Friday, May 21, 2021

Orioles Victory Card Number 17: The Struggles of a Rookie

 Baltimore Orioles Victory #17: 10-6 over the New York Yankees

2021 Topps Heritage Ryan Mountcastle/ Bobby Dalbec Rookie Stars

The O's are currently riding a three-game losing streak thanks to a beating put on their pitching staff by the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, conjuring the ghosts of the '27 Yankees who got into shape just down the street from Tropicana Field, mashed out 32 runs in the three-game series against a Baltimore pitching staff that has careened directly into beleaguered status.

Overall they haven't won back-to-back games in almost three weeks and have just four wins in their last sixteen match-ups. I guess we should have been expecting this at some point. The pitching staff was patched together (to be kind) and the reliance on the bullpen early in the season has taken a toll on the bullpen. The chances of things improving are pretty remote, but hopefully they stabilize a bit over the next couple of weeks. 

The offense hasn't been able to cover for the mistakes of the pitchers, but it hasn't been a total train wreck. They are mired in the lower third of the league and the .231 batting average isn't pretty (neither is the .297 on-base percentage) but they aren't the worst in the league. They haven't been no-hit yet either, and with the way those have been handed out so far this year, it's kind of a surprise.

Part of the struggles can be tied to the heart of the order. While Trey Mancini has righted his season (currently slashing .274/.341/.518 with 39 RBI) his fellow "M" brother, Ryan Mountcasetle is still scuffling along. There were high hopes for the second-year rookie after his scorching debut last season.

So far, it's been a struggle for the youngster. He's riding a .214/.239/.325 slash line with 3 HRs, 16 RBI, and 3 stolen bases. The kid can run, which is nice. Mountcastle has played roughly the same amount of games this year than he had last year and the difference in numbers is quite drastic. The number that stands out to me is his 30.7% K-rate.  It's the highest number he's posted in his professional career by a pretty wide margin (except for a brief 10-game stint at Aberdeen) and well above the 21.4% he posted last year.

Watching his at-bats this season it looks like he's struggling with pitch recognition a bit. There are times when it seems he is guessing at a pitch and letting it rip. When he's right, he's making solid contact, but more often than not he's wrong and swinging through the pitch. It seems like the numbers are baring that out a bit as well. He's swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone (40.7% vs. 38.1%) and taking more called strikes (12.9% vs. 9.2%). 

The good news is that when he does make contact he is hitting the ball harder than he did last year as his line-drive percentage, average exit velocity, and barreled-up percentage are all up this year. He just has to find a way to make more contact. 

There has been some talk of possibly sending him down to the minors to get his confidence back a little, especially with the outfield getting a little crowded with Anthony Santander's return scheduled for this weekend. It might help him get in the right head space if he goes down and mashes some AAA pitching, but it doesn't fix the overall issue of recognizing and reacting to major league pitching.

Playing and seeing more pitches is the only way Mountcastle is going to get better at that. And that means playing him. This is a lost season. Having him getting at bats isn't going to keep this team from making a playoff run. It might be a good idea to keep him out of the outfield for a little as his defensive numbers haven't been great. Still, he can DH and mix in at first base a little with Mancini while he works on his hitting.

Perhaps we got a little too excited with his debut last year, but his early struggles shouldn't dampen our enthusiasm for his future. Repetition will help him recognize how pitchers are working him during his plate appearances. As that improves, so will his numbers and he'll get back to driving the ball all around the yard. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Orioles Victory Card Number 16: An early look at the Orioles MVP race

 Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 16: 4-1 over the Boston Red Sox

2019 Bowman Platinum Cedric Mullins

I can't help but feel the O's have been waiting for me to post before they win their next game. Their last victory was literally a week ago and I haven't updated the site since then. That's on me. Sorry about that O's fans. It hasn't helped that they've run into a couple of pretty good teams from New York. The Mets swept them in a short two-game series and now the Yankees are on the brink of a three-game weekend sweep of the Birds.

The O's have come close. In the first game against the Mets they led 2-1 heading into the ninth after another strong start by John Means. Unfortunately, the normally reliave Cesar Valdez couldn't lock it down and they lost on a walk-off fielder's choice by Patrick Mazeika who accomplished their rare feat of garnering two game-winning RBI before before picking up his first major league hit.

Just the other night, they once again led late in the game, this time the seventh inning at home. The victim was Travis Lakins who left a pitch out over the plate and pinch hitter Gio Urshela deposited a three-run homer in the stands to turn a 4-2 lead for the Orioles into a 5-4 defeat. Bummer.

