Starting pitching passing the test for Orioles so far

May 12, 2016 | Luke Jones

The home runs hog the spotlight, but another encouraging development has sparked the Orioles to a season-best eight games above .500 as they began a seven-game homestand on Thursday night.

We figured that Buck Showalter’s club would hit the long ball and runs would be aplenty in 2016, but what about the starting pitching?

While the offense hit an impressive 13 home runs over a four-game winning streak, the rotation quietly turned in four consecutive quality starts for the first time in 2016. In fact, the Orioles have recorded 11 quality starts in their last 14 games since the return of Kevin Gausman on April 25 after registering just three in their first 18 games.

The 9-5 stretch has elevated Baltimore to seventh in the AL in starter ERA at 4.28.

Certainly not great, but good enough with a terrific bullpen backing up the rotation. The Kansas City Royals showed last year that you don’t need excellent starting pitching to contend as they finished 12th in starter ERA and pitched the fewest starter innings in the AL before ultimately winning the World Series.

Perhaps even more encouraging than the Orioles’ starter ERA is the fact that they rank third in the AL in starter fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 3.74, suggesting the peripherals have been better than the results. Starters have allowed a league-low 16 home runs, rank 10th in strikeouts, and have issued the fifth-fewest walks among AL clubs. This is marked improvement from a year ago when the rotation surrendered the second-most homers, finished 10th in strikeouts, and issued the sixth-highest total of walks in the AL.

Yes, the Orioles have pitched in cool and damp conditions to aid in their efforts to prevent the long ball, but the weather hasn’t stopped their lineup from leading the league in home runs.

Leading the way for the rotation have been Chris Tillman and Gausman, who have accounted for seven of the Orioles’ 14 quality starts to begin the season.

Through the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season, Tillman has not only bounced back from a forgettable 2015 season, but the right-hander has been better than ever. Even more impressive than a tidy 3.05 ERA through seven starts has been his ability to miss bats as he’s struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings, a significant improvement from his 6.8 career average.

The increased use of his slider has been the difference for the 28-year-old as he’s thrown it 16.2 percent of the time, up from just 7.2 percent a year ago. He’s gotten more strikeouts and a higher swinging strike percentage with his slider than any other pitch in 2016.

Despite beginning the year on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, Gausman has looked the part of a top-half-of-the-rotation starter through his first four outings, posting a 2.16 ERA and striking out 8.3 and walking just 1.8 per nine innings. The Orioles talked all offseason about the need for the 25-year-old to take a big step forward to help them contend, and his start to the season has been encouraging.

Perhaps more important than the results is the fact that his velocity is in line with where it was two years ago, indicating that the health of his shoulder hasn’t been a major concern. The improvement of his breaking ball has also added another dimension to his repertoire.

The rest of the rotation has been more uncertain, but it’s still allowed the Orioles to compete.

As we’ve come to expect, Ubaldo Jimenez has been hot and cold with a couple exceptional starts and some ugly ones in which he’s struggled to throw strikes, netting him a 4.54 ERA entering Thursday.

Mike Wright’s 5.83 ERA is ugly, but he sports a 4.10 FIP and opponents have a .356 batting average on balls in play, signs of hope that his results could improve with better fortune moving forward.

Tyler Wilson has been the most pleasant surprise as he sports a rock-solid 3.57 ERA as a starter. His stuff doesn’t wow you and he’s struck out just 4.4 batters per nine innings, but he doesn’t issue many walks and has limited home runs, allowing his defense to be a bigger factor in his success. Whether he can sustain that level of success remains to be seen.

Veteran Yovani Gallardo is set to begin a throwing program and has reported improvement with the strength of his right shoulder. The Orioles certainly aren’t ready to give up on the free-agent acquisition despite a concerning start to the season in which he was struggling just to reach the high 80s with his fastball before being placed on the DL on April 23.

The 30-year-old’s return isn’t imminent, but he would potentially give Showalter another viable option should Wright be unable to straighten himself out or if opposing lineups begin catching up to Wilson.

No, the parts aren’t all pretty, but the sum has contributed to an impressive 20-12 start.

The Orioles don’t really need exceptional starting pitching as they entered Thursday ranked third in the AL in runs scored per game (4.625) and first in bullpen ERA (2.33). They just need their rotation to rank in the middle of the pack to contend in the AL East.

Not great, but just good enough.

And that’s exactly what the Orioles have gotten so far.