CHICAGO — No one around baseball will look at this Orioles-White Sox series, featuring the two worst teams in the majors, for an example of much of anything. But tucked inside the opener of this four-game set was a situation that has caused managers fits for years and will only continue to do so as they balance the egos of the 25 players they oversee and the reams of data now available at the game.
Orioles starter Andrew Cashner had two outs in the fifth inning and had allowed just four batters to reach base — two hits and two walks — when the White Sox lineup turned over a third time Monday night. They got two hits, a walk and a run before making the final out at home plate in the fifth, and then had three hits and a second run in the sixth before Cashner was pulled from the game.
He's made 10 starts now with the Orioles, and a pattern of things turning south during the third trip through the order is being established. Manager Buck Showalter knows that as much as anyone, but his handling of Cashner on Monday and going forward reflects the two realities he must balance on a regular basis.
"If you walked up to him after that fifth inning and go, ‘You're done?’ ” Showalter said. "Sometimes, you know there's a strong potential there's going to be an issue, but you don't have the situation to make the change. Do you bring in [Pedro] Araujo or Tanner Scott there? I mean, it's the fifth inning.
"If you keep from facing the order three times [that early], walks do that to you. Errors do that to you, not turning a double play does that to you, all those things add up that force you into some situations that you really know, statistically, might not be in your favor. I wish it was that simple, just to plug it in every time and pitch six innings, two times around the order. The game doesn't cooperate like that — very seldom."
For whatever the reason, be it fatigue, batter adjustments, or just luck that defines a baseball game, pitchers have statistically been shown to struggle after batters see them twice. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the league-average on-base-plus-slugging percentage goes from .694 to .719 to .804 for the first, second and third time through the order this year, respectively.
The Orioles' team data is somewhat skewed by some nightmare first innings from Mike Wright, Chris Tillman, and Dylan Bundy, but for pitchers who get to a second time through, it goes from .748 to 1.071 from the second to third time.
For Cashner, it's even more dramatic. He's incredibly steady overall, as evidenced by his going at least five innings eight times and allowing four earned runs or fewer in nine starts. But his opposing OPS goes from .793 to .683 to 1.219 on trips one, two and three, and 12 of the 31 runs he's allowed have been on the third trip through.
After his start last week against the Philadelphia Phillies, he attributed their success against him a third time through to the rain that picked up during that sixth inning and said he generally hasn't noticed hitters reacting differently in a third at-bat.
And there were certainly no indications such a thing was coming again Monday. That's the challenge both managers and pitchers face when trying to navigate these situations.
"You can't totally ignore the stats, but at the same time, we can all see when somebody is cruising," Cashner's rotation mate Alex Cobb said. "Honestly, Cash was cruising yesterday."
Cobb came from the Tampa Bay Rays as a free agent this offseason, leaving behind an organization that has strict 18-batter limits on some pitchers as they look for statistical advantages over opponents. That has taken more extreme forms this year with bullpen games in lieu of starters, and Cobb said veteran pitchers and those who pitched well would be exempt from such restrictions.
He has struggled some once he's turned the lineup over a third time this year, too, but in an organization less beholden to the raw data and more willing to mix in the day's context, he sees plenty that goes into making those decisions.
"There's a lot of things that get taken into account — the fact that we have what, 20-something games in a row without an off day?" Cobb said. "You need length from guys. ... Theres' a lot of different things that go into it. That being said, you see the numbers say the third time through the order, this is what's happening throughout the game. You take that into consideration, but I don't think it's all-or-nothing type of stat.
"I think it's foolish to just cut and dry, you're not going to see the third time through the order. Every guy on the team, it's just such a team booster when a guy goes seven, eight, nine innings. That bullpen gets an extra day, and just sets everybody up. It builds momentum for the starting pitchers, everybody's competitive and wants to out-do the other guy. There's things that happen inside the clubhouse that are invaluable, you just don't do it just because it says on paper to do it."
On Monday, the Orioles didn't ultimately pay. Mychal Givens inherited two runners in scoring position with no outs and left them there, Cashner left with two runs in over five-plus innings, and the Orioles won.
That doesn't mean they didn't see what was happening, or haven't thought about how to combat it. But when weighing the data against the day's and the team's circumstances, they made their choice.
"Every manager here, that's the challenge," Showalter said. "The human aspect. It's very easy to sit up in an ivory tower and say, 'This should be done, that should be done.' What's the cause and effect of it?
"Now, I've used three good bullpen pieces two days in a row, and there's a game we can win and we don't have anybody to bring in? It's a long-haul and a short-haul too. If you had seven optionable [bullpen] pieces, seven guys in Norfolk that were on the roster, there's a lot of different variables that come into play there. I think some of these things that are being done, I applaud and I love watching looking at them. But there's some cause and effect. ... I love watching. It's fascinating. Believe me — all those things, we've thought about."