Having an Actual Ace Is Pretty Sweet, Isn’t It?

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It was the dawn of a new era in Baltimore, as the new owners made their first real impression on their new adoring public. Michael Arougheti bought a round at the bar. David Rubenstein visited the MASN booth and held forth on the Magna Carta with Ben McDonald; the conversation had to drift that far afield because Rubenstein’s two-inning television appearance was extended when Patrick Sandoval simply could not get out of the inning. Before Rubenstein left, he asked (I’m choosing to interpret this as a sick burn rather than a genuine point of inquiry) if MLB had a mercy rule.

The Orioles won 11-3. Every Baltimore starting position player reached base and either scored or drove in a run; eight of the nine recorded at least one hit. And only three of the 10 hits went for extra bases. This was one of those methodical conga line outings in which the Orioles won not so much by knockout as by submission. Had the norms of the game allowed the Angels to tap out without shame, they might’ve done so.

I want to show you, somewhat paradoxically, a home run by Mike Trout.

This came with two outs in the first inning. Baltimore starter Corbin Burnes, well to be totally frank, he hung a slider pretty badly, and you can’t do that to Trout. If the Millville Meteor had yanked the ball just a little more to the pull side, it might’ve died for an out in the Gleyber Torres Memorial Cutout in left field at Camden Yards. Instead, it went for a home run.

I show you this because Trout’s home run was Burnes’ only blemish in his Orioles debut. He retired the other 18 batters he faced, 11 of them on strikeouts. Let’s put that in perspective. The last Orioles pitcher to allow one baserunner or less in a start of six or more innings was Matt Harvey in 2021, which, sweet mother of Mercy, that’s not the answer I was expecting. The John Means no-hitter was earlier that season.

But after that, the list thins out considerably. Burnes is just the eighth Orioles starter to go six innings and allow one baserunner since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954. Two of the other pitchers on the list are Mike Mussina and Jim Palmer.

And Burnes did it in his first start with the Orioles.

That’s not particularly uncommon for Burnes. This was the eighth start of his career (out of 168) with six innings pitched and one or zero hits allowed. It’s the third start of that length with only one baserunner allowed.

The Angels don’t have the strongest lineup in the sport by any means, but they’ve got some decent hitters. If post-comeback Miguel Sanó pans out, this is a lineup without a real no-hoper. And Burnes worked through it with all the ceremony of a man eating a Toblerone. Any Burnes start features death by a thousand cutters, but his greatest weapons on Opening Day were his two breaking balls.

Burnes threw 16 sliders, of which three were put in play. That included the Trout home run and the other moderately dangerous batted ball the Angels produced: a sixth-inning fly out by Logan O’Hoppe. O’Hoppe also popped up on a slider in the third.

And those were the only three breaking balls the Angels put in play all afternoon. Burnes threw 36 breaking balls, got 10 called strikes, 15 swings, 10 whiffs, two foul tips, two field outs, and Trout’s home run.

This being the first week of the season, Brandon Hyde lifted his ace after just 82 pitches with the Orioles leading 8-1. No need to put unnecessary strain on the most precious arm this team has had since Mussina left.

We know what the Orioles’ young lineup can do. We know the quality of this bullpen, and the baserunning, and so on. And I like the rest of Baltimore’s starters. Grayson Rodriguez could be really good, and I think both Means and Kyle Bradish (once they come back) are highly underrated pitchers.

But it’s been more than 20 years since a good Orioles team has had anyone like Burnes. A legitimate ace, a playoff stopper. When I was at Camden Yards for the ALDS last year, I was impressed by the depth and resiliency of Baltimore’s hitters, but I was appalled by how completely its starting pitchers and long relievers — including Bradish and Rodriguez — got whittled down to smooth nubs by a patient Rangers lineup. They needed an asskicker, badly, and they got one.

Burnes, ironically, had seen his Brewers bounced from the first round four times in five seasons. In that time, Milwaukee managed a total of one win and 16 runs scored over nine games. As badly as the Orioles have needed a true no. 1 starter, Burnes has needed an offense that could score — to pick a number out of thin air — 11 runs against an opponent’s Opening Day starter.

I think back to those scenes from earlier in the day. It’s great that Rubenstein can talk about his blue-collar childhood spent in local public schools. (And for the record, I have never heard someone with such a thick Baltimore accent talk about how they worked in the White House and served as chairman of the board of trustees at Duke.) It’s even better that Arougheti is handing out free beer, and that the new ownership group has mended fences with Cal Ripken Jr.

These are necessary steps toward building credibility with a fan base that had been tormented by the stewardship of Gob and Buster Angelos for too long. But once the honeymoon phase dries up, Orioles fans will care most of all about whether the team wins. This is every sports fan’s primary concern, from sea to shining sea. And it’ll be there that Rubenstein’s reputation is made, for good or ill.

Want to prove you’re serious about winning? Don’t let Burnes make it to free agency. Don’t let the pitcher this team has been chasing for decades walk after one year. It’s only been one start, but I’ve seen enough.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 month ago

Without a doubt, bringing in Burnes was an extremely positive move for the Orioles success in 2024. I just had thought that they would have brought in one more big name pitcher.

However there are the resources still available that if they do determine the need before the trade deadline, they can still do just that.

1 month ago
Reply to  Southi

They can, but they could have topped what the Padres gave up for Dylan Cease and the they could have signed Blake Snell for what the Giants paid. And the Diamondbacks deal for Montgomery was about ask risk free as a pitcher signing can be. At least one of Westburg or Hjerstadt or Cowser could have been traded. At some point they need to be in “win now in the playoffs mode”.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I agree Ivan, and to be honest I was disappointed, but I am trying to be hopeful and look at the bright side lol.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

All decent ideas which werent going to happen under previous tightwad ownership. We’ll see if it is a different day now.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

The Orioles did offer more for Cease than the White Sox ended up accepting from the Padres, but much like Scott Boras in free agency, Chris Getz completely misjudged the trade market until most suitors had already moved on to other alternatives. I do wish that they had been in on Montgomery, and maybe they would have if the ownership change had been official one month earlier, but most teams are reluctant to add $25 million just before the start of the season.

But ultimately, neither of those guys nor Snell have the credentials that Burnes does, so it’s not clear that they would be dramatic upgrades for the Baltimore rotation. What’s much more concerning is the state of the bullpen, which relied heavily on Felix Bautista. Kimbrel can’t come close to replacing that by himself, so I would have liked to see another signing or two to improve the back end depth.

Mike Elias still has plenty of time to let the lineup shake out before needing to move Kjerstad or Norby or Westburg. It’s a 162 game season, and injuries are going to happen, so it’s helpful to have competent bats that can plus inevitable gaps.

1 month ago
Reply to  jdbolick

I don’t think the Padres offer was better than what the White Sox got, though I admit that I don’t really know how to value draft picks. DL Hall is not worth much more than Steven Wilson, in my opinion. He’s younger and has better stuff, but has awful control (at least as a starter), making him a good reliever at best.

I really like Ortiz, but I think Thorpe + Iriarte is worth more, at least to the White Sox.

But again, I have no idea how to value that 2nd round draft pick. Is that worth an FV 40? 45?

1 month ago
Reply to  dl80

Steven Wilson is 27, has no chance of being a starter, and has never been on any major Top 100 list. D.L. Hall is 25, has four plus pitches, and has been on every major Top 100 list.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

It will be OK if they wait until June to deal for another starter,nobody ever won a pennant in April. Even the ’84 Tigers were required to play for another six months before being given the Commissioner’s Trophy.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

But not now