Orioles' first-half struggles extend beyond underperforming starting rotation

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Starting pitching has always been a concern for the Orioles, but more often than not, they’ve made up for their deficiencies in three areas: relief pitching, home runs and strong defense.

As they enter the second half of the season at 42-46 and on the edge of the American League playoff race, part of the cause for disappointment is that none of those areas have been as strong as they usually are.

The Orioles’ run of four straight years with the major league home run leader and five straight years in the majors’ top three in homers might end this year. Injuries and age have cracked the strong parts of their defense, and a rotating cast of pitchers has made the bullpen unstable.

Add it all together, and the Orioles’ problems this season extend beyond just having to cover for an underperforming starting rotation.

Home runs

This doesn't require much examination. The team that led the majors with 253 home runs last season has 123 at the break, 11th most in the majors. In a season in which baseball is expected to shatter the overall home run record, the Orioles are going the other direction, on pace for 226.

That would be good enough to be among the league leaders in most seasons, but their own power growth hasn’t kept pace with the majors’. Third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop lead the club with 18 apiece, with Schoop on pace for a career high in home runs and Machado on pace to reach his. Center fielder Adam Jones hit two Sunday to give him 15. But first baseman Chris Davis had 14 when he suffered an oblique injury, and Trey Mancini and Mark Trumbo sit at that number, too.

At last year’s All-Star break, Trumbo had 28, Davis had 22 and Machado had 19, helping the team to 137 by midseason. It’s a difference of just 14 — fewer than one per week — and yet home runs have increased so much around the majors that the Orioles have fallen behind.

The team’s offensive struggles go deeper than just a lack of home runs, but a record-setting June at the plate last year propelled the Orioles toward a wild-card berth. A disappointing third month of the season might cost them a playoff appearance this year.

Bullpen

This is a weird one, considering the injuries that have hampered the bullpen this year and how much shuffling there’s been. The Orioles bullpen has a 4.11 ERA, good for eighth in the American League and 15th overall.

But consider this: The Orioles open the second half with probably their strongest bullpen all season (Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier), and those seven have a combined ERA of 2.62 this season. That’s 57 earned runs in 195 2/3 combined innings.

Only it hasn’t been smooth for any of them. Bleier has been part of the crew for only two months and has a 1.48 ERA. Britton missed over two months with a forearm strain. Brach and Givens pitched well early, but were overworked and needed a reset in May to get back on track. O’Day has dealt with shoulder problems, and Hart spent time in the minors to find his form.

That means the rest of the rotating group of long relievers and short-timers have allowed 92 runs in 130 1/3 innings for a 6.35 ERA. As long as the Orioles keep their core together and healthy in the second half — which will mostly be dependent on how deep their starting pitching can carry them in a game — performance should drastically improve. But a call to the bullpen hasn’t been reassuring for the Orioles lately.

Defense

While some spots, notably the corner outfielders, have slipped in recent years, the Orioles have built a foundation of strong defense that has helped them overcome plenty. They’d place their infield of Machado, shortstop J.J. Hardy, Schoop and Davis against anyone's  defensively.

But before Hardy suffered a fractured wrist last month, his defensive metrics dropped to nearly league average, a somewhat precipitous fall for one of the game’s best defenders. Machado remains strong, though Schoop’s range has diminished a bit and Davis’ defense has been missed while he’s been on the disabled list.

Elsewhere, the team’s defense isn’t without concerns. Even though he positioned himself farther further back in center field to prevent extra-base hits, center fielder Adam Jones has a 0 defensive runs saved rating this season, albeit up from minus-10 last year. The range of the corner outfield group that’s included Trumbo, Mancini, Seth Smith and Joey Rickard has rated poorly, too.

Overall, the team has a minus-11 DRS, according to FanGraphs. Manager Buck Showalter recently tried to play All-Star second baseman Schoop at shortstop to shore up the defense and bring another bat into the lineup at second base in reserve Johnny Giavotella.

The area the Orioles’ depth has been challenged the most is defensively. The balance between the best offensive lineup and the best defensive one has yet to be found, and more often than not, the club has chosen a big bat over the better glove.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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