The last time the Detroit Tigers faced the Baltimore Orioles, they were riding high off a series sweep in Baltimore. Miguel Cabrera's three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning had cost closer Tommy Hunter his job, and the Tigers were on their way to a 27-12 start and their fifth World Series championship.
At least, that's how it should have happened.
Instead, the Tigers scuffled through the next couple months but were still able to win their fourth consecutive AL Central title. The issues that plagued them throughout the regular season were exposed for all to see in the ALDS, as the Orioles swept the Tigers in three rather miserable games. Echoes of a Baltimore crowd chanting The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" (a Detroit-based band, I might add) still haunt the dreams of many Tigers fans, and Delmon Young's bases-clearing double was a Tigers lowlight on par with David Ortiz's game-tying grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.
Luckily, we've had nine months to heal. The Tigers and Orioles face off this weekend for the first time since that swift and brutal kick to the you-know-whats, and neither team has performed up to expectations. In order to get us primed for this weekend's series, we spoke with Mark Brown of Camden Chat, SB Nation's excellent Orioles community. You can read my responses to Mark's questions over at their site.
1. The Orioles got off to a slow start this season, falling as many as 5 1/2 games out of first place in early June. They roared back to take a brief lead in the AL East at the end of the month, but currently sit at 44-44, an identical record to the Tigers. What is your assessment of the team's overall performance so far this year?
Before the season started, I predicted that this bunch would come up with 89 wins, a number that might well be enough to win the division. So for them to be sitting at .500 at the break is a disappointing outcome up until now. As much as at times it feels like the biggest problem with this team is a lack of offense, the fact is that the 2015 O's have been generating almost the same number of runs per game (4.29 to 4.35) as they did last year.
What they have done is go into these month long slumps - May was one and it seems July is going to be another - where it's almost like they can't buy a hit with RISP. They scored only about 3.27 runs/game in 29 May games and it's 3.45/game so far in 11 July games. When they're hitting home runs and not doing much else, they're probably losing.
Of course, that's just what it feels like when watching every game night in and night out. Stepping back and looking at the big picture, the cratering of a lot of the starting pitching situation is probably the real big reason that the team is where they are.
2. When the Home Run Derby lineup was announced, I was upset that Manny Machado was one of the contestants. Many Tigers fans thought that J.D. Martinez was a more deserving participant, but I was shocked to discover that Machado already has 19 home runs this year. Is this the Manny Machado that Orioles fans were expecting, or is this power surge a pleasant surprise?
I don't think that many O's fans were expecting Machado to have 19 home runs at this point in the season, but he always had this kind of potential and the fact that he's starting to realize it is a great sign for the Orioles. Did you ever have a young player who hit a lot of doubles and people would say, "Soon, those doubles will turn into home runs"? That's not a rhetorical question, I'm actually curious. We would hear that about Nick Markakis, except the doubles never turned into homers and eventually he stopped hitting doubles too.
With Machado the doubles have actually turned into home runs. He is a real star at 23, disproving the postulate laid forth last millennium by Messrs. Hoppus, Barker, and DeLonge that nobody likes you when you're 23. There were some worries about how Machado would show up this season after having had to get two knee surgeries in two years. The answer is he's shown up as one of the best players in the league, leaving Orioles fans now anxiously hoping that the front office will find a way to get him signed with the Orioles for life, or at least for the next decade.
Now, if only the Orioles had a real leadoff hitter so Machado could hit those 19 home runs in the 2 or 3 spot in the order, after someone was on base ahead of him...
3. At first glance, it looks like starting pitching has been an issue for the O's this year. Wei-Yin Chen and Ubaldo Jimenez (yes, Ubaldo Jimenez) have sub-3.00 ERAs, but everyone else is at 4.24 or above. The O's have even given something called a Mike Wright six starts this season. Is this their biggest issue heading into the second half? What will they do (if anything) to address the rotation at the trade deadline?
Starting pitching was a surprising strength for the Orioles last season, with basically everyone except Jimenez doing well, so going forward with that group again this year wasn't the worst of plans. The problem is that Chris Tillman and Bud Norris, two stalwarts from last year, have completely stunk for no outwardly apparent reason, and the Orioles are kind of handcuffed as far as what they can do with those guys.
