There are plenty of disadvantages to having my internal clock so jacked up. I’m no longer sure when to eat things, I don’t really wake up at night until about 11 and I don’t get tired until about 3, and I still can’t sleep past 9. But one of the positives is that after sitting through 4 hours of baseball hell (you try and come up with a better term for an 11 inning game involving the Astros), I’m feeling more motivated than I was 12 hours ago to bang out this article.
Which is good, because now is the time that this season gets really fun. It gets really fun because after buckling down, and forcing Tampa Bay to blink first in Sunday’s extra inning nail-biter, the O’s have so far made the most of a chance to really make some noise in the A.L. wild card picture. Just look at the schedules.
BAL: 3 vs SEA, 4 vs KC (combined opponents record: 96-112)
OAK: 3 vs LAA, 3 at CWS (combined opponents record: 117-99)
LAA: 3 at OAK, 3 vs SEA (combined opponents record: 109-109)
DET: 4 vs NYY, 3 at TEX (combined opponents record: 126-88)
So while Oakland and Los Angeles pound on each other for a minute, and Detroit keeps pushing the O’s closer to a division lead that seemed unattainable as recently as two weeks ago, Baltimore get a juicy rack of KC ribs and some fresh crab legs (aka the George Brett special). A 6-1 home stand is not out of reach, and if the bottom of the rotation pitches well (Steve Johnson?!) 7-0 is a legitimate possibility with no Felix on tap for the Mariners.
Now, onto three more thoughts about the O’s as they dive into August . . .
Miguel Gonzalez is a keeper
If at the beginning of the year I bet you that Miguel Gonzalez would be the 2nd best Orioles starter going into August, you would probably tell me that he’s a reliever, his name’s Michael, and you’d bet me anything ranging from a few beers to your student loans balance to say that I’d be wrong. Well, guess what, if I had said that I would’ve been right, next round’s on you.
Somewhere, buried beneath the overdrafted (Matusz), the overhyped (Arrieta), and the overpushed (I know “overpushed” isn’t a word, but if it were, it would fit Britton to both “t”s) was Miguel Gonzalez. A 28-year old career minor leaguer who only got a shot because two of the names above couldn’t make the most of theirs, the Orioles stumbled upon Gonzalez after dominating the minors (a 1.53 ERA in Norfolk) and has been a revelation at the big league level.
The numbers can say it just fine. After avenging his only slip up on Sunday (his first start vs Tampa was 2.2 IP, 7 ER at home), Gonzalez now has a 3.80 ERA and has emerged as a legitimate #3 starter in the Baltimore rotation (once Hammel gets back).I watched Gonzalez’s start last week vs. the Yankees with my roommate (a completely biased Yankees fan), and we both agreed on two things:
1) Buck pushed him too far, neglecting to read the writing on the wall (his fastball dropped from 93 to 89 to start the 7th inning).
2) He has major league stuff. The fastball is accurate and quick enough (91-93) to blow by hitters, and his changeup has enough of a drop off to burn anyone sitting on the heater. Those last two home runs aside, Michael Gonzalez made the New York Yankees look like amateurs for 6 innings. There are plenty of GREAT pitchers who can’t say they’ve done that.
In the past, I’ve been known to make mountains of out of successful starts in the Bronx (Jake Arrieta, I’ve officially quit you), so I waited until Sunday to determine whether to back Gonzalez, and he didn’t disappoint. He stared down an A.L. Cy Young candidate, and matched David Price pitch for pitch to ensure that the O’s got a game they sorely needed.
When Gonzalez was originally brought up from AAA, there was an obvious red flag with his age. There aren’t many 28-year old call-ups who have sticking power in the Show. But the age has become less of an issue with the more he’s pitched. His motion is fluid and natural, his fastball has life, and his changeup and curveball are located well enough with enough movement to make good hitters look bad.
Right now, it’s safe to say that there are plenty of pitchers with better velocity and better breaking pitches. Jake Arrieta would be one of them. But Gonzalez has the deceptively simple talent to know where his pitches are going, and that’s what makes him a better option than all but one pitcher on the staff at this moment.
Nick Markakis is a stroke of common sense at the top of the lineup
Our editor Zach and I disagree more often than we agree on things about the Orioles. I wanted Zack Greinke, he thought Greinke was a head case. He thought Matt Garza would have been a great pickup, I thought Garza would have been akin to an inner tube in heavy seas (enough to stay afloat a little longer, but ultimately not enough to survive). So, I’m happy to hear that Zach and I do agree on one thing: Markakis in the leadoff spot is a long overdue move that has worked out well to the surprise of no one.
Nick is a consistent .280+ hitter with limited power who hasn’t struck out 100 times in a season since 2008. Despite missing significant time with an injury this season, Markakis is 3rd on the team in walks. He hits almost every box on the checklist when it comes to a superb #1 hitter with the exception of one that’s not even on my list at all.
