, and he can largely credit an improved slider for his career-best swinging-strike percentage. According to Baseball Reference, Tillman’s 3.2 WAR is second only to Machado on the 2016 Orioles.

HomeBrad Brach and Zach Britton both earned All-Star Game invitations with ERAs below 1.00 and combining for an impressive 4.7 WAR pitching out of the bullpen. Brach has been outstanding filling in for the injured Darren O’Day and leading all Baltimore relievers with 49 1/3 innings pitched while Britton has set a club record by going 27-for-27 in save opportunities to begin the season. … The Orioles’ 137 home runs lead the majors and are the club’s most ever at the All-Star break, surpassing the 134 hit in 1996. … Jonathan Schoop is rapidly emerging as one of the Orioles’ best players, ranking second behind Machado with 23 doubles and fifth in home runs. … Hyun Soo Kim began the season as a player the Orioles were convinced they didn’t want on the major league roster, but the South Korean outfielder’s .329 average and .410 on-base percentage lead Baltimore hitters with at least 170 plate appearances. … Despite making a combined $22 million in 2016, Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo have combined to post a 6.84 ERA in 125 innings this season. … Adam Jones wasn’t a conventional choice as a leadoff hitter, but he’s batted .308 with 12 homers and a .345 OBP since being moved to the top spot by manager Buck Showalter on May 27. … Baltimore’s 33 home victories and .702 home winning percentage lead the major leagues. The Orioles have three seven-game winning streaks in 2016 after posting none that long from 2006-2015.

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