xml:space="preserve">

The rightful expectation is that there's little, at least statistically, worth reading into when the baseball season is less than three weeks old. Good starts and bad starts alike will likely even out.

If they do not, it will be noteworthy as to exactly whom — or, more fittingly, what type of pitcher — has pitched well for the Orioles so far this season.

Advertisement

In starters David Hess and John Means, plus relievers Jimmy Yacabonis, Paul Fry and Evan Phillips, the Orioles are seeing growth exactly where a team of their modest expectations and experience should: in a subset of pitchers who have enough major league experience to know the level, and are at the stage in their careers in which fresh coaching voices can help them thrive.

"That's exciting," manager Brandon Hyde said. "It's exciting that we've got guys early in their career right now that are having success in a tough division against good opponents, giving them the ball in big spots. They've pitched really, really well. We're excited about all those guys. Phillips again [Sunday] was outstanding. I like all those guys coming out of the pen and Johnny with the starting. The future looks bright."

With a series split in Boston this weekend at Fenway Park, the Orioles took another step toward showing they're different from last year's bunch by battling on the road in a way the 115-loss Orioles often didn't.

Means' 1.98 ERA over 13 2/3 innings is the best among active pitchers on the team, with Hess' 3.32 ERA next best among active starters. In the bullpen, while Tanner Scott has two scoreless outings, there are young pitchers who have fared better in longer looks. Phillips, a recent roster addition, has allowed two runs with eight strikeouts against two walks in six innings. Fry has pitched seven times and allowed three runs in 8 1/3 innings, mostly in high-leverage spots, and Yacabonis has a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings.

Fry and Phillips have really been earning Hyde's trust of late, with both used while the game was still close in Monday’s 8-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.

"They've been good, and I like that they both have some swing-and-miss stuff," Hyde said. "I love their aggressiveness. They attack early and went to chase late, and got some big outs for us."

Since spring training began, Hyde has implored pitchers to attack hitters with their best stuff. Pitching coach Doug Brocail and bullpen coach John Wasdin have instilled in those pitchers what their best stuff actually is. The recipe has been one that this particular group has taken to well in the early going.

"I think we're all taking the adjustments that we've learned last year, from spring training, and so far this season, and really growing off of it," Hess said. "That's, again, understanding what we do well.

Orioles right-hander Dan Straily carried a no-hit bid into the fifth inning and the offense made sure it didn't waste a strong pitching performance in an 8-1 win on Patriots' Day over the Boston Red Sox on Monday at Fenway Park.

"Yac, the movement he gets on his ball is incredible, so [it's about] how to utilize that and pitch effectively. John has really had his changeup come along the last couple of weeks. It's been just money for him. Myself, just learning how to utilize my fastball well and pair that with my off-speed pitches. Really, just to see the adjustments and strides forward that everybody's making — and not just limited to those few guys."

There are plenty of other ways the Orioles pitchers can be judged this year. They're averaging fewer than five innings per start in non-bullpen games, and their 4.88 ERA is in the bottom third of baseball. Their bullpen ERA is 7.12, worst in the American League and better only than the Washington Nationals in all of baseball. They've allowed a league-high 40 home runs; there are 14 games left before May 1, and the record for home runs before that date is 50. Another major league record is in their grasp.

But for that sweet spot of pitchers who have some major league experience but are still relatively moldable to be taking a step forward is the type of development the Orioles are looking for in a season like this. Hyde often refers to this season as a "development deal," so the next step is sustaining it once the league figures out what the young Orioles pitchers want to do.

Until then, it can't be considered anything but a good sign.

"We have a really young group of guys here, so to see young guys coming up and really stepping up and being contributing factors in the team, I think that's really exciting not only for us as teammates, for us as a team as a whole, and then also for the fan base and staff," Hess said. "I think that's something that there should be a lot of excitement around."

Orioles left-hander John Means' eye-opening start to the season continued Sunday with five strong innings against the Boston Red Sox, illustrating just how much has changed for him since he made his major league debut last season.

What's to come?

Among the many items of interest when the Orioles go to Tampa Bay to face the high-flying Rays on Tuesday will be their opening-game starter, Dylan Bundy. He's had swing-and-miss stuff when he's not piping balls down the middle so far this season, with his 13.6 percent swinging strike rate the best of his career but the six home runs he's allowed the most in the American League.

The Orioles' rotation is full at the moment and has Alex Cobb coming back this weekend, possibly as early as Friday if his simulated game goes well Tuesday. Means hasn't done anything to make himself the odd-man out, and Dan Straily mowed down the Red Sox through five innings Monday and is just getting into a groove.

Advertisement

It's too early to pull the plug on Bundy in the rotation, not with the variety of off-speed stuff he has and the value of a 26-year-old, cost-controlled starting pitcher compared with a reliever. But another rough start might make it hard for the Orioles to look past the here-and-now and consider leaving someone who has pitched better in the rotation upon Cobb's return.

What's good?

As usual, Trey Mancini was good. Even without a home run at Fenway Park over the four-game wraparound series, he still managed to go 6-for-16 (.375) with a double in each game to send him to Florida with a team-high .343 average.

Even if there's some batted-ball luck involved so far, Mancini is taking more of what he's being offered at the plate. Entering Monday, his walk rate was up from 2018, and his strikeout rate was down, thanks to a drop in his chase rate from 33.4 percent to 27.7 percent, according to FanGraphs. His groundball rate dropped from 54.6 percent to 44.7 percent, and he's using the whole field.

Another month or so of this will make it quite clear that the struggles of last year's first half were the anomaly, as opposed to the steady-swinging Mancini the Orioles enjoyed as a rookie.

What wasn't?

All those home runs. And there were a lot of them. After allowing 14 in their three-game opening home series against the New York Yankees, the Oakland Athletics piled on with 14 more over the ensuing four games, which made the three allowed over three games at Fenway Park from Friday to Sunday seem quaint.

Allowing that many home runs hurts teams in a variety of ways, and there's certainly nothing enjoyable about watching your favorite team fall behind thanks to a bunch of early home runs. But what frustrated Hyde most seemed to be the late-game home runs when the Orioles were pressing opposing bullpens and would see slim deficits grow, as happened Sunday when Josh Lucas allowed a three-run home run.

Those games happened with and without home runs, but keeping the ball in the ballpark would be the simplest way to success for an Orioles team that is now 7-5 when they allow two or fewer and 5-2 when they allow one or fewer. Easier said than done, but it's right there.

Advertisement

On the farm

Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles' top pick in the 2018 draft, won South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week honors for his second straight 10-strikeout performance from Friday night.

He's emblematic of a program the Orioles under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias (with fellow Houston Astros imports in assistant general manager Sig Mejdal and minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt) hope will produce the same results as they did with Houston, where every minor league affiliate led their respective league in strikeouts.

So far, that's taken hold most at the lowest level, on the Low-A Delmarva staff that features Rodriguez. The Shorebirds entered Monday with a league-high 12.1 strikeouts per nine inning for their staff, while High-A Frederick was at 9.6 strikeouts per nine, still better than one per inning.

It tails off some at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, but there are a lot more established pitchers there who may be more set in their ways than the young A-ball arms. Elias referred to some of what the Astros did as a "secret sauce" this offseason, one that they hoped to replicate with the Orioles as best as they could.

Rodriguez's award is just one small indicator that that could be working, even if he had stud potential when the Dan Duquette-led front office took him 11th overall last season.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement