Baltimore Orioles Rotation: Nothing But Question Marks

It had been a relatively quiet offseason for the Baltimore Orioles, but they’ve recently turned up the heat by signing Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz and right-hander Suk-min Yoon over the past week. It’s been a flurry of moves that has personnel ramifications throughout the roster. However, perhaps the most significant addition comes in the starting rotation with former All-Star hurler Jimenez.

The rotation has proven to be an  a problem for the Orioles in recent years. No team has trotted out a worse collection of starting pitchers than the O’s over the last half-decade. Their 4.87 ERA and 4.82 FIP are the highest in Major League Baseball over that time frame. They’ve accumulated the highest home-run rate, the lowest ground-ball rate (which makes sense, considering the home-run rate) and the second-lowest strikeout rate. In short, it hasn’t been pretty and Orioles fans deserve a medal of some sort for coping with such dreadful pitching.

The organization is hoping to turn it around in 2014, though. The addition of Ubaldo Jimenez, the improvement of Chris Tillman, and the maturation of Kevin Gausman are all supposed to help right the ship. Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris all simply need to not take on water, and the rotation has a decent chance at being league-average. Considering the potent lineup that now adds Nelson Cruz to the mix, the Orioles only need their starters to be average to compete for a postseason berth.

Of course, that’s not something on which I’m comfortable betting as draft day rolls around this spring.

Let me make something clear right away. I honestly don’t know what to expect from Ubaldo Jimenez in 2014. The strikeout rate jumped to 25.0% for the first time in his career, and his 2.43 K/BB ratio was also his career-best performance. His swinging-strike rate increased from 7.0% to 8.8% last season. He also threw first-pitch strikes 58.4% of the time, which is a massive improvement.

All good things, but my confidence-level of those improvements carrying into the upcoming season isn’t very high. His velocity dropped for the third-consecutive season. It’s now down to 91.7 mph, which is a far cry from the 96.1 mph it was in 2010. If that trend continues, we’re now talking about a guy with below-average fastball velocity and command problems. And, sure, I like how his swinging-strike rate on his fastball jumped from 4.4% to 7.7% last season. Again, though, does that remain with even further-decreased velocity? If not, the remainder of his pitches didn’t generate significantly higher swinging strikes.

Furthermore, his improved performance only came during the second half of last season. In the first half, he posted a 4.56 ERA in 98.2 innings, and he followed that up with an impressive 1.82 ERA over 84.0 innings. So, do we trust that the second-half Ubaldo is the real Ubaldo? Are we trusting the most-recent 84 innings, or the previous 463.2 innings in which he compiled an unimpressive 4.93 ERA?

I don’t have answers to those questions — which feels like a bit of a cop-out — but the questions concern me to the point that I don’t feel comfortable drafting him as a top-50 starter, especially considering he’s moving to the AL East and a more hitter-friendly ballpark.

Chris Tillman surprised most fantasy owners by his being the 31st-ranked starter last season after largely being an afterthought on draft day. His stock isn’t exactly soaring this spring, though. His 4.42 FIP was much higher than his 3.71 ERA, and his home-run tendencies are concerning in Baltimore. Our own Michael Barr offers a succinct summary of the right-hander as we head into draft season:

He projects as a back-end fantasy starter in standard formats. But he inexplicably improved in the second half, and improved rather dramatically, despite not really making any notable changes save for throwing more strikes. If he went out and put up a full season replicating his second half of 2013, we’ll all say we should have seen it coming. And yet, if he goes out and turns into some mash-up of the decent but not thrilling version of himself, nobody would be surprised either. Considering his projections, it’s likely he won’t come at much of a cost, so for my money, he’s definitely worth a flier in almost any format. If he comes out in April and starts looking like the second half version of himself from 2013, you could have a real bargain on your hands.

Barr is talking about his Zone% that increased from 42.6% to 46.2% last year and his F-Strike% that increased to 57.3%, which is his highest mark since 2009. Those numbers are slightly misleading, though, as Tillman increased his strike rate more significantly in the second half. That’s where he posted a 3.42 ERA, saw his strikeout rate jump to 8.56 K/9 and his walk rate drop to 2.57 BB/9. As Barr notes, he’s worth a flier if the cost isn’t too high.

As for left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, he proved remarkably consistent over his first two seasons.

Year ERA FIP SIERA K% BB% HR/9 FBv Zone% SwStr%
2012 4.02 4.42 4.14 18.8% 7.0% 1.35 91.0 47.7% 9.1%
2013 4.07 4.04 4.23 18.2% 6.8% 1.12 91.4 47.8% 7.9%

The problem, however, is that he’s not overly exciting. He was barely a top-100 fantasy starter last season, but that was largely due to his 137.0 innings than anything else. In the previous season, Chen ranked as the #52 starter, so certainly relevant in deeper leagues as back-end filler. The interesting thing is that he’s currently being drafted as the 105th-best starter — behind stalwarts such as Ryan Vogelsong and Chris Young. Assuming he throws 170+ innings, Chen projects to be a decent back-end fantasy option who could log double-digit wins due to an above-average offense.

