You look at the Orioles and they don’t have a starting pitcher in the top 25 in the American League–in earned run average. They have one—Chris Tillman at 14th—in the top 30 in innings pitched, and Tillman is the only one in the top 30 in quality starts. The starting rotation as a whole is 12th in the league in quality starts.
And the Baltimore Orioles have a six game league in the American League East with the third best record in the entire league, the best run differential not in the AL West. And they’ve done it making 76 pitching transactions since the opening of the season. That’s as of this morning’s sunrise. And get how it’s been managed: for all those transactions, only two teams, the Nationals and Mariners, have used fewer pitchers this season, while only one team, the Angels, have used fewer starters, a position that might change because of injuries on the Angels staff.
Every afternoon, Buck Showalter, pitching coach Dave Wallace, his assistant Dom Chiti, the travelling secretary and one or two members from Dan Duquette’s front office meet to map out emergencies and longterm possibilities. They get someone from their triple-A team in Norfolk and their double-A team in Bowie on a conference call, and they run down potential physical and over usage problems. They go over the last flight they can get from where the minor league teams are playing so they can make the Orioles game—wherever—by game time, should something happen pregame. Then they go through the next day’s flights. In case.
“Tillman is the only starter who’s ever thrown 200 innings in a season,” says Showalter. “So we had to protect innings earlier in the year and try to make sure that from mid-August to the end of the season they’re healthy and firing. There have been a couple of times when we’ve asked Miguel Gonzalez to go back to triple-A, for less work, a little rest, and told him he’d be back here pitching in eight days, and because he cares, he bought into it. We moved Bud Norris to Norfolk over the All-star Break.”
Kevin Gausman was up, then down, recalled May 14, started, optioned the 15th, recalled June 7 and optioned June 20, recalled June 27 and optioned the next day…now, he’s a fixture for the seven week run to September 28. T.J. McFarland has enough Baltimore-Norfolk frequent flier miles to have a Southwest plane named after him.
“You have to protect your bullpen,” says Showalter, and, right now, the Orioles bullpen is in that dominant level of the Royals and Athletics. When Dan Duquette traded 21-year old lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez for Andrew Miller at the deadline, it gave Showalter and Wallace a huge, dominating piece to go with Zach Britton at the end, Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter. Monday night, with a big lead on the Yankees, Showalter was able to limit Norris to five innings, then ask Miller, O’Day and Hunter for nine outs. In case you were wondering, Miller’s season line is 47 1/3 innings, 27 hits, 16 walks, 76 strikeouts.
For the Orioles’ sake, they have to hope the knee injury Manny Machado suffered Monday is not serious. This is a really good team that with J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, et al have more regular players who play every pitch than any team in the league, who with Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis can have enough power to lead the league in homers.
They are not alone. “Teams that map out bullpen usage and starters’ innings do what we do,” says Showalter. “I know Boston does.” When the Red Sox played in Anaheim Saturday night, in case of an emergency, they made a reservation on the first flight from Charlotte—where Pawtucket was playing—to Los Angeles just in case something happened and they needed a fresh arm. As it turned out, something did happen. They played 19 innings. Reliever Heath Hembree threw four innings. The game ended at 3:37 am EDT. Less than 20 minutes later, they called Pawtucket lefty Edwin Escobar, awakening him, and told him he was on the first flight out. He made it on time for an afternoon game in Anaheim.
“It’s all part of coping with the long season,” says Showalter, a season that right now seems headed to October baseball in that wonderful place called Camden Yards.