They are still struggling to hit consistently, although Trey Mancini is rounding into 2019 shape. The starting pitching outside of Means is wildly unreliable and the bullpen is starting to show some wear after heavy usage through the first 39 games of the season. Still, there have been some bright spots in the line-up, and despite it being less than a third of the way through the season, I figured it's time to highlight some of the early contenders for MVP for the ballclub.

1. John Means: 4-0, 1.21 ERA, 53 K, 10 BB, 52 IP, 351 ERA+, 2.91 FIP, .712 WHIP

He has been the definition of an ace pitcher. What's an ace? It's the pitcher that goes out and gives the team a chance to win no matter what the circumstances are or who the opponent is. That's exactly what Means has done this year. He's made 8 starts this year and has surrendered more than two runs only once, three in five innings against the Mariners on April 13th, while giving up one or zero runs in six of his starts. 

He has gone at least six innings in six of his starts, including his last five in a row. Four times he's pitched seven innings or more and he's been fairly efficient with his pitches, topping out over 100 only twice, with one of those being the 113-pitch no-hitter against the Mariners.

Coach Brandon Hyde skipped him in the rotation this week in order to manage his innings a bit, why burn him out early or risk an injury this year? With a little more offensive support, the O's have scored three or fewer runs in five of his starts, he could be flirting with the idea of a 20-win season. That would be something.

The weird thing is, that his underlying numbers aren't that far off from his career averages, which indicates he could sustain this a bit longer. His strikeout rate (28%) is a little higher than his career average (21.6%) but as far as batted ball rate his line drives/flyballs/groundballs rates are all in line with what he'd done over parts of four seasons. He most likely won't maintain a .152 batting average against, but his career mark of .218 is still below major league average. 

2. Cedric Mullins: .316/.379/.520 6 HR, 12 RBI, 1.9 WAR

The most surprising part of of Mullins' bounceback season is the .352/.407/.537 he is slashing against left-handed pitching. Formerly a switch-hitter, Mullins abandoned hitting from the right due to a lack of success at the major league level (.147/.250/.189). It was a switch he had contemplated for some time due to the effort it took to work on his right-handed swings. After finally committing to it in the off-season, the payoff has been tremendous.

With a short compact swing, he's able to stay on the ball and drive it against southpaws and righties alike. Other teams have to wary about shifting on him too much due to his bunting ability and it's opened up some holes for him.  He's been making solid contact all season (with career highs in average exit velocity (87.6 MPH) and line drive percentage (40.7%). Mullins has also already set career highs in hits (48), doubles (11), home runs (6) and RBI (12). 

The fact that he is hitting left-handers so well allows Coach Hyde to keep him and his defense in centerfield every day and shift Austin Hayes over to left field. That puts two pretty good defensive outfielders in the game at the same time which should have a positive effect on the pitching staff. Mullins defense approaches the elite level, he is currently second in range factor as a center fielder (Oakland's Ramon Laureano is first) and first in defensive putouts.

3. Adam Plutko: 1-0, 1.27 ERA, 21.1 IP, 14 K, 9 BB, 339 ERA+, 2.68 FIP, 15 games

For a pick-up that came at the tailend of Spring Training, Plutko has been a savior for the Orioles bullpen. With non-Means starters routinely struggling to get through the fifth inning the O's have needed someone to step in and work the middle innings effectively. Plutko has been that reliever. His 15 appearances is third on the team, trailing only lefties Tanner Scott and Paul Fry, but his 21.1 innings pitched leads all relievers by a comfortable margin. 

He's allowed just one earned run over his last eleven appearances and just three runs total over the seasons. His inherited runners scored rate is a little lofty at 47%, but he's been put in some tight spots. In seven appearances he's come into the game with two or more runners on base. Three times he's wiggled out of those jams without allowing a run at all. 

A lot of his success can be pointed to the fact that he is getting opponents to hit the ball on the ground. Throughout his career roughly 30% of the balls put into play off of his pitches were grounders. This season his ground ball rate is 42.4%. Needless to say that plays well in Camden Yards. Less fly balls mean less home runs and his HR rate is 1.2% this year compared to 5.0% over his career. 

Could the O's move him into the starting rotation due to his success? Possibly. He does have a starter's pedigree where he worked out of the rotation for most of his time in Cleveland. Doing so, however, would remove a vital piece of the bullpen from Coach Hyde. It's more likely Plutko will get dealt to a contender sometime this summer if he keeps up his success. 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Orioles Victory Card Number 15: It's perfect in my eyes

 Baltimore Orioles Victory #15: 6-0 over the Seattle Mariners

2021 Topps Heritage John Means

Are we shocked that John Means is the featured card for this victory? C'mon, the first Orioles no-hitter since 1991, and the first solo pitcher no-hitter for the O's since my dad was a young man? Means was absolutely filthy against the Mariners, pumping in strikes (79 strikes out of 113 pitches including 26 first-pitch strikes, working fast, and keeping the hitters off balance with his power change-up. 

