Despite a Recent Hitting Slump, the Orioles Have Kept Pace With Solid Pitching and Defense

Chris Tillman has led the way for a Baltimore staff that has been leading the way in the second half.

The 2014 Orioles have the reputation of the Texas Rangers’ teams of the early 2000s - a team with an exciting, powerful offense and lackluster pitching.

The offense carried the Birds into first place at the All-Star break, but since then, the powerful lineup has been anything but powerful, having to scratch and claw for a few runs per game. Fortunately for them, the pitching staff, often overlooked in Baltimore, has stepped up and helped them to a 10-6 record against in the second half.

Last night’s gem by Chris Tillman may be the best example yet, as the righty worked seven scoreless innings, surrendering just four hits with no walks and six strikeouts. He was followed by trade deadline acquisition Andrew Miller, who struck out two in a perfect eighth while Zach Britton worked around a walk in the ninth to seal the deal for his eighth save in ten second half victories. The only offense for the Birds in the game came via a leadoff home run from Nick Markakis, which proved to be enough support for Tillman and Co.

Dominant Starters

The only Baltimore pitcher to start four games in the second half, Tillman has been nothing short of excellent in those games. The opening day starter and perceived ace entering the year, Tillman has put his up and down first half behind him and is now exceeding the expectations of even the most optimistic fans. In his 24.2 innings, Tillman has posted a minuscule 2.19 ERA, allowed 19 hits, just four walks, and recorded 21 strikeouts.

There's a bit of cause for concern as Tillman’s swinging strike rate is a meager 4.4 percent, but his line-drive rate is also low at 16.7 percent, and his ground-ball rate is a solid 45.8 percent, giving fans hope that his performance can be sustained.

Tillman isn’t the only Orioles’ pitcher leading the way in the second half, as Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris have been nearly as good. In three victorious starts spanning 20.1 innings, Chen has pitched to a 1.77 ERA, allowed 15 hits, just three walks, and struck out 15. Norris has a 2.41 ERA in three starts and is second on the team with 18 strikeouts since the break.

The other two Baltimore starters, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman, have also put up good numbers. Gonzalez has poor peripheral statistics, namely an identical 3.38 K/9 and 3.38 BB/9, but has still managed a 3.38 ERA in 18.2 innings. Contrarily, Gausman has a bloated 4.58 second half ERA despite a FIP that suggests it should be in the mid-3.00's. These performances are likely to reverse, with Gausman’s run prevention improving and Gonzalez’s regressing, but they should effectively cancel each other out.

Shutdown Bullpen

The dominance has not been limited to the rotation, as more than just Britton and Darren O'Day have been terrific in the second half. Britton actually has one of the higher second half ERA’s on the staff at 3.24, but his FIP, buoyed by his exceptional 11.88 K/9 and 1.08 BB/9, suggests that he should be preventing runs at a rate much lower than that. A fringe starter who was out of options entering the season, Britton has blossomed into an above average closer, putting to rest the concerns about the position following the offseason trade of former closer Jim Johnson.

Right handed submariner Darren O’Day has been excellent in a set up role all season, and that has not changed since the break. Like Britton, O’Day has very good strikeout and walk numbers but an even better ERA of 1.08. In this half, the pair has combined for 16.2 innings, allowed seven hits, two runs, two walks, and recorded 19 strikeouts. Those are elite numbers by any measure, and the performance of these two pitchers has been essential in allowing the Orioles to win close games.

Former closer Tommy Hunter has also been solid, but the biggest improvements to the pen have been the recent dominance of left-hander Brian Matusz and the addition of left-hander Andrew Miller at the trade deadline. The former has gone from average left-handed reliever to strikeout machine, racking up an absurd 11 strikeouts in just 6.1 innings. Only Tillman, Chen and Norris have more this half, and if his dominance continues, the Orioles could possess three of the top left handed relief pitchers in baseball down the stretch.

Miller, who was acquired from Boston in exchange for pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, has thrived this season. Since moving to the pen full time in 2012, the former elite prospect has seen his strikeout rate skyrocket and his home run rate remain low. The difference this season for the lanky left-hander has been improved control, as he has lowered his walk rate from almost five to a respectable 2.93 this season. Miller will be the primary left handed setup man for manager Buck Showalter, which relegates Matusz to a LOOGY or lower leverage role.

Looking Ahead

It may be easy to write off the recent success of the Orioles pitching staff as an aberration in a 16 game sample, but the success itself was no fluke. The club’s 2.78 ERA in the second half is not outrageous considering their 3.10 FIP and good team defense, which is fourth in the league with 33 defensive runs saved. The staff BABIP is also fairly low, but again, the Orioles have a chance to sustain this due to the defensive abilities of the team.

Those abilities will certainly be put to the test as Baltimore attempts to maintain it’s performance despite a league-leading 26.2 percent line drive rate against and a low collective 41.9 percent ground ball rate. If this continues, expect the BABIP to rise despite the quality defense.

It's unrealistic to expect this staff to pitch to a 2.78 ERA or a 3.10 FIP for the duration of the season, but the performance is nevertheless encouraging. In a rare slump from the Orioles’ offense, which has a .272 wOBA in the second half, the pitching staff has been the essential part of their ability to post a good record anyway. In a tough 16-game stretch against the Athletics, Angels, and Mariners, the Birds posted a solid 10-6 record despite the offense being among the worst in the game. If the offense can come back to life and the pitching can maintain at least some of its recent success, the Orioles could be the overwhelming favorite to win the AL East.