Markakis in the leadoff spot is really a measure of how far this team has come. Ask yourself this question: could you build a World Series contending team with Nick Markakis as your 3 hitter? What about as your leadoff hitter? The answer to one of those is yes.
Stolen bases are a nice luxury in the leadoff spot, but it’s just that: a luxury. Wade Boggs and Johnny Damon were both great leadoff hitters at points in their career for the Red Sox and they never stole more than 20 bases in those years.
So to wrap this up, championship teams are able to set their lineups in stone. Every spot has someone catered to the needs of it. The Orioles had one lineup spot set in stone this season (Jones in the 3 hole), and now it appears that Markakis slowly getting chiseled into the top of the list.
Tommy Hunter is going to be the 5th starter, and that’s fine
If you already listened to the podcast, you know my opinion on this. When Jason Hammel resumes his role at the top of the rotation in the next two weeks, there will be one spot left in a rotation of Hammel, Chen, Gonzalez, and Tillman. The option here is either Tommy Hunter or Zach Britton.
Britton brings youth and excitement. His fastball goes faster, and his sinker can be downright deadly when he’s right. But he’s not right, and he hasn’t been for a long time now. Britton has more walks than strikeouts this season (14/11), and his BB/9 rate is an absurd 6.9. In his 5 starts this season, Britton has been the least pitch efficient pitcher the Orioles have employed, averaging exactly 21 pitches per inning. Even in his best game of the season he only managed 6 innings.
Excitement is a desirable feature in a top of the rotation starter, but when you get down to the number 5 spot, you want quality more than anything else: dependability. The #5 starter isn’t the expensive entertainment system you buy for your house, it’s the fire extinguisher. No surprises, just go out every 5th day, eat some innings and don’t get knocked out of the game early. Tommy Hunter is the most pitch efficient Oriole starter this year (15.2 PPI). Since the beginning of June he hasn’t had a start where he went less than 5 innings. He hasn’t walked more than one batter in a game since the end of April.
Most days he’s going to give up 6-8 hits, and more than likely one or two will leave the yard. But he works quickly, has been somewhere between warm and hot recently (3.81 ERA in his last 5 appearances), and he hasn’t forced the bullpen to pick up a hefty tab because he couldn’t put the ball over the plate. If I’m an O’s fan, I sign up for Hunter’s brand of reliable mediocrity over Britton’s wild ride.
And 3 more things for good measure…
- If I had to bet on one team fading into the background down the stretch, it would definitely be Oakland. The Orioles and A’s have been two similar tales from the same storybook this year, but with the latter playing 29 of their last 52 games on the road, Oakland’s story is much less likely to have a happy ending. The backbone of the A’s this season has been their surprisingly effective young staff (Bartolo Colon’s grease sweat notwithstanding). But away from Oakland Coliseum, that staff not only loses it’s luster, it’s borderline terrible. Tommy Milone (5.33 ERA), Jarrod Parker (4.84 ERA), and Brandon McCarthy (3.94 ERA) are all borderline abysmal on the road, and with the innings piling up on their untested arms already an issue, I just can’t see them bucking that trend in the heat of a pennant race.
- I already said last week that I think the favorite in the A.L. is now the Angels, but at this point I’m not sure what the totem pole looks like below them. The two teams that have dominated from the starting line have shown major cracks in the past few weeks. The Yankees weakness has been their rotation. I was wrong on Hiroki Kuroda; since shutting out Oakland through 8 innings on May 27, he’s the proud owner of a 2.39 ERA, and has been something New York hasn’t seen in years; an under the radar ace. When comparing Sabathia to any other pitcher, he’s been very good. But his ERA is the highest it’s been since 2004, and his hits/9 is above 8.5 for the second consecutive year. Aside from that, the Yankees have two absolute dumpster fires (Garcia and Nova), and a decent three starter in Hughes with one gigantic red flag (he’s allowed the most home runs in baseball this year). All of which adds up to Yankees fans having to watch 2 ½ men try to get it done in October. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there’s nothing enjoyable about watching “Two and a Half Men.”
- Lastly, over in the National League, my pick for the World Series is the Washington Nationals, and it will stay that way even if Stephen Strasburg gets shut down. The Nats are one of a very small number of teams that could withstand their ace going down because of their insane pitching depth. All 5 Nationals starters rank in the top 20 in the N.L. in ERA, with former first round pick Ross Detwiler (2.99) sitting right behind Stephen Strasburg (2.79). But what really puts Washington over the top is their lineup. With debatably their best offensive player (SS Ian Desmond) due back in 2-3 weeks, the Nats trot out one of the best 1-8 lineups in the entire National League. Adam Laroche has been a dark horse MVP candidate, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have been scorching the ball for almost two months now, and Desmond was the best player on the time prior to his torn oblique. Combined with a bullpen that is one of the best in all of baseball, Washington will have playoff baseball and in my estimation, plenty of it.