Impressions at the Break

The Baltimore Orioles are a neat and tidy 10 games over .500, yet they are in third place behind a Red Sox team that simply refuses to lose games and a resurgent Tampa Bay team that obscenely feasted on a soft schedule leading up to the break. The Yankees may be on life support but they are not dead yet and the Blue Jays, who many called the offseason champions, are a mile back in last place in the position of needing to play sustained .700 win baseball to get back in the wild card race.

Despite the position in the standings for the Birds you have to like where this team is heading after the break. With the return of Wei-Yin Chen and the addition of Scott Feldman the Orioles’ rotation has hopefully been stabilized going forward. Now that Freddy Garcia, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton et al have been removed from regular use if you look at the rotation going forward (Chen, Chris Tillman, Michael Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman) it has pitched to a 4.13 ERA, which is essentially league average. Now that does include comparatively few innings for Chen and most of Feldman’s innings this year were in the NL but the fact remains the unstable cogs in the rotation have been quietly replaced. Meanwhile Tillman and Gonzalez continue to be more than solid arms every five days and if Jason Hammel can ever start pitching like he did last year the Orioles rotation worries may be behind them.

The offense is largely humming along. Led by Chris Davis the Orioles’ offense sits either at the top or in the top three of most significant statistical rankings. Adam Jones is continuing on from his breakout year last year. JJ Hardy continues to rake at shortstop. Manny Machado is challenging a decades-old record as he cranks out doubles. Nate McLouth has proven that he deserves to be an everyday starter. Nick Markakis continues to get on base and provide a solid bat at the plate and glove in the field. Even lowly Ryan Flaherty has come on recently in a reduced role.

The only disappointment offensively has been catcher Matt Wieters. Though he is hitting homeruns, every other aspect of his game seems to have fallen off.  His batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS are well below his young career averages. There is a ray of hope however;  Wieters rebounded from an absolutely abysmal June to have a decent July (OPS + 106) with SLG numbers much closer to his career averages. This comes with Wieters being remarkably unlucky at the plate. Right now his BABIP is a career low .246, a full 40 points off his career average. Grounders haven’t been finding holes, fly balls haven’t been finding grass. This is further backed up by an increase in Wieters’ line drive percentage. Last year Wieters’ LD% was 17%, this year it is up to 20% – he is hitting a lot of balls right at people. His strike outs are down, but so are his walks. He is putting the bat on the ball, IP% of 71% (up from 66% last year) but he just hasn’t found a lot of success with it so far.

If Wieters can get his walk rate back up to last year’s career high of 10.1% (right now he is at 8.1%) that would go a long way to correcting his OBP drop and maybe he would start getting better pitches to hit. His homer rate is pretty much the same as it was last year (though down a little bit), and his XBH% and X/H% are both up from last year. Wieters is not a lost cause that many make him out to be and he certainly is not a bust in my mind. He is not some sort of supernatural second coming, but he is a very good player who will be an occasional all-star but always be in the discussion as one of the best players at his position and a central part of this team’s success – and that is fine by me.

The Orioles are strong. They have successfully sloughed off the reputation of “the luckiest team in the world” with consistent play and a steady winning way. Sure, they haven’t rattled off the long winning streaks like the Rays or the Jays, but they have consistently won series after series. So the Jays won 11 games in a row, good for them, where has it gotten them? I am certain every single Jays fan would trade those 11 games for the way the Orioles got to 53.