Arm Fatigue: The Baltimore Orioles and their Two Decades of Pitching Futility

 

Solid pitching and defense were once considered the Baltimore Orioles’ linchpins of success.  Starting pitching, in particular, helped the club make six World Series appearances (three titles) over a two-decade span.

1971 was the height of excellence.

That year, starting pitchers Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson became the first quartet of teammates to win twenty games apiece since the Wilson administration.

Fast forward to the present.  Jim Palmer is in the Baseball Hall of Fame and many Americans under the age of 30 probably couldn’t tell you President Wilson’s first name.  Still, one thing remains the same: the Orioles are in first place.

The 2016 squad has received notoriety for its hitting prowess, pacing both the junior and senior circuits in home runs.

Entering Sunday’s action, the Orioles are 62-47, but heir starters have a combined record of 36-38.  Are they just getting snake bit?  Here’s where they fall on a few pitching leaderboards for the 2016 campaign:

2016 ERA Leaders (by club)

  • 6. Tampa Bay – 4.17
  • 7. Baltimore – 4.22
  • 8. Boston – 4.25
  • 9. New York AL – 4.26
  • 10. Detroit – 4.32

Strikeouts per 9 innings

  • 19. St. Louis – 7.73
  • 20. Baltimore – 7.70
  • 21. Oakland – 7.61
  • 22. Cincinnati – 7.56
  • 23. Atlanta – 7.52

The K rate isn’t much to write home about, but a top-ten ranking in ERA is good, right?

Throw that number out.  The Orioles bullpen has been so stellar (26-9, 3.10 ERA and a K-rate of 8.26 per 9 frames), that it’s thrown the chart into whack.  Removing them from the equation paints a decidedly uglier portrait:

2016 Team ERA (Starting Pitching Only) 

  • 26. Baltimore – 4.91
  • 27. Arizona – 5.05
  • 28. Cincinnati –  5.11
  • 29. Minnesota – 5.23
  • 30. Oakland – 5.24

Strikeouts per 9 innings (Starting Pitching Only)

  • 19. Detroit – 7.38
  • 20. Baltimore – 7.34
  • 21. Los Angeles AL – 7.29
  • 22. Pittsburgh – 7.28

The math is glaring: only four clubs have received a worse performance from their starters, in terms of ERA.  They also rank in the bottom five in walks allowed (3.44 walks per 9), which is where that low K rate comes back to bite them.  It is a far cry from that ’71 squad, who sported a 2.88 rotational ERA.

So, where have things gone astray?  The descent has been stunning, but hardly swift.  One might pinpoint the dawn of the century as the beginning of the death spiral, when they failed to re-sign ace pitcher and fan favorite Mike Mussina.

It’s not rocket science.  Their free agent signings have been abysmal and they’ve misfired on nearly all of their high draft picks.  And, it’s not for lack of effort.  Since 2000, the Orioles have spent 13 of their 23 first-round picks on pitchers.

Readers with weak stomachs are advised to avoid a scroll down that grim list.  It includes something called a Tripper Johnson, their 2000 compensation pick, whose name that sounds straight out of a Woody Guthrie song.

Their inability to emerge from that shit-pile with a single ace has haunted the Birds every season.  They have been forced into moves such as overspending on past-their-primers (see Gallardo, Yovani) or trading for rotten fruit (Wade Miley).

Out of the twelve first-rounder’s*, the highest-touted were the four that were each selected fourth overall.  Young arms are far from exact science, but these guys were considered by scouts to be slam dunks, future aces-in-waiting.  Here is a look at each pitcher, and where they are today:

(*2004 selection, Wade Townsend, did not sign)

 

Adam Loewen (2002)

Adam Loewen’s career has spanned 3,721 days, and he has certainly taken the scenic route.  He holds the distinction as the highest draft-and-follow selection, agreeing with Baltimore at the last minute to avoid going back into the 2003 draft.

The Canadian lefty made his big league debut in 2006.  He was a big, strapping kid with an arsenal that included mid-90’s heat as well as two serviceable breaking pitches.

