As the Orioles attempt to improve for 2016, it’s pretty obvious they need better starting pitching.
Last season, the rotation combined for a 4.53 ERA, the second-worst mark in the American League. In 162 games, that group combined to throw just 915 2/3 innings, third fewest in the AL. That means, on average, an Orioles starter lasted 5 2/3 innings per start. That’s certainly not good enough.
To worsen matters, it looks like the Orioles will be losing lefty Wei-Yin Chen, a free agent who led the rotation in ERA (3.34) and innings pitched (191 1/3) in 2015.
Overall, the Orioles’ staff ERA was 4.05, ninth in the AL, thanks to a bullpen (3.21 ERA) that had the fifth-lowest mark in the majors and third best in the AL. Only four AL teams threw more innings than the Orioles bullpen.
So, yes, the Orioles must strengthen their rotation if they want to make another playoff push. We all know that dominant starting pitching wins championships -- Orioles manager Buck Showalter continually says a team’s momentum is only as strong as the next day’s starting pitcher.
But here’s a little wrinkle thrown into that time-honored tapestry.
The World Champion Kansas City Royals just proved otherwise: Starting pitching can be mediocre if everything else is outstanding.
The Royals, we’ve seen, are an incredibly balanced, well-constructed club that can hit, hit for power, run, play defense and pitch.
But that pitching excellence is more about their all-world bullpen than their middling rotation. Consider that the Royals' starters’ ERA in the regular season was 4.34, 22nd in the majors and 12th of 15 AL teams, two spots ahead of the Orioles. The Royals starters combined for 912 2/3 innings, dead last in the AL.
And things actually worsened for the Kansas City rotation in the playoffs, a time that is primarily supposed to be about starting pitching. The Royals rotation posted a 4.97 ERA in 83 1/3 postseason innings.
That’s OK in theory if you have a bullpen that had a 2.51 ERA in the playoffs and a 2.72 mark in the regular season -- second best in the majors and tops in the AL. That bullpen threw more innings than any other in the AL, which makes its tremendous ERA even more impressive.
Although the Orioles bullpen is good, it’s not that kind of dominant.
So what’s the lesson here?
The Orioles shouldn’t go into 2016 without improving the rotation. That’s certainly not the point. They need to get one or two quality starters to add to the fold. But I also think the belief that the Orioles need to focus on starting pitching first, and the rest of the flawed roster is secondary, is a bit foolhardy.
Winning in today’s baseball world is often about balance. And if you are deep in most areas, that might be enough to overcome some deficiencies -- even if that deficiency is in the rotation.
The Royals proved that this year.
Note: Manny Machado missed out on winning a Fielding Bible Award at third base, finishing third behind winner Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies) and second-place finisher Adrian Beltre (Texas Rangers). Machado won the award in 2013.