Funny things — not funny ha-ha, funny strange — happen when an Atlanta Braves pitching coach leaves here. For one thing, he winds up in Baltimore. For another, he finds his new assignment more immediately challenging than the one he just left.
It happened that way with Leo Mazzone, who in my view was a Hall of Fame pitching coach — and how many Hall of Fame coaches, as opposed to managers, of any kind can you name? — with the Braves. With the Orioles, his pitchers ranked 29th and 29th in ERA. After those two seasons, Rockin’ Leo was fired.
The man who replaced Mazzone here was Roger McDowell. He did largely excellent work with the Braves. The past two seasons were less good: The team ranked 27th and 24th in ERA. The Braves chose not to keep McDowell, whom they believed was the wrong mentor for young pitchers. He wound up guess where.
Early returns under Chuck Hernandez, McDowell’s successor, haven’t been encouraging. The Braves are 22nd in overall ERA; their starters are 26th. (The Braves believe Hernandez will be better with young pitchers; trouble is, they paired him with Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, both on the high side of 40.)
As for the Orioles: They’ve been even worse. They’re 26th in overall ERA; their starters are 29th.
Baltimore has been getting away with having substandard rotations for a while. Of the 10 teams that made the 2016 postseason, eight ranked first through eighth in starters’ ERA, which tells us all we need to know about the worth of starting pitching. The exceptions were Texas, which ranked 16th, and the Orioles, who ranked 24th. Baltimore hasn’t had a rotation that finished in the top 10 of MLB teams in ERA this century.
That said, the Orioles often outperform their rotation due to good hitting, a good bullpen and Buck Showalter, considered the best in-game manager going. (Although this same Buck Showalter didn’t use the great reliever Zach Britton in a wild-card game his team lost in 11 innings last fall, a non-move that will adhere forever.)
Baltimore is 31-32, which means it’s not out of anything, but we note it was once 22-10, which means a precipitous slide is ongoing. With a run differential of minus-48 — second-worst among American League clubs — it’s hard to see a postseason berth on the horizon. FanGraphs calculates the Orioles’ chances of making the playoffs at 8.0 percent.
Speaking of which: Dave Cameron of FanGraphs offers a missive entitled, “The Orioles rotation is terrible.” McDowell isn’t mentioned, but he is the pitching coach, and his stock in trade is being good with middling veterans, which is all Baltimore has. (Only Dylan Bundy is younger than 26; Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley are 30-plus.)
Cameron notes that the O’s, far from rebuilding, “are trying to win before Manny Machado hits free agency. They have a $165 million payroll, most of it going to older players on the downside of their career. But they have the rotation of a rebuilder or an also-ran, and bullpen magic doesn’t help you much when you’re down 10-0 in the third inning.”
His conclusion: “To keep this team in contention, the Orioles are going to need their starting pitchers to figure things out in a hurry. And then they’re probably going to need to trade for another arm or three in July.”
Hmm. Is there any team we know that’s apt to be trading starting pitchers on expiring contracts? Pretty sure the Braves could be persuaded to part with Jaime Garcia. Pretty sure they’d take almost anything — a crate of crab cakes, even — for Colon and/or Dickey.