However, instead of becoming a stud in the vein of a Clayton Kershaw, he spent the better part of a decade trying to become Royce Clayton.

After flaming out with the Orioles, Loewen tried his luck as a hitter.  While he experienced moderate success in the minors, he eventually tabled that dream and went back to pitching.  He now resides in the Arizona bullpen.

Incidentally, almost every other team’s first rounder from 2002 panned out – including the Royals, who snatched up Zack Greinke two picks later.

Pitchers taken in Round 1: Zack Greinke (6th), Jeff Francis (9th), Joe Saunders (12th), Scott Kazmir (15th), Cole Hamels (17th), Jeremy Guthrie (22nd), Joe Blanton (24th), Matt Cain (25th), John Lester (57th)

 

Brian Matusz (2008)

In 2010, Sports Illustrated prominently-featured Brian Matusz in an article touting the Orioles’ youth movement.   Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the pinnacle of his career as a starter.

Matusz had a great change-up that scouts compared to that of fellow lefty Cole Hamels.  However, a decent debut season masked a 1.34 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) and even the change couldn’t hide a hittable fastball.  The next season, big league hitters nuked Matusz to the tune of a stunning  10.69 ERA.

By 2013, he was a full-time reliever.  While he enjoyed moderate success in the bullpen, he was not a late-inning, shut-down reliever.  In summation of his value to the Orioles, they traded him this season to the Braves, in an ignominious salary dump.

The Braves promptly designated him for assignment.

Ultimately, Orioles fans will remember Matusz as a colossal failure.  To add insult to injury, the San Francisco Giants took a guy named Buster Posey with the next pick in that 2008 draft.

Pitchers taken in Round 1: Andrew Cashner (19th), Gerrit Cole (28th), Jake Odorizzi (32nd), Lance Lynn (39th)

 

Dylan Bundy (2011)

Dylan Bundy joins Brian Matusz as the second pitcher on this list who has had Tommy John surgery.  That is the first and only time I will use those two names in the same sentence.

Despite the surgery, Bundy’s arm still radiates most of the sleek promise encapsulated by his lofty draft position.  He still has the Bugs Bunny, 12-6 curve ball that made scouts drool and the cutter, while no longer plus-plus, is still a solid pitch.

Perhaps Bundy’s biggest obstacle will be convincing the Orioles that he can throw more than 80 pitches.  Even pre-surgery, they treated him like Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy, putting him on extreame pitch counts in the low minors.

If he stays healthy, he could carve out a significant role as soon as this year.

Pitchers taken in Round 1: Archie Bradley (7th), Taylor Jungmann (12th), Jose Fernandez (14th), Sonny Gray (18th), Matt Barnes (19th), Tyler Anderson (20th), Joe Ross (25th)

Kevin Gausman (2012) 

The other guys on this list throw hard, but Gausman throws rockets.  He compliments this upper-90s cheese with a good change, and recently has messed around with a curve ball and a splitter in an effort to change hitters’ eye-levels.

It’s too early to write the book on the former LSU-flamethrower, we can at least fill in the first chapter: inconsistency. Gausman has shown flashes of brilliance this season (11 quality starts), but he has continued his propensity for giving up the long-ball (20 HR allowed).

Fittingly, he has spent the last few months alternating good and bad starts – including a recent instance in Toronto, when he allowed six runs and three home runs before being yanked after only three innings.

Velocity has never been the problem.  The issue is that his fastball comes in pretty straight and, until his breaking stuff develops more, hitters will continue to sit on the heater.  If he can do that, the sky is the limit.

Pitchers taken in Round 1: Mark Appel (8th), Andrew Heaney (9th), Lucas Giolito (16th), Michael Wacha (19th), Marcus Stroman (22nd), Jose Berrios (32nd), Zach Eflin (33rd), Lance McCullers (41st),

Other Notables: Carlos Correa (1st), Albert Almora (6th), Addison Russell (11th), Tyler Naquin (15th), Corey Seager (18th), Stephen Piscotty (36th), Joey Gallo (39th)

 

 

 

 

 

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