The Texas Rangers head to Baltimore on Monday night to open up a series with the Baltimore Orioles -- who currently own Major League Baseball's best record. Mark Brown, who writes over at Camden Chat, was kind enough to answer five questions to help us preview the Orioles/Rangers series, and to give us some insight into Baltimore's hot start in 2012.
What's been the reason for Baltimore's early success this year?
The biggest thing for me has been the performance of the starting pitching. Last year, they sported the worst starting pitcher ERA in all of MLB, a 5.39 mark that was over half a run worse than the second-worst team's ERA. The lowest ERA that any one starter had was a 4.37. There were question marks about every member of the rotation. What would Jason Hammel pitch like going from Colorado to the AL East? Would NPB import Wei-Yin Chen's skills translate to MLB? Would Jake Arrieta take a step forward after having a ping pong ball-sized growth removed from his elbow? Would Brian Matusz recover from his disastrous previous year? At best, most Orioles fans hoped for a modest improvement from one of these guys. I polled other Camden Chat writers before the season started and nobody would say yes when I asked if any starter would post an ERA below 4.00. Right now, Hammel (2.09), Chen (2.76) and Arrieta (3.52) are there.
You also have to give some credit to the bullpen, with its 1.41 ERA after 28 games, and for the position players, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are off to hot starts that have Orioles fans thinking that maybe they are finally turning into the players that we always hoped they would be.
The Orioles are coming off two really successful series against the Yankees and the Red Sox and find themselves with the best record in baseball. Do you expect the Orioles to legitimately contend this year, or is this a mirage?
My prediction going into this season was that the Orioles would win 70 games. I am clearly not qualified to answer this question. In