The Baltimore sports scene is blessed with a bunch of talented bloggers who bring their unique perspective to the conversation. Each week, I hope to chat with one of them in a regular feature called Blogger on Blogger. This week, I exchanged emails with Mark Brown -- aka Eat More Esskay -- who blogs about the O's for Camden Chat.
MV: What are your impressions of Kevin Gausman in his first three starts, and does his fine start Sunday against the Detroit Tigers give you confidence that he will stick around with the big league club?
MB: Gausman's first couple of starts goes to show that even the best talent has things to learn going from Double-A to the major league level. The third start is a hopeful sign that the Orioles may have finally found a pitching prospect who can learn those things and apply them. Probably the best thing about Gausman against the Tigers was his performance against Miguel Cabrera, who is among the best right-handed hitters against right-handed pitching, a feared power hitter who's angling for another Triple Crown. Cabrera had three at-bats against Gausman, and they went as follows: 6-4-3 double play, 6-4-3 double play, struck out looking. One of the best hitters in the game faced Gausman three times and made five outs. He was successful for most of the game in keeping the ball low and getting ground balls, which is also encouraging.
It's early enough to not sweat the small things and be excited about the potential. Gausman was hitting 99 on the radar gun in his Toronto start and actually looked like he knew where the pitch was going. I still remember seeing him strike out Luke Scott with a change-up in spring training. That pitch may have been the most beautiful change-up a human being can throw. In interviews, he sounds like a man who is well-spoken but also humble. He knows he has much to learn and knows he can learn it. Recent Orioles history is littered with young pitchers who went through growing pains and never actually grew. It's hard to put stock in one start when his next could be one that needs work, but I have more confidence than I would if the Tigers had knocked him around. I would rather see him pitching than any of the failed fifth-starters before him, and it seems so would Dan Duquette. So, I think he will stick around.
MV: Whose 2013 performance has been most surprising: Chris Davis, Manny Machado or Nate McLouth?
MB: This is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. Davis leads the major leagues in home runs and slugging percentage. Machado leads the major leagues in doubles and in runs saved as a fielder, while still not even being able to purchase an alcoholic beverage. McLouth was the lone free-agent acquisition for Duquette in the offseason, with myself being among those who made fun of bringing him back. He's responded to that by performing even better than he did in the second half of last season.
That said, for most surprising to me, I have to go with Davis. Though he hit 33 home runs last season, I figured that was about all there was to him: a big, strong guy who strikes out a lot and hits mistakes for home runs. This season, he's drawn a walk nearly twice as often and is striking out nearly 25 percent less often. Those are signs that he has possibly improved his plate discipline, meaning that his first two months of the season could be sustained at this level. It is a stunning improvement. He was the player of the month in the AL in April while batting .348/.442/.728. In May, he batted .364/.442/.768. He was the best player in the league in April, and he was even better in May.
You could watch Machado and McLouth last year and imagine this year from the two of them. Nothing about Davis' career screamed that he would suddenly be in the MVP conversation, but here he is.
MV: McLouth is among the league leaders in steals with 19. Adam Jones has nine on nine attempts. Overall, the Orioles have 45 steals, most in the American League as of Monday afternoon. Are you pleased to see that the Orioles have been so active on the base paths this season after finishing last in the majors in steals in 2012?
MB: If you had asked me before the season whether I would be pleased with the Orioles being active on the base paths, I would have said no. They were last in steals last season because they had a roster full of players who should not be trying to steal bases. That's still largely the case, but this year the difference is that the players who shouldn't be running mostly aren't running. Fast players are running when they can pick their spots. Everyone else isn't. Gone are the bone-headed blown hit-and-runs of years past.
What is pleasing is not just the number of stolen bases, but the success rate. They are making it 84.9 percent of the time, which is well above the break-even point. Last year, they only succeeded on two-thirds of steal attempts, meaning they would have been better off staying on first. When you couple what appears to be an improvement in selection of opportunities for stolen bases with an improvement in the on-base percentage of faster players like McLouth and Machado, that means the fast players are on base and taking the extra base. These are all good signs for the Orioles offense going forward.
MV: Matt Wieters, now in his fifth year, is batting just .237 with a .425 slugging percentage that is currently his lowest since 2010. Do you think he has more or less maxed out his potential as a power hitter?
MB: I will never understand Wieters. When he connects sometimes, he makes it look so easy. The walk-off grand slam from earlier in the year comes to mind. He is a big, strong guy standing in there, and he will hit baseballs a long way. Then sometimes he will hit an endless series of weak ground balls. His split as a left-handed batter this year is particularly discouraging: .219/.275/.401. That's about three-fourths of his at-bats. Every year of his career, we've been waiting for him to take that step forward at the plate, and he never has. So far this year, he's been worse. I think it's time to accept that this is who he is, and that's still a valuable player, if not the player we once dreamed of seeing.
MV: Major League Baseball has released the first ballot count of All-Star fan voting, and several Orioles are among the top vote-getters at their positions. A month out from the All-Star Game, how many Orioles do you feel are deserving of selection?
MB: If you look at how players have performed so far this year, the Orioles have two no-doubt All-Stars: Davis and Machado. They should both be starters. Machado is so much better than all of the shortstops that he should just start there instead of at third base, where Cabrera is the leading vote-getter. Others who are worth being considered as reserves include J.J. Hardy (on the strength of his defense), Wieters (on the strength of his throwing out base runners), and Jones (on the strength of his power bat). Bullpen guys like Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter are worth a little consideration as well, though All-Star pitching rosters tend to just be starters with lots of wins and closers with lots of saves.
I think the Orioles will end up with a quartet of All-Stars: Davis and Jones as starters, Machado and Hardy as reserves. We are three years removed from Ty Wigginton being the lone Orioles All-Star. It is exciting to see the best players on the Orioles being recognized as among the best by baseball fans as a whole. The All-Star Game voting is a giant popularity contest, and for the first time in a long time, our home-town team has some popularity. I haven't figured out how to process it yet, but it is a lot of fun, and I hope for another fun summer in Birdland.