To me, Miguel Gonzalez is a right-handed version of Wei-Yin Chen, except he benefited from a better BABIP last season. Their fastball velocity was identical, they’re both fly-ball pitchers who struggle with the home run, and they are roughly a top 60-to-70 pitcher when throwing 170+ innings. Chen may have a higher strikeout rate, but their career swinging-strike rates are almost identical: 8.6% for Chen and 8.3% for Gonzalez.

For fantasy purposes, they’re the same pitcher. I would maybe gravitate toward Gonzalez because he’s shown an ability to sustain a lower BABIP over the last two years. I’m really grasping for straws at that point, though.

The (almost) 29-year-old Bud Norris currently projects to complete the rotation. He came to Baltimore in a mid-season trade with the Houston Astros, and it was ultimately a mixed bag. The right-hander compiled an unsightly 4.80 ERA in 50.2 innings, but some fantasy owners are intrigued due to his 3.82 FIP, 3.63 xFIP and dramatically-increased strikeout rate (10.13 K/9) with Baltimore.

Aside from the small-sample size issues, fantasy owners shouldn’t be too excited about his lofty strikeout total with the O’s. His velocity didn’t trend up and his swinging-strike rate actually decreased to 9.0%, which is the lowest mark of his career. His O-Swing% dropped and his first-strike percentage dropped.

Norris has displayed an ability to miss bats throughout his career, but I don’t see any reason for his late-season upswing to carry into the 2014 season. None of his individual pitches showed a significant increase in whiffs, nor did his repertoire appear to change. There has even been talk that Norris could transition to the bullpen to serve as a late-inning reliever with the departure of Jim Johnson, which would drastically change his fantasy profile. And with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez and the rotation depth represented by Kevin Gausman and newcomer Suk-Min Yoon, perhaps that move is even more likely than it was earlier this winter.

Speaking of Kevin Gausman, he’s been a popular sleeper option in later rounds, though he’s perhaps lost some luster due to his rude big-league debut. Don’t be fooled by the 5.66 ERA. He has the potential to be an effective big-league starter this season. His SIERA was 3.15 and his xFIP was 3.04. The reason for the discrepancy was the 1.51 HR/9 home-run rate, which negated the 3.77 K/BB ratio. Gausman didn’t display home-run issues in either Double-A or Triple-A. I have trouble believing a guy with his stuff and an average ground-ball rate will be such a home-run machine going forward. And once that home-run rate drops, he’ll be legit as a fantasy starter. Remember, he’s only 23 years old.

Another rotation option is Suk-Min Yoon, who the Orioles signed to a three-year deal earlier this month. He currently appears destined for the bullpen, though, and Keith Law has opined that he’s no more than a back-end rotation option in the majors. He also notes a rather significant velocity decrease last season in Korea, which is concerning in itself. Pay attention to him this spring to see if he has any helium heading into the regular season, but more than likely, Yoon will be an afterthought on draft day.

Overall, the Baltimore Orioles have a plethora of question marks. Can Ubaldo Jimenez be the same guy he was in the second half of last season? Can Chris Tillman build off his 2013 success, despite not changing much about his profile? Can Wei-Yin Chen or Miguel Gonzalez throw enough innings and keep the home-run ball in check enough to be truly relevant in standard leagues? Will Kevin Gausman get a legitimate chance to crack the rotation, or will he remain in Triple-A for the majority of the year?

There are no sure-fire fantasy options in the Orioles’ rotation. That’s never comforting on draft day, but it’s also important to remember that non-interesting guys like Chen and Gonzalez can have true value as well, as long as the price is right (read: very small). I’m not advocating for fantasy owners to look elsewhere, just understand the question marks each one of these guys possess and value accordingly. That’s ultimately the dance you have to do on draft day.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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Barry Smail
8 years ago

“Furthermore, his improved performance only came during the second half of last season.”–COMMENT: I have found second-half spikes in performance to be a fairly good predictor of performance over the entire following season. So that’s a positive indicator for Ubaldo.

8 years ago
Reply to  Barry Smail

Would love to see some supporting data on this if you have it.

Travis L
8 years ago
Reply to  Barry Smail

Jeff Zimmermann recently published a post that suggests it’s better to use full season data than seasonal splits. The exception is in plate discipline stats. This mirrors what we know about statistical stabilization rates — namely, that plate discipline stats stabilize more quickly than other numbers.

“Just remember doing the upcoming fantasy season, people are more likely to remember and act on the last set of data the most which includes first and second half stats. With the exception of plate discipline stats, it is best ignore any first and second half centered data and and instead look at data from a full season or more.”

Nick Christy
8 years ago
Reply to  Travis L

So essentially what we are saying is its better to use a larger sample size? Who knew.

The point about second half data being relevant is when there is a change or some inflection point that we can point to and say “after x, y happened.”

8 years ago
Reply to  Barry Smail

Russell Carleton at BP just published a study today that supports Jeff’s conclusions, i.e., full season stats are way better predictors than last few months stats.

8 years ago
Reply to  SurprMan

So… 180+ innings with a 3.30 ERA then? Sounds valuable.