Ten games into the regular season and the Baltimore Orioles’ young starters have given approximately what one may have expected – both solid starts and very brief outings, with flashes of brilliance mixed in. Inconsistency is obviously one of the trademarks of having an inexperienced starting pitching staff, so the performance of the young starters thus far is probably not a shock.
Still, it’s been a whirlwind beginning to the season for the young starters who the Orioles hope they can build their rotation around in the coming years. Zach Britton looks like a world-beater, Chris Tillman’s velocity continues to be a reason for worry, Jake Arrieta’s first two starts have been on the opposite ends of the spectrum, and when Brian Matusz returns from the disabled list is still up in the air.
Whether these starters can form the rotation fans hope they can is quite another story, and very few people have the kind of scouting eye to try to figure out just that than Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. Parks does scouting work for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts “Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast” with Kevin Goldstein. If you are trying to pick one baseball podcast to listen to, this is absolutely the one for you.
The biggest storyline revolving around the Orioles right now (and deservedly so) is the performance of the 23-year-old Britton, a left-handed starter who was called up to the big leagues due to a back injury to Matusz. Britton has pitched to a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings, allowing seven hits and six walks and recording eight strikeouts.
According to FanGraphs, Britton induced 18 groundballs in his first two starts as opposed to eight fly balls and eight line drives – which Britton’s power sinker is no doubt a huge reason for. Parks, though, eases his expectations for Britton long-term.
“Britton certainly has a high-floor, but I don’t think he has a crazy high-ceiling,” wrote Parks in an e-mail to Orioles Nation. “Yes; I think he will find sustainable success in a major league rotation. He should become a solid-average #3 starter at the very least, and possibly a first-division #2 starter. He doesn’t miss enough bats to become a legit #1 type. That’s not his game, though.
“Britton excels at inducing weak contact and keeping hitters off-balance with his three pitch mix and ability to locate. 2011 should be about logging innings and learning to adjust against major league quality hitting. His changeup can be a little too firm at times, and I’d like to see him create more commandable movement to the pitch. If he can make those adjustments, he should find success during his rookie season.”
Joining Britton in the rotation at some point will be fellow left-hander Brian Matusz, who had a rough first four months of the season in 2010 but was vastly improved later on in the season. In his first 21 starts last year, Matusz had a 5.46 ERA in 113.2 innings; in his last 11 starts, he had a 2.18 ERA in 62.0 innings pitched.
Parks thinks the 24-year-old Matusz is more of a first-division No. 2 starter than a true No. 1 starter, but he loves the quality of Matusz’s four-pitch repertoire, which includes a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. Parks also likes the multitude of ways Matusz can use that repertoire to get hitters out.
“It’s true that Matusz lacks an overpowering fastball, but he makes up for it with command, good movement, and the ability to change speeds without losing his feel for the pitch,” wrote Parks. “He has a deep secondary arsenal, so he doesn’t have to pitch off of his [fastball] like most top of the rotation types. He can pitch backwards and remain effective, using his plus secondary offerings to make his average fastball appear more electric than it actually is.”
So who does Parks like better – Britton or Matusz?
“If given a choice, I’d take Matusz,” wrote Parks. “I love the four-pitch mix and the command potential.”
Chris Tillman, a six-foot-five right-hander, was once mentioned in the same breath as Matusz. Tillman made his major league debut in 2009 after putting up a 2.70 ERA in 96.2 innings for Triple-A Norfolk in the same year. Tillman struggled during his time in his big leagues in 2009, pitching to a 5.40 ERA in 65.0 innings. According to FanGraphs, though, Tillman’s average fastball velocity was 92.0 mph during his time in the big leagues in 2009, and Tillman seemed to flash some of what he could possibly be in the future for the Orioles.
In 2010, Tillman split time between Norfolk and Baltimore, posting a 5.87 ERA in 53.2 innings with the Orioles. Tillman’s average fastball velocity in the major leagues dipped to 90.5 mph, according to FanGraphs. And in his first three starts this year, Tillman’s fastball, a pitch that has never had a lot of movement, is sitting at about 86 to 88 mph. The 22-year-old Tillman got hit around by the New York Yankees on Wednesday evening to the tune of six runs (all earned) on nine hits, one homer, one walk and two strikeouts in 1.2 innings.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” Parks wrote of Tillman’s velocity dip. “Some grip it and rip it types who can throw in the mid 90s often lose some of their zip when they have to tighten the command against better competition. Of course, losing zip and movement is never a positive development, especially when the command doesn’t improve as a result.
“When arms look dead and the action deliberate, you have to think an injury is the cause, but it’s hard to say. Regardless, 88 mph straight fastballs can only play if the secondary stuff is above-average and/or the command is crisp. That doesn’t appear to be the case in this situation. You just have to hope he can chew innings and become a dependable back-of-the-rotation arm.”
One pitcher whose velocity is not a worry is the 25-year-old Jake Arrieta, who throws a mid-90’s heater. But Arrieta, who made his big league debut last summer, struggles with his command and to produce swings and misses from opposing hitters.
In 109.2 major league innings, Arrieta has walked 4.92 batters per nine innings. He has a 5.01 ERA and 4.92 batters per nine innings during the same span. Arrieta gave up just one run (earned) in six innings in this year’s home opener, but gave up eight runs (all earned) in 3.1 innings five days later.
“Command is the by-product of repeatable mechanics (slot, release point, etc), and good secondary stuff is usually a by-product of the same,” wrote Parks. “Not every pitcher can find the necessary comfort and muscle memory in order to establish above-average command. Some pitchers take years to find it.
“It’s hard to tell with Arrieta. He might end up a reliever if the command/[secondary pitches] don’t come together. Might allow him to max out his [fastball/slider] in bursts. He’s still very young, and Baltimore isn’t going to win the East this season, so you might as well give him the season to make adjustments in the rotation before moving him to the pen.”
“Bridwell is a Texan and has good stuff; Klein was interesting to me coming out of UCLA,” wrote Parks. “Not a lot of talent in the system.”
Parks’ thoughts on the Orioles’ young hitters will be coming next Thursday.