It was an impressive no-hitter as Means struck out 12 hitters, and he was a wild pitch away from a perfect game. Of course, that meant a brief but intense online debate on if it should still be considered a perfect game since there was no error charged or walk issued. Personally, I really don't care. I'd rather it be a no-hitter with a historical quirk. In this case, it's the only non-perfect game no-hitter that didn't feature a walk, error, or hit by pitch. That's way cooler than a random perfect game of which their have been 23 of. 

I picked up the game around the fifth inning and in my forty-plus years walking this earth I have never seen a better game pitched at a professional level (in high school, my friend Mike pitched a perfect game that is still the epitome of domination in my book). Mike Mussina and his multiple 1-hitters have been pushed aside.

Means has established himself as the ace of this staff in picking up his fourth win of the season. Every time he takes the mound he gives the Orioles a chance to win no matter who they are playing. To me, that's the definition of an ace. Now, is he pitching his way out of the organization? Possibly. Hopefully not, at 28 he's still young enough to be part of the Orioles rebuild and it's always nice to have one name that the fans can rely on seeing on the roster every year.

Still, if a contending team like Los Angeles or Boston dangles a ton of prospects in exchange for the lefty, it will be hard for Mike Elias to break away from his rebuild mentality and turn the deal down. That, however, is a topic for another day. For now, lets just celebrate how great the outing was.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Orioles Victory Cards 13 and 14: Just playing catch-up at this point

 Baltimore Orioles Victory #13: 8-4 over the Oakland Athletics

Baltimore Orioles Victory #14: 5-3 over the Seattle Mariners

1999 Upper Deck Ovation Mike Mussina

2020 Topps Opening Day John Means

Posting this while watching the Wednesday matinee game between the Orioles and the Mariners. Mr. Means, the staff ace for the Orioles, has a little something special going on. How he's doing it is a testament to a former Baltimore Orioles coach (who should have a statue right next to Earl Weaver) that just passed away this week.

Ray Miller died at age 76 and is a member of the Orioles Hall of Fame. While he managed them in 1998 and 1999, he was best known as their pitching coach during the last days of their dynasty that ran from 1966 to 1983. He presided over the pitchers from 1979 to 1985 and oversaw five 20 game winners (Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone, Scott McGregor, and Mike Boddicker). Flanagan (1979) and Stone (1980) would win Cy Young awards while Boddicker is the last Oriole to win 20 games. Miller came back to coach the pitchers in 1997 (where Mussina went 15-8, went to the All Star game and finished 6th in Cy Young voting) and then again in 2004 and 2005. 

He had a brief tenure as manager of the Twins in 1985 and 1986 before heading over to Pittsburgh where he was Jim Leyland's pitching coach where he oversaw a third Cy Young winner, Doug Drabek, in 1990. 

Miller was known for a rather simple philosophy: "Work fast, throw strikes, and change speeds." It's a philosophy that holds up today, even if it's not practiced quite so much with the modern game's reliance on raw velocity and spin rates. 

He'd be really happy to see what Means is doing in Seattle on Wednesday afternoon.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Orioles Victory Cards 10, 11, 12: Some guys who were O's that were famous somewhere else

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 10: 4-2 over the New York Yankees

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 11: 4-3 over the New York Yankees

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 12: 3-2 over the Oakland A's 

1997 Bowman Jayson Werth

Wow, I managed to get a little behind didn't I? For the first time in the vaunted history of this series I missed a few wins. Oh, well, life happens and we move on. After intense discussions with the editor (me) and the writing staff (also me) we've decided to just make one post covering all three wins as opposed to flooding folks' time lines with multiple posts. Also, it's the easiest solution. That's what we like. Easy solutions. 

We do have a bit of a theme in today's trio of cards. They feature three players who wore the Orioles uniform (at least in Spring Training) but had the bulk of their career and fame elsewhere in the league. 

First up: Jayson Werth. Yup, before he transformed into a doppelganger of the Rated R superstar, Werth was 1st round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1997. He made it up to AA ball in Bowie with the Orioles before they traded him to Toronto for the less-than-memorable lefty John Bale. You would be forgiven for forgetting that deal since it happened at the same time Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers for $252 million. It wasn't even the biggest news for the Orioles that day. In the following day's Baltimore Sun there was more ink dedicated to the O's selecting Jay Gibbons in the Rule V draft than the Werth/Dale trade, which garnered a few paragraphs in a larger story about the team's larger offseason plans.

It would be a few more years till Werth made his major league debut with the Blue Jays in 2002. He scuffled around up North for awhile before heading to the Dodgers for a few season. It wasn't until signed as a free agent in Philly before the 2007 season that his career took off.

