I hate to keep interrupting my media criticism series like this, but I don't want to go too long without commenting on the state of the Orioles. So brace yourself for some semi-random thoughts and observations...
Birds flying south a little early, again
With a tenth straight loss in this afternoon's game dropping their record to 57-69, the Birds look like they are headed for another disappointing finish. At their current pace, they will end up with about 73 wins, which would be a two-game improvement over their 2003 performance but would fall well short of most preseason expectations. And 73 wins look like an optimistic number right now, given the recent injuries to the team and the quality of their remaining opponents. Of the Orioles' 36 remaining games, just seven are against teams beneath them in the standings, and 23 are against teams either leading their division or in the thick of the wild-card race. At least there are no more games against Oakland, which seems to have the Birds' number this year.
The ongoing story of bullpen usage
Speaking of the A's, Wednesday night in Oakland B.J. Ryan gave up a game-winning home run to the Athletics for the second time in eight days, as Marco Scutaro hit a three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth to give the A's a walk-off victory. This came a week after Erubiel Durazo whacked one into the stands off Ryan in Baltimore to give the A's a 5-4 win.
But give Lee Mazzilli some credit for having Ryan in the game in those situations. Ryan has outperformed his bullpen mates to such a degree that he has distinguished himself as the team's unquestioned ace reliever. Mazzilli recognizes that, and this past Wednesday he was willing to leave Ryan in for a second inning of work in a tie game. This kind of usage is consonant with the Orioles' "best available pitcher" strategy.
A contrarian would note that there were good reasons for replacing Ryan with a right-hander after he allowed two batters to reach with two outs in the ninth. Ryan has been almost death to left-handed batters (.319 OPS against) this year, but he has been merely nasty to right-handed swingers (.641 OPS). The right-handed hitting Scutaro has hit significantly better against left-handers this year—150 points of OPS better, to be precise—than against right-handers (.788 to .638). And Ryan may have been starting to tire by the time he pitched to Scutaro; he ended up throwing 35 pitches. Jorge Julio or Jason Grimsley should have been warming up, at least, and neither was.
But I would have done what Mazzilli did and stuck to my guns—Ryan's guns, that is. Better to lose with one's best pitcher in the game, even if he is depleted, than to be vanquished while entrusting the outcome to a lesser pitcher. Continuing the firepower analogy, it's the difference between going into a duel carrying a half-loaded pistol, and going in with a crossbow and a quiver full of arrows. The bow can do the job if used in the right situation, but the speed and lethality of the gun make it preferable when one's life is on the line.
Chen impresses for a day
Bruce Chen's Orioles debut was a dream: seven scoreless innings with just seven baserunners allowed. But Chen has not bounced around the league like red rubber ball without a reason. The most conspicuous reason is that he is an extreme flyball pitcher (0.65 career G/F) who is vulnerable to the long ball (1.64 HR/9 IP career). That's a tough combination for any pitcher, let alone a lefty without overpowering velocity such as Chen. Oakland Coliseum's outfield and foul ground are roomy enough to contain a lot of those flies, so it's not entirely surprising that he had some success in his start there. But Camden Yards is not the friendliest of venues for flyball pitchers.
Chen does have good stuff (7.9 K/9 career), but he issues too many free passes (3.9 BB/9) to be as effective as he could be. In the right environment (Seattle? Florida?) he could be a decent reliever or back-of-the-rotation starter, particularly if he refines his control. But odds are that if he locks down a job in the big leagues, it won't happen with the Orioles.
See ya, García; DeJean's got it goin' on
After Tuesday's game the Orioles released Karim García, who had a Sam Horn-esque first game for the O's (2 HR, 5 RBI) but was unremarkable thereafter, posting a .585 OPS in a 23-game stint. García ended up serving as a placeholder until other outfielders could recover from their injuries. Since García arrived, Jay Gibbons and B.J. Surhoff have returned from the disabled list, David Newhan has made a case to be a full-time player, and Val Majewski was called up. The Orioles had way too many left-handed hitting outfielders on the roster, so García became superfluous.
And has anyone noticed how Mike DeJean has rebounded with the Mets since the Orioles traded him for García? In his return to the National League, he has 23 strikeouts and five walks in 20 1/3 innings and has allowed 21 hits for a stingy .622 opposition OPS.
Improvement was inevitable for DeJean, who had one of the worst starts to a season ever by a pitcher. At the time of the trade, his level of performance was in the neighborhood of the league average, and he was moving to a more pitcher-friendly league and home park. But DeJean's improvement in control since the trade is amazing. With the O's his walk rate was 6.4 BB/9; with the Mets it has been 2.2. How much of this can be attributed to the Mets' highly regarded pitching coach, Rick Peterson? Did Peterson see a mechanical flaw that Mark Wiley and Ray Miller missed? Miller's strength is the mental approach to pitching, not the mechanics, so the Orioles may need to tap another's services to help in that area.
Killing us softly
One aspect of the Orioles' season that deserves more scrutiny is the extent that the team's performance has been restrained by certain players who have competed in less than optimal physical condition. There will always be the no-doubt-about-it tears and breaks that force players to the disabled list, but the silent killers are the less obvious yet persistent conditions, such as the elbows of Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose, Jay Gibbons's hip and back, and Luis Matos's shin bone. Sidney Ponson's overweight fits into this group as well, although it is a matter of fitness and not an injury.
At the beginning of the spring, Ponson's extra poundage was noticed, and as the season progressed his weight was blamed for dragging down his performance. Although the weight did not hurt his velocity, it certainly did not improve his stamina, and it may have affected his command. Ponson eventually dropped about twenty pounds and started pitching better, although he has not returned to last year's form.
Matos suffered a tiny shin fracture early in the year that was initially diagnosed as shin splints. It never fully healed, and Matos aggravated it when he rammed into the unforgiving outfield wall at Fenway on July 21. His performance this season was a huge disappointment (.224/.275/.333 BA/OBP/SLG) long before that, and he was benched before he finally surrendered to surgery earlier this month.
Bone chips in DuBose's elbow hampered his control early in the year (5.3 BB/9) and became unbearable by June. Ainsworth had a slightly different elbow problem, inflammation, but he too tried to pitch through it with appalling results (9.68 ERA) until he had it examined. Both pitchers had season-ending surgery in June.
Gibbons has tried to play through nagging ailments to his back and hip muscles that have ruined his season. It was a chain reaction that was initiated by a bulging disc suffered when Gibbons was lifting weights, then a hip flexor muscle he injured while running in a manner modified to ease the pressure on his back. Even though he has been in the lineup for about half of the team's games, his hitting numbers are way down (.206/.276/.318). His health has not been 100% at any point this year.
While it is easy to say so in retrospect, such seemingly minor ailments have prevented those players from performing to their capabilities, and with better judgment and communication on the part of the players, coaches, and the team's medical staff, the problems could have been detected and treated earlier to the benefit of the players and the team. But the players kept playing through their injuries, and while their resolve is admirable in a sense, it turned out to be self-defeating because the injuries did not get better, and the players' on-field performance was execrable. Given how poorly those players fared in their hindered states, quick and appropriate diagnostic and preventive action would have made at least a few games' difference in the standings. Not everyone has the injury resistance and healing powers of Cal Ripken; sometimes intelligent, discretionary rest and cautious recovery are in the best interests of the team and the individual. And in Ponson's case, a little more attention to fitness wouldn't hurt.