I have a Baltimore Orioles jacket, which my parents bought for me during our visit to Camden Yards back in 1992, and this is meaningful in many ways but certainly in part because I have very little baseball paraphernalia of any sort, my favorite being the Cubs Christmas stocking that I hang with care in the hopes that winning seasons will soon be here.
There was an article on espn.com today – http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/23971/team-of-destiny-orioles-have-magic-look – the headline reading, ‘Team of Destiny? Orioles have Magic Look.’
The Orioles have indeed come out of the gate fast, leading the AL East by a half game, punctuated by Sunday’s 17-inning triumph over the train wreck that is the Boston Red Sox. This makes me very happy, and there are reasons to believe that Baltimore is on the upswing as a franchise, no mean feat given the depths it has sunk in the last decade and the brutal schedule it entertains year in and year out, but it would be shocking if the Orioles were able to win more than 90 games and make their way into the postseason.
Baltimore runs Jason Hammel out to the mound every five days and this guy has been mowing down the competition this year, posting 38 k’s in 38 2/3 innings, a WHIP of .98 and only 2 home runs yielded. But in the last 3 seasons as a full-time starter, his best WHIP was 1.39, he never threw more than 177 2/3 innings and has never posted a WAR above 1.8 (without getting into the specifics of WAR, suffice it to say that if you do not have at least a 2.0, then you are in danger of losing your starting job, but not your spot on a MLB roster). Hammel is probably their best pitcher, which illustrates why the Orioles are extremely vulnerable.
As for the rest of the staff, Tommy Hunter hasn’t been very good so far with his 5.00 ERA, and the good news is that he’ll likely get a little better, having produced decent seasons in 2009-10, but since he’s never made more than 22 starts in a year during his admittedly short big league career, it’s not clear how much good that will actually do for the team. Brian Matusz had a very promising rookie year in 2010, was horrifyingly bad in only 12 starts in 2011, and has been pretty awful so far this year with only 27 IP in 5 starts and a WHIP of 1.7. Jake Arrieta, like Hunter, has never started more than 22 games in a season, and his career stat lines are throughly unimpressive (k/bb ratio of 1.53, WHIP of 1.42). Rounding out the rotation is Wei-Yin Chen, who in his rookie year so far has been below average, but as with all rookies, this may or may not resemble the pitcher he will ultimately become.
The biggest problem I foresee isn’t even the mediocre talent level, it’s the giant question mark of innings. Chen, Arrieta and Hunter have never even thrown 130 innings in a year, let alone the 200+ that is ideal for a starting pitcher. Matusz managed 175 once and Hammel has never been over 177 in any season. These guys simply don’t log innings, which leaves an enormous burden on the bullpen, which so far in 2012 has been spectacular. Just off the charts brilliant. How good you ask?
The mainstays of the pen, Troy Patton, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Jim Johnson, Luis Ayala and Matt Lindstrom, have all appeared in at least 12 games so far this year, and in their 85 total innings of work they have a combined ERA of 1.06(!). Also consider that of the 10 earned runs the unit has allowed, Patton alone has given up six. This makes Atlanta’s relievers look like a bunch of triple-A hopefuls.
This is not a team of destiny. This is a team with a below-average starting rotation and a bullpen full of guys who have been decimating opposing hitters at an astonishing pace that cannot hope to be sustained. That’s not a recipe for long-term success, especially in the AL East, where competition is much fiercer than other divisions like the AL Central. I’m as happy as anyone who isn’t a diehard Orioles fan to see Baltimore in first place, but we should enjoy it while we can, because like all good things, it won’t last long, unless by some miracle the team can post some absurd record in one-run games.