Werth ended up playing for 15 seasons slashing .267/.360/.455 with 229 HRs, 700 RBI, and an even 300 doubles. Bale, well he pitched in 14 games out of the bullpen for the Orioles in 2001, went 1-0 with a 3.04 ERA and a 1.313 WHIP. The O's traded him in April of 2002 for Little Sarge, Gary Matthews, Jr. 

2008 Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects Gold Jake Arrieta

Ahh Jake Arrieta. Good times. One of the all time bad deals in hindsight trades in franchise history. Unlike Werth, Arrieta did make it to the majors with Baltimore, even starting an Opening Day game for them. He was supposed to be one of the anchors of the pitching staff as the O's moved into a new era of competitive play in the AL East. 

He never seemed to harness his potential (or the strike zone) in Charm City and was sent to the Chicago Cubs in a 2013 deadline deal with Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman. The O's were trying to make the playoffs for the second season in a row and felt that Feldman, who had pitched for manager Buck Showalter in Texas, would bring "more stable starting pitching". 

Feldman went 5-6 down the stretch as the O's weren't able to keep pace with the Yankees and Rays, ending the season in third place. His tenure in Baltimore didn't last past the season as he signed with Houston in the winter. Clevenger, who grew up in Baltimore and attended Mount St. Joseph's high school, kicked around the organization as a back-up catcher for two more seasons before being dealt to Seattle in 2015 for C.J. Riefenhauser and Mark Trumbo.

I think we all know what Arrieta turned into in Chicago - a Cy Young winner and World Series Champion. He threw two no-hitters in a Cubs uniform and seemed to have no-hit stuff every time he took to the mound for a couple of seasons (I remember going to see back-to-back starts in Wrigley where he took no-hitters past the fifth inning). He became a strike throwing machine, the complete opposite of his time in Baltimore.

Baltimore (4 seasons): 1.472 WHIP, 9.3 hits per 9 innings, 4.0 walks per 9 innings, 4.72 ERA
Chicago (6 seasons): 1.044 WHIP, 6.6 hits per 9 innings, 2.8 walks per 9 innings, 3.22 ERA

Pretty sure there was a clear winner in that deal.

2000 Topps Power Players Albert Belle

Unlike the previous two players, Albert Belle came to the Orioles in the prime of his career. Starting in 1991 he became one of the most feared right-handed sluggers in the American League. For seven years in a row he contributed at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. The previous season with the White Sox he slashed .328/.399/.655 with 49 home runs and 152 RBI. He led he league in games played (163), slugging (.655), OPS (1.055) and sacrifice flies (15). 

It was a risk the Orioles felt they had to take. After consecutive appearances in the ALCS in 1996 and 1997, they had taken a step back in 1998, finishing in fourth place with a 79-83 record. They lost Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, and Eric Davis from their line-up. They needed a little power, and Belle was the best bat available. He signed a five-year, $65 million deal on December 1st, 1998, the largest contract in franchise history at the time. 

Unfortunately, he didn't last all five years in an Orioles uniform. It started well as he slashed .297/.400/.541 with 37 HRs and 117 RBI. Not quite as lofty as the previous year, but still pretty impressive. The O's struggled to win games and finished with a 78-84 record, well out of the race for the AL East title. 

Part of the justification for signing Belle to a large deal was his durability. He was the active leader in consecutive games played when he signed with the O's and he ran that streak to a respectable 392 games before Orioles manager Ray Miller benched him in June of 1999. The flip side of Belle's intensity was his boorishness with other players, coaches, and fans. Miller had enough after the two were arguing in a game against Florida. 

While the argument garnered attention, his production was slipping a bit as well due to a hip injury. Still, it wasn't a horrible season as he ended up at .281/.342/.474 with 23 HRs and 103 RBI in just 141 games. That same injury would force him to retire the following spring at just the age of 34. The media in Baltimore didn't seem to broken up about his departure, 


08 Mar 2001, Thu The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)

That was Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg on the day it was announced that Belle wouldn't be able to play baseball any longer. Well, they didn't lose 100 games that season, only 98. Chris Richard and Jay Gibbons led the team with 15 home runs while Jeff Conine had the team lead with 97 RBI. Belle was a complicated person who battled his own demons, but publishing a column like that on the same day it was announced that a hall-of-fame career was cut short seems a little, to use Eisenberg's own words, "mean-spirited". 
Belle hasn't had much to do with baseball since his forced retirement with his name only popping up occasionally in regards to some legal issues.
There ya go. Three players who wore the Orioles uniform. I was caught up with the wins when I started this column and see now that I am once again behind. The 2021 O's are hot, baby!