The Baltimore Orioles lose to the Detroit Tigers, 4-2, to open the series. (Jon Meoli, Baltimore Sun video)
Andrew Cashner's four starts now with the Orioles, both in their quality and the team's inability to do anything with them, have led to the free-agent right-hander being lumped in the same category so far this year as Dylan Bundy.
But where Bundy has been dominant in a lot of ways, Cashner has been dominant in the moments when it's been required of him. Whether the results he's gotten so far are because of a legitimate skill, or just smoke in the first month of a long season, will go a long way to seeing whether the Orioles fulfill manager Buck Showalter's Tuesday pregame prophecy that his club was going to end the season with a good rotation.
"It'd be great to think you're going to get this all season long," Showalter said. "I think Andrew is a guy that kind of came into his own last year and really figured out what he needs to do and who he is and what he's capable of. I'm hoping that we're going to reap the benefits of that."
What, exactly, he learned about himself is why Showalter believes this could be real.
"I don't know him that well, but you see a guy who evolved with a lot of statistical stuff with him last year," Showalter said. "He wasn't always trying to strike people out or blow it by people. He can go get it when he wants to throw that high fastball, but he economizes pitches pretty well. You see his pitch counts in all his starts last year. That tells you a guy that's in the strike zone and getting a lot of ground balls."
That's been the story for Cashner so far this season — able to go get a pitch when he needs it, and economical otherwise. His 3.00 ERA is backed by a 1.25 WHIP. He's allowed five home runs, but Tuesday's two-run home run to Victor Martinez was the first with a runner on base.
Far more frequent are the moments like his last batter of the fifth inning, Nicholas Castellanos. To that point, Cashner, who has shown a willingness to pitch around hitters who pose a major threat and get the next man out, had done so twice with Castellanos to that point. But with a runner on third base after a go-ahead triple by Jeimer Candelario and the heart of the Tigers' order about to see him for a third time, Showalter walked Miguel Cabrera intentionally to force Cashner to face Castellanos.
Cashner responded with a two-pitch at-bat that ended in a double play, pumped his fist, then came back out and worked around two singles with another double-play ball in the sixth.
When Cashner went seven shutout innings on four hits, three walks and a hit batter a week ago against Toronto, Showalter said he bowed up his back when the time came and made pitchers.
Cashner describes it as such: "I think just even going back to last season, I had a really good record with runners on second and not scoring, think there was a good stat, I don't know. But for me, it's really slowing the game down and really take my time and make my pitches. Don't let the hitter dictate whenever I make the pitch, and I think doing that, self-talk, is a big thing."
In 2017 with the Texas Rangers, Cashner held opponents to a .170 batting average with runners in scoring position, and a .209 average with runners on base, as compared to a .280 clip with the bases empty — far better than his lifetime rates. On his career, opposing batters hit .228 off him with a runner in scoring position and .251 with a runner on base.
This year, he still hasn't allowed a hit with a runner in scoring position, and has allowed just five hits with a runner on base.
Of course, the Orioles have been fooled by this before — last April, with Wade Miley. Miley used an unsustainable strand rate to pitch to a 2.32 ERA in April, but saw that regress more toward his career rates and ended the year with a 5.61 ERA.
To this point, Cashner's fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which calculates an ERA based on three factors a pitcher controls — walks, strikeouts, and home runs — is 5.56.
But Cashner says there's still plenty of room for improvement. He feels his sinker will improve with the weather, and didn't like his changeup Tuesday, but said his curveball is the best it has been.
Given the Orioles' starting pitching challenges in recent years, what they'll like most is that he was at 93 pitches through six innings, and that likely turns into a longer outing later in the season.
"You see his pitch counts in all his starts last year," Showalter said. "That tells you a guy that's in the strike zone and getting a lot of ground balls. It's fun to play behind because he works quickly and throws the ball over the plate."