Norris last year flattened out his platoon split problem against LHB for the first time in his career and that seemed to be the result of an improved changeup. That improvement did not carry over this year. They're lighting him on fire. The Orioles kept throwing him out there because it's almost like they thought time would fix whatever's wrong. It didn't. They've finally kicked him to the bullpen, which should mean there's room for Kevin Gausman, but Gausman hasn't much looked like the front of the rotation pitcher that we've dreamed of him being. They've yo-yo'd him all over the place. I'm afraid they've ruined him.
Tillman - I don't even know about that guy. He was good for the past 2.5 seasons, and suddenly he's a hot mess. We have one commenter on our site who's convinced Tillman's problem is he did nothing but drink beer all offseason and now he's fat and his mechanics got wrecked. I can't say that guy is wrong. They need Tillman to figure it out, because he's not going anywhere, and there's not going to be any help coming at the trade deadline, probably.
4. The Orioles recently released Delmon Young, who was somewhat of a lightning rod during his brief tenure in Detroit. His lackluster regular season performance will not be missed, but the Tigers have been on both sides of his stellar postseason performances. What do Orioles fans think of Delmon? Will the team miss his bat off the bench?
Delmon Young was the central figure in what's probably the greatest Orioles moment that any O's fan under 35 has ever experienced. He'll always have a fond place in O's lore just for that, and in fact I think O's fans might be the only people who think fondly of Delmon at all. I've kind of gotten the impression everyone else thinks he's a scumbag.
That said, Young was batting .270/.289/.339 when the Orioles finally cut him loose, so no, I don't think they will miss his bat off the bench. The problem for Young, other than him being bad, is that the emergence of Jimmy Paredes as the DH-only guy meant Young had to try to slot in at a corner outfield spot, where he was miscast, and he just wasn't hitting enough to keep him around. So long and thanks for last year.
5. The big story of the Orioles' wasn't a trade or signing, but rather the Toronto Blue Jays' attempted wooing of general manager Dan Duquette. What did O's fans think of this saga? Would losing Duquette have been a big blow to the organization? How much credit does Duquette deserve for his contributions to the Orioles' resurgence?
I never knew what to make of that saga. For a while I just assumed it was a story that the media was blowing out of proportion, although as time went by it became clear that was not the case. At that point it became very worrisome because I think the general perception is that the current successful run for the Orioles is fueled in large part by the unique dynamic that exists between Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. So the prospect of anything disrupting that (and I expect the same thing to play out this offseason) is concerning.
To me, Duquette's arrival and the decisions he made were necessary to jolt the franchise in a different direction. It's hard to imagine it happening without him. He went dumpster diving and plugged in guys like Miguel Gonzalez, turned failed starters like Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter into useful (well - in the case of Matusz and Hunter, sometimes useful) relievers, and when the baseball talking head class was telling the Orioles to trade for Chase Headley in 2012, Duquette just said to hell with all of that and turned Machado from a shortstop to a third baseman and promoted him at age 20.
The 2012-14 O's era of success doesn't happen without these collective decisions that I don't think would have happened under previous management.
6. Once again, the Orioles have a strong bullpen, something the Tigers can never seem to come up with. Zach Britton is the failed-lefty-starter-turned-dominant-reliever that Casey Crosby and Andy Oliver failed to become in Detroit, and Darren O'Day is likely headed for a fat payday this offseason. Is there a secret to the Orioles' bullpen success or is Detroit just really bad at what should be a fairly simple task?
What's interesting to me about the Orioles is that where it seems like the whole rest of the league is loading up their bullpen full of guys throwing 98-99 miles per hour, that's not how they're succeeding. Britton throws 97, which is hard, but the reason he succeeds is that it's a hard sinker, which they made him practice last spring by throwing bullpens where his goal was to get the ball between two strings set up about knee to shin level.
I don't really know what the secret is as far as turning all of these failed starters and scrap heap pickups into a useful bullpen unit, though. That's one of those things that I fear might be a Duquette secret that would vanish with him if he went to Toronto. A big part of the secret seems to be: don't get expensive relievers, get a bunch of guys with options, get a bunch of other guys who you can easily DFA if they suck, then keep moving parts around until you find out who doesn't suck. Hopefully it keeps working out.
Once again, a big thank you to Mark and the rest of the Camden Chat staff for (a) not rubbing it in too much, and (b) taking the time to answer our questions about this year's Orioles team. Be sure to check out Camden Chat all season long for the very best Orioles news coverage and analysis the internet has to offer.