On May 10th, Jeff wrote a post here called “Well, the Orioles Are Doing it Again“, recognizing that the Orioles were once again winning a bunch of games despite a fairly pedestrian BaseRuns record. At the time, the Orioles were 22-10, outpacing their BaseRuns expected record of 16-16, as they had clutched their way to the best record in baseball.
A little over a month later, the Orioles are 31-31. They’ve gone 9-21 in their last 30 games, and they’re now a half-game out of last place in the AL East. But this isn’t a case where their reliance on winning close games has come back to bite them, with the one-run bounces going against them. They are still outpacing their BaseRuns expected win total by six games. They’ve won 9 of their last 30 games because they’ve played like a team that should have only won 9 of their last 30 games. And they’ve played that poorly because their starting pitching is awful.
In their first 33 games of the season, when the Orioles raced out to baseball’s best record, their rotation produced above-average results; their 4.06 ERA (12th) and .313 wOBA allowed (10th) were both a bit better than the middle of the pack teams, especially once you adjust for their park and league. The bullpen and the offense are the strengths of the team, and when they get acceptable starting pitching, everything works pretty well.
Since May 10th, however, when Jeff published his article, the Orioles rotation has posted a 6.70 ERA (29th) and a .401 wOBA allowed (30th). Yes, the average hitter has put up a .325/.395/.552 line against the Orioles starters over their last 30 games. That is like if every batter you faced was Miguel Sano for a month. I don’t care how good your bullpen is; starting pitching like that just can’t be overcome.
Of course, the Orioles rotation isn’t this bad. During this stretch, they’ve allowed a league-worst .353 BABIP and a third-worst 18% HR/FB rate, neither of which will last. But their early season decency was built on holding down BABIP (.269 through May 9th), and it’s pretty clear that the Orioles shouldn’t count on limiting authoritative contact as a strategy to make up for too many walks and not enough strikeouts.
Because this is something pretty much the entire staff struggles with. Among the 151 starters who have thrown at least 30 innings in the rotation, here is where the Orioles five primary starters rank in K%-BB%.
Yuck. The AL average K%-BB% for a starting pitcher is 12.2%, a mark that no member of the Orioles rotation is living up to. Bundy is close to that average, and combined with batted-ball tendencies that make him look like he might be a guy who can legitimately avoid hard contact, he’s a perfectly decent big league starter, though he won’t be any kind of ace until he can figure out how to get lefties out more effectively.
But after that, it’s all ugly. Wade Miley struck out 38 batters in April and pitched like a quality starter, but he’s struck out just 20 batters since, reverting back to the barely-serviceable back-end starter that he’s looked like the last few years. Ubaldo Jimenez’s never-ending Jekyll-and-Hyde routine has landed on Hyde this year, and he’s already been bounced from the rotation.
But really, the root of the team’s rotation problems lie with Tillman and Gausman. Last year, these guys were their best two starters, combining for +5.4 WAR by FIP or +7.8 WAR by runs allowed. So far, the pair is at -0.2 WAR by FIP and -1.2 WAR by runs allowed. When your top two starters hand you below-replacement-level performances, it is hard to keep winning.
So what’s wrong with these guys? Tillman’s issue is easy to identify. He began the year on the DL due to a sore right shoulder, the same issue that forced him to the DL at the end of last year. And it’s pretty obvious that he’s still not healthy.
Tillman has sat 92-93 for the last few years, and ran it up to 97-98 when he needed to. This year, he’s sitting 90-91, and the hardest pitch he’s thrown this year has been 94. He’s also posting a career low 40% Zone%, down from 49% last year, so whether he just doesn’t have command because his shoulder still hurts or because he’s not comfortable challenging hitters with diminished stuff, Tillman is trying to pitch behind in the count with below-average velocity. That doesn’t work very well, obviously.
As Jeff pointed out in his post about Tillman last week, there’s also been an arm slot change, which often follows shoulder problems when pitchers try to compensate. Given that we aren’t doctors and don’t have access to the Orioles’ training room, we can’t say for certain that Tillman is hurt, but he sure looks hurt. Since Jeff posted his piece on Tillman’s issues, he’s made two more starts, giving up 14 runs in 7 1/3 innings. If the Orioles had any alternatives, I’d imagine Tillman would already be back on the DL. He probably should be anyway, at least to try to give him a chance to work out whatever issues he’s facing on a rehab stint.
Gausman, though, is more complicated. He’s 26, coming of the best season of his career, and doesn’t have any obvious health issues. His velocity is fine, right in line with what he did last year. He’s throwing the same rate of pitches in the zone as he always has, and batters are actually making less contact on swings in the strike zone than they did against him last year. The stuff seems fine.
But Gausman’s splitter — his bread-and-butter pitch — has taken a huge step back this year. Hitters are taking more of his splitters out of the zone for balls, swinging at it more often when it’s in the strike zone, and making significantly better contact against his splitter when they put the bat on the ball.
Last year, opposing hitters hit .203/.250/.316 against his splitter, good for a 65 wRC+. This year? .281/.313/.500, with a 128 wRC+. That’s still lower than batters are hitting against either his fastball or his slider, but the splitter is generally thrown in two-strike situations where you can get hitters to expand the zone and take less authoritative swings; giving up a 128 wRC+ on your put-away pitch is downright terrible.
Whether it’s just command or predictability, Gausman needs to figure out how to fix his fastball/splitter combination. His breaking balls have always been mediocre-to-bad, but the fastball/split combo can play off each other and give him swings and misses at the top and bottom of the zone. Right now, he’s not getting whiffs on either pitch, and batters are crushing both when he misses in the zone.
Gausman’s issues seem more fixable, and he’s talented enough that the Orioles can remain optimistic that he can improve as the year goes on. But they also don’t really have any other choice, because they probably already need to replace Tillman (at least on a short-term basis until he fixes what ails him), and they don’t really have enough high-level pitching depth to swap out another starter, much less two.
And none of this even accounts for what they might have to do with Dylan Bundy in the second half. Bundy threw 110 innings last year, the most of his career. He’s already at 83 innings this year, and if he made every start the rest of the year, he’d be on track to throw roughly 120 more. While workload increases aren’t a definitive science yet, I can’t imagine anyone thinks it’s a good idea to take a guy with Bundy’s history of arm problems and jump him from 110 to over 200 innings in a year. Whether because of actual injury or just workload maintenance, Bundy is almost certainly going to need to skip some starts.
So, yeah, the Orioles have a real problem. This isn’t the worst rotation in baseball, but none of the other teams with starting pitching this poor have a short-term focus. The Orioles, though, are trying to win before Manny Machado hits free agency. They have a $165 million payroll, most of it going to older players on the downside of their career. But they have the rotation of a rebuilder or an also-ran, and bullpen magic doesn’t help you much when you’re down 10-0 in the third inning.
On the bright side, the Orioles can say they’re at .500 despite a bunch of their best players struggling, and look forward to what the team could do in the second half if Machado, Gausman, Tillman, and Britton get healthy and perform at expected levels. But to keep this team in contention, the Orioles are going to need their starting pitchers to figure things out in a hurry. And then they’re probably going to need to trade for another arm or three in July. Because right now, it’s not easy to see how this group of starters is going to lead the Orioles back to the postseason.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.