It was the rare butterfly effect moment where the magnitude of the initial action was clear to see right away: A short start from Grayson Rodriguez Thursday in Kansas City impacted the Orioles’ bullpen into the weekend in Atlanta, and because of that, they came home having hung with one of the league’s top teams while settling for only one win.
If this Orioles team has a weakness at this point, it’s the inconsistency of its starting rotation and the strain put on the bullpen because of that. It has largely been masked over because the bullpen has been so good, but asking for four-plus innings a night from that group over six months of baseball isn’t going to end well.
What makes this series loss particularly painful, though, is that when they get a certain level of starting pitching this season, the Orioles have backed it up and won. Dean Kremer’s quality start Friday was the 10th straight time the Orioles had won when a starter went at least five innings and allowed three or fewer runs, and 11th in 12 such starts this season.
Then they lost Saturday and Sunday when Kyle Bradish and Tyler Wells both met that threshold. It’s a low one by some measures, but based on how the Orioles have fared overall, the worry for these losses is that what might be considered a good outing for their starters might not be enough in the upper echelons of the league they now hope to compete in.
Entering Sunday, 715 major league starters had completed five innings in 1,006 starts, while 373 starters had completed six innings. That’s 71.1% of starters completing five innings, and 37.1% making it through six. Tyler Wells’ five innings on Sunday was the Orioles’ 23rd such start of five of more innings in 34 games for a 67.7% rate of pitching that deep, while they remain at 29.4% of their starters making it six innings (10 of 34).
It could be better. But where it counts — the actual record — hasn’t suffered for it so far.
Those extra few outs make a difference over the course of six months, but considering how few true frontline, seven-innings-every-five days starters there are in the game these days, it’s more about quality. That’s where the Orioles are wanting so far. Filter out those five-inning starts for those in which the starter has allowed three runs or fewer and there are just 14 — only the lowly A’s had fewer through Sunday.
That’s part of what was so encouraging about how the starters fared this week, and by proxy so frustrating that the Orioles lost two of those three games. They faced three pitchers who entered having absolutely dominant seasons, got to one (Max Fried) and chased two (Spencer Strider and Bryce Elder) before the sixth. They lost Saturday because Danny Coloumbe gave up his first hard-hit ball of the season at the worst possible time, and Sunday because extra-innings baseball is random.
One could argue that it’s actually encouraging to be seeing these kinds of starts against a team like the Braves, which ignores the fact that the Orioles’ starters fared poorly against a bad Kansas City team the series before.
That they won two of three against the Royals and lost two of three against the Braves more or less speaks to how this season will have to go. These aren’t the days when the Orioles’ pitchers were the bar-none worst in the league, but there are days where the starters are going to need some help for the Orioles to win. The rest of the team has proven pretty good at that.
They’ve won every kind of game imaginable, except blowouts, as manager Brandon Hyde is quick to point out. Up until this weekend, they really only lost when their starters pitched badly, and even then they still won some of those. To just happened to drop these two games with the national television spotlight on the club.
The Orioles have a difficult schedule over the next few weeks and this team isn’t going to be able to waste winning starts and expect to get where they want to go.
Part of that is because those starts don’t happen as frequently as one would expect (at least yet; it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think some of the young hurlers will figure it out as the year goes on). Part of it comes down to their margin for error, considering how many teams there are with playoff-caliber records right now.
But part of it, honestly, is nothing more than this: Good teams win those games. For an offense that can score the way the Orioles have proven they can and with the relief corps they’ve assembled, they don’t need their starters to carry shutouts into the seventh. They probably just need them to pitch like they did this weekend in Atlanta.
And if the Orioles want to return to the playoffs, they’d better win when those starts are delivered.