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The Baltimore Orioles Fab Five
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
September 1, 2009
Not since the 1971 Baltimore Orioles pitching staff produced four starters - Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Jim Palmer - with 20 or more wins has Baltimore seen anything like what is happening in their 2009 rotation. The Orioles, out of the AL East race essentially since announcing that Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson would have roles on this year’s team, are kind of going for broke at the end of the 2009 season and have been starting five rookie pitchers in the hopes of showcase their youngsters and get them some valuable experience that they can build on in 2010. After years of Peter Angelos screwing up this team (whose new team name could practically be "the Once-Prouds"), it looks as though the Orioles may have a roster even he can't bungle.
Amazingly, the five pitchers – Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, David Hernandez, Christopher Tillman, and Brian Matusz – are all in their first ever major league seasons, making them all true rookies. Indeed, just last season, four of these guys were pitching at Double-A Bowie. As I noted in my Spring Preview:
“Right now, the Orioles have four pitchers from last year’s Bowie Baysox team that I would take over Hendrickson – Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, David Hernandez, and Christopher Tillman. Four guys. Its shocking that the Orioles looked at all the pitchers available in professional baseball and couldn’t do better than Mark Hendrickson as their number three guy.”
I knew that I would take these four guys over Hendrickson (and certainly Adam Eaton), but I never imagined it would actually come to that. But low and behold, last year's Bowie Baysox rotation is now this year's Baltimore Orioles rotation.
Brad Bergesen, of course, is now the most tenured of this crew. Called upon early in the year, he now has about 120 innings under his belt heading into September, and a 3.43 ERA (136 ERA+) to go with it. He needs to get his K:BB ratio up to where it was in the minor leagues (2.03 with the O’s; 3.53 in the minors), but that will come with time. He has done a pretty remarkable job otherwise, and if he continues to improve will be a 200 inning guy in 2010.
Jason Berken has not had the same success as Bergesen, and had the Orioles a fighting chance in the division this would have been a season spent in Triple-A. His 6.33 ERA does not misrepresent the season he’s had – he has at times looked lost, overmatched, and just plain not-ready. There are no real bright spots to his season, and in 2010 he’ll be looking for a do-over.
In the minors this season, David Hernandez struck out over 12 batters per nine innings and had a K:BB ratio over 4.30. This is a guy with 618 career strikeouts in 534.2 minor league innings, but he has also struggled with walks during his career. In the majors thus far, the strikeouts have not been as plentiful as the walks, but unlike Berken, Hernandez has shown some real promise from time to time. During one stretch in July he went six or more innings in three straight road starts and allowed a combined four earned runs against Seattle, New York, and Boston.
In 2008 at Bowie, Christopher Tillman struck out over a batter per inning but had some trouble with walks. That trouble disappeared in 2009, as Tillman struck out 99 batters in 96.2 innings pitched, but walked only 26 for a K:BB ratio of 3.81. He also gave up less than a hit per inning, and allowed only five homeruns. His 2.70 ERA was the best of any Norfolk pitcher with over 30 innings this season.
Called up to the big club in July, Tillman failed to go five innings against Kansas City, giving up seven hits and three earned while needing 93 pitches to get through four and two thirds innings. All three runs he allowed were on homeruns. In his second outing, he took 100 pitches to get through six innings, allowing five earned runs on seven hits. At that point, his ERA was 6.75.
Since then, Tillman has made five starts and has been better in each ensuring game. He went six and two-thirds in consecutive starts, getting his first major league win over the Angels on August 14th. He was then the hard-luck loser in consecutive starts in which the Orioles scored only one run in each game, but he allowed only five earned runs in 11.1 innings over that stretch. In his most recent start, he went five innings and allowed only one earned run, getting his ERA down to 4.24.
Brian Matusz is the most exciting, but potentially most hazardous, of the big five pitchers. You’ll note that I didn’t mention him in my spring preview – that is because he was the Orioles first round pick in the 2008 draft out of University of San Diego, and hadn’t pitched a professional inning yet. But Matusz was simply dominant in the minors this season – he worked from the rookie league to advanced A ball to Double-A, compiling an 11-2 record with a 1.91 ERA and 121 strikeouts to go with 32 walks in 113.0 innings. He allowed only 87 hits along the way, and only seven homeruns.
With the big club, Matusz has had his usage limited and his pitch counts watched, but he has shown real promise. He has continued to strike out over a batter per inning, and his K:BB ratio is almost 3.0. After allowing only one run in five innings in his debut, he gave up 13 earned runs in 12.2 innings over his next three starts before settling down for three runs in five innings against Minnesota and then a beauty of a game against Cleveland in which he allowed four hits and one run in seven innings while striking out eight and walking one. Of course, it was Cleveland, but impressive nonetheless.
To have five young pitchers dominate the minors leagues and all make their major league debuts in the same summer is the type of thing a General Manager dreams of. When you throw in the fact that the Orioles currently have Catcher of the Future Matt Wieters behind the plate catching these guys, the exciting only grows. Naturally, this being baseball, and these being the Orioles, one or two of these guys is bound to fail. But for now, in September of 2009, the Orioles and their fans have a whole lot to be excited about as they watch their Fab Five pitchers and dream of the future.
Truth be told, that 1971 rotation was a product of team defense as much as anything - the infield of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, and Boog Powell was one of history's best. Nevertheless, the up-the-middle combination of Cesar Izturis and Brian Roberts is a dandy one in its own right, and Adam Jones is one of the best centerfielders in the league.
Besides, one would have to think that the Orioles have built up good karma over the years, and certainly this year by enduring Mark Hendrickson and Adam Eaton, to finally have things go right for them.
Let's just hope that Peter Angelos can't screw this one up.
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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