Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Buck Stops Here Tour - 2011 (Midseason Report)

Has enthusiasm for the Orioles returned to Baltimore?

For the reader to understand this post, I must make a confession.  I have not been a life-long Orioles fan.  When I was growing up, Bret Saberhagen was my favorite player and the Royals were my favorite team.  When I was old enough to realize the importance of family, and that my extended family lived mostly in Pittsburgh, I became a Pirates fan.  Francisco Cabrera broke my heart in the 1992 NLCS.  The strike of 1994 made me lose total interest in baseball.  I moved to Baltimore in 2002 and became an Orioles fan by association, but I would not call myself the most passionate Orioles fan.  This bit of detachment allows me to cheer on the team while remaining somewhat objective.

It should be noted that I have much more-rooted interests in the Buffalo Bills (I was born there) and Old Dominion University (my alma mater).  For baseball, my passion is not as intense as for football or college basketball.  I'm not just some fair-weather fan who changes teams based on winning and losing, either.  Root for the same team that loses four straight Super Bowls and has gone eleven years now since even making the playoffs, remaining a fan of the team through it all, and tell me I'm a fair-weather fan. 

So now that I've come clean with my background, I can begin analyzing the 2011 Orioles.  I've been more than a little intrigued with the them since they hired Buck Showalter in the second half of the 2010 season.  I didn't grow up seeing the Orioles winning so it's not as hard on me as a fan to see the franchise continue to wallow.

But what HAS drawn my attention is that the Orioles themselves are getting so much local attention.  After Buck took over last year, there was an instant spark and the players seemed to be playing for their jobs every night.  (What a novel concept, right?)  It was no accident that the Orioles' turnaround last year also coincided with the return of Brian Roberts, either, but it was Buck who commanded the attention of the players.  The Orioles were 34-23 after hiring Buck on July 30, the best record in the AL over the last 57 games.

This offseason, the local talk shows talked more about the Orioles than I can remember.  There was hope in the team, as fans were encouraged by players giving a crap again.  The club couldn't snag any marquee players in the winter, but did land Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero and Mark Reynolds.  The pitching staff remained mostly intact, replacing an aged Kevin Millwood for closer Kevin Gregg and his 37 saves in 2010.

So as I type this the Orioles have played 81 games with a record of 36-45.  The good news?  This projects to a 72-win season, which is better than their 66 from last year.  The not-as-good news?  They haven't matched their winning pace from their finish to the 2010 season.  So what has happened?  Below is a discussion of how the team has ended up where it is as of now.

Coming out of spring training, Jeremy Guthrie was tabbed as the #1 starter.  On most pitching staffs he wouldn't be #1, but he is the most polished pitcher on the staff.  He's not bad, either, but you're not going to the playoffs if he's considered your ace.  Coming into 2011, his career record was 38-48.  In 2011 he has pitched more than admirably, and much better than his 3-10 record would indicate.  I lost count of how many quality starts he had where the Orioles just could not score runs for the man.  But he's kept his head up and taken the mound when his number's called all season.  (Conversely, Jake Arrieta' record is 9-5 with an ERA almost a full run higher than Guthrie.)

Brian Matusz was sidelined with an injury at the end of spring training.  The team was hoping to keep Zach Britton in the minors past late April so they didn't have to use 2011 against his free agency years, but he was simply too good to not use once Matusz went down.  Once Matusz came back, his velocity had significantly fallen off.  In his last start on June 30, he gave up eight runs in three-plus innings and was immediately shipped to AAA Norfolk.  Britton, on the other hand, has pitched 6-6 and shown loads of promise.  He's tailed off his last few starts but it's hard to expect much more than what he's provided from a rookie.  Showalter has smartly begun skipping some of Britton's starts to limit his innings in his first full MLB season.

In general the starting pitching has been effective considering it's not the most seasoned staff in the AL.  The problem, though, is that it seems like they lack efficiency.  With such a young staff, Buck has limited the starters' pitch counts.  Simultaneously because they're still learning to pitch at this level, they are throwing too many innings to go beyond five or six innings regularly.  Which leads us to the bullpen.  Jim Johnson has been the star of 'pen, Koji Uehara has played well for the most part, and Gregg has picked it up after starting poorly.  I try not to be negative about things in general so I will not dwell on him, but it must be mentioned how Michael Gonzalez has crapped the bed this season.  Through 29 games his ERA is 5.34 and his WHIP is 1.67.  It got to the point in May where Buck brought him out to pitch only in blowouts.  If I had to cut one person from the roster, it would be Gonzalez.

Overall the pitching staff is ranked 27th in Major League Baseball in both ERA (4.42) and WHIP (1.39).  There's plenty of blame to go around, but the staff is young enough to suffer these results for this season.

On first glance the Orioles' hitting numbers are more than respectable: tied for ninth in the Majors with a .260 average and twelfth with an OPS of .722.  So that leads to lots of runs, right?  WRONG!  Baltimore is 20th in runs scored, averaging just above four per game.  As noted above, if you average 4.0 runs/game and your pitchers' ERA is 4.4, you're going to lose more than you win. 

So what gives?  There are several contributing factors:
  • Brian Roberts has missed significant time this season again due to injury.  It's hard to replace a player who averages 102 runs scored over a 162-game season for his career, just like the team found out last year.
  • Derrek Lee and Vlad Guerrero are old in baseball terms at age 36.  Vlad's current average is .278, which is effective, but his sluggling of .378 pales to his career sluggling of .556.  (In one of the few moves of Buck with which I disagree, he has continued to bat Guerrero in the clean-up slot.  Your #4 hitter needs to slug better than .378.)  Lee's defense has been superb and has helped "limit" Mark Reynolds to 19 errors, which is discussed below.  He's currently batting .245 but has really woken up the latter part of June just to get there.
  • Mark Reynolds has given the team probably what they were expecting - he leads the team in HR, is slugging close to .500, and has struck out "only" 82 times.  He's far below his pace of 223 K's in the 2009 campaign.  But (there's always a "but"), he's only batting .228.  Similar to Lee, he's really worked the last few weeks just to get up to this level. 
  • Lastly, Nick Markakis has really been a tale of two players through 81 games.  I would not have predicted that Reynolds would hover around .200 most of the season, but I can't say that I would be shocked.  However, If you were to tell me that Markakis were to hover around .200 most of the season, I would have asked how many Natty Boh's you've had to drink.  The man has averaged just about .300 since 2006.  He's had at least one hit in 19 of his last 20 games, so again we have a player who's making a strong push in June to get up to career numbers.  His slugging of .378 is also less than his career average of .454.
All in all, the batting and slugging numbers mask how inept the hitting has been in crucial situations.  When you don't hit with players on base, you don't score.

The O's fielding percentage of .982 is tied for 22th in the MLB.  Of the Orioles' 54 errors this season, Mark Reynolds has 19.  Let me repeat that - our starting third baseman has more than 1/3 of our errors.  Early in the season when he wasn't hitting, Derrek still deserved to play every day due to his fielding prowess.  I remember on more than one occasion that he scooped out a poor throw of Reynolds. 

But it's not all bad for the team.  Matt Wieters, in addition to handling the young starting pitching staff like a seasoned veteran, has been phenomenal behind the plate.  When one of your best pitchers (Britton) pitches so many sinker balls, it's important to have a catcher with good reflexes to stop balls in the dirt.  Furthermore, Wieters has thrown out 23/51 baserunners (45%) this season. 

On the other side of the stadium, the Orioles are in good hands with Adam Jones.  I'm not using hyperbole when I state that Jones made a catch comparable to Willie Mays' famous catch.  (Random thought - Jim Edmonds' catch hasn't gotten nearly enough play over the years.  I tried to find it on YouTube, Google, etc. but MLB has apparently destroyed all copies ever made.)  While most of Jones' catches are not of such historic quality, he has exceptional range and is no stranger to making highlight-reel plays.

I intentionally left Wieters and Jones last for discussion because they are the keys to this franchise (along with the young starting pitchers) turning a corner.  When your #3 and #4 hitters are both 36 years old and are signed to one-year deals, should you expect the team to beat out the Yankees and BoSox for first place after 81 games?  They are essentially placeholders for a season to allow Wieters and Jones to assume leadership roles while getting the young pitchers a season of experience. 

There are too many questions to know if this team can get to .500 by season's end.  We don't know if Roberts will come back.  I was hoping that Vlad would have a great start to the season because I expected him to wear down as the season goes on; unfortunately if he does wear down, we will not have gotten even half a season of his mercurial production.  Markakis adjusted his grip on the bat and now is close to batting .300 again.  How resolute are the youngsters who continue to take the mound?

I would expect the O's to trade Vlad and/or Luke Scott before the deadline, allowing Nolan Reimhold to display what he can do.  If you're not going to win, isn't it better to see what the younger players can do?  I hope the pitching staff is left alone, save dumping Gonzo and his unfortunate contract.  By all accounts Buck and GM Andy MacPhail are on the same page when it comes to philosophy, so I expect any trades to be in the best interest of long-term results.

I just want to see the team keep fighting.  And the team has been competitive in most games this season.  I saw Matusz' latest start in person.  Even down 8-0 the Orioles bounced back to score five straight runs before losing 9-6.  Last season the team would have lost 16-0.  AND THE FANS STAYED UNTIL THE FINAL OUT!  This is not common in recent Orioles campaigns.

To bring my post full-circle, I hope the Orioles succeed for those fans who've been through the tough times longer than I.  The continued failure of the Orioles coupled with the Ravens' continued success has swung the sports pendulum severely to the side of football in this town.  It's a shame because you can hear the hurt in the older fans who call up sports radio shows to discuss the team.  If the Orioles lose the town this season by laying down, then who knows when the fans will show this much enthusiasm again?  The team needs to remain competitive, win or lose, rather than just give up when down early in games or series.  But that's one bonus of youth - sometimes you don't know how good or bad you're supposed to be, so you just keep plugging along.

Go O's, hon!

Orioles fans are filling up Camden Yards again.

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