For Baltimore Orioles fans, their mantra heading into the 2015 season probably went something like "It's about time." Despite three consecutive winning seasons and two playoff berths since 2012, the Orioles weren't getting the national recognition they deserved. Even this year, the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays received plenty of preseason hype for their splashy offseasons. However, sitting at the top of more ESPN predictions than any other AL East club were the Orioles, reigning division champions and winners of 96 games in 2014.
There was some room for doubt heading into 2015, though (doubt that their fans are still questioning). Nelson Cruz, an All-Star and the AL's home run leader in 2014, was no longer sitting in the middle of the Orioles' vaunted lineup. Ditto Nick Markakis, who quietly had a 105 OPS+ in 155 games last year. Could Steve Pearce repeat his excellent numbers? Would Chris Davis come back from the dead and return to his MVP-caliber form from 2013? Was the rotation really as good as it seemed?
So far, the losses are coming back to haunt Baltimore in 2015. The O's have struggled to put together a competent outfield on either side of Adam Jones, and their starting rotation has struggled to repeat its 2014 performance. Pearce has returned to earth, and Davis has simply been a league average performer at first base (his 117 wRC+ ranks seventh among 14 qualified AL first basemen).
There are bright spots, though. At 44-44, the O's are only four games back in the AL East. Manny Machado has emerged as a legitimate star, and the bullpen is still a force despite losing Andrew Miller to their division rival during the offseason. They have gotten surprise performances from Ubaldo Jimenez and Jimmy Paredes, and could easily jump back into the divisional driver's seat if Chris Tillman or Kevin Gausman return to form.
SB Nation blog: Camden Chat
Game One: Friday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (7-4, 2.81 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (8-7, 4.63 ERA)
As luck would have it, the Tigers get to kick off the second half of their season by facing the good version of Ubaldo Jimenez. This iteration of the former All-Star only seems to appear every few years, and loses track of its wonky mechanics the rest of the time. Jimenez was solid, if inefficient in the first half, striking out three batters for every walk while averaging under six innings per start. He has gone seven innings or more in seven of his 17 starts, but has left the bullpen with plenty of work to do in many other outings.
More importantly for the Orioles, Jimenez has yet to allow more than four runs in a start this season. He has walked fewer than three batters per nine innings, and six of his 32 base on balls issued this year came in one start. His 61.5 percent first-pitch strike rate is the highest of his career, and his 64.5 percent out-of-zone contact rate is the lowest he has had since his stellar 2010 season in Colorado. An uptick in fastball usage seems to be the key to success, as he has also improved his ground ball rate in 2015.
Game Two: Saturday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Chris Tillman (6-7, 5.40 ERA) vs. LHP David Price (9-2, 2.38 ERA)
After three seasons of significantly outperforming his peripherals, things have caught up to Chris Tillman in 2015. The 27-year-old righthander has flirted with danger throughout his career as a fly ball pitcher in the cozy confines of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but his command is the problem in 2015. Tillman has walked 9.6 percent of the batters he has faced this year, up from just 7.7 percent since the start of 2012. The uptick in walks and a bit of bad BABIP luck -- his .330 BABIP is 50 points higher than his career average -- have resulted in a 5.40 ERA, over a full run higher than his 4.39 FIP.
There is a chance that this could be a mirage, though. Opponents are actually hitting worse against him with runners in scoring position this season than they have throughout his career, and he is allowing less hard contact than he ever has before. His .328 BABIP on ground balls is a big red flag, especially with the infield defense he has behind him. Of note: shortstop J.J. Hardy missed all of April, when Tillman had a 7.58 ERA. He hasn't been that much better since Hardy's return, but Tillman did put together three solid starts before the All-Star break.
Game Three: Sunday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (7-6, 4.24 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-2, 5.34 ERA)
Miguel Gonzalez's drop-off hasn't been as severe as Tillman's, and his issues aren't as easy to point out. His home run rate has gone up slightly, but not to the extent that you would expect his ERA to rise by a full run compared to 2014. In fact, Gonzalez is actually striking out more batters and has allowed a lower BABIP than he did in 2014, but his ERA has not kept pace. His peripherals, which have never been impressive due to an elevated home run rate, have hardly budged compared to last year.
Looking closer, Gonzalez's issues seem to come to light when opponents reach base. After holding batters to a .676 OPS with a .247 BABIP with runners in scoring position in 2014, opposing hitters are batting .237/.343/.576 in similar situations this year. This includes six of the 17 home runs that Gonzalez has allowed, and an abysmal 0.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gonzalez's issues are limited to certain starts -- there's a feast-or-famine element to his 2015 game logs -- so don't be surprised if he throws six shutout innings.
Hitter to fear: Manny Machado (.298/.361/.525 in 379 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: J.J. Hardy (.226/.259/.325 in 225 plate appearances)
There are a few disappointing stat lines up and down the Orioles lineup, but this is largely the same offense that they sported in 2014. Manny Machado has taken a definite step forward, leading the team in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, stolen bases, and OPS through the first half of the season. Adam Jones has been his usual self, batting .281/.326/.490 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI. Chris Davis isn't a likely bet to hit 50 homers, but he still has a .787 OPS and leads the team with 52 RBI. The O's as a team have hit 110 home runs on the year, which is nearly identical to last year's pace despite losing Nelson Cruz. They rank sixth in the AL with 387 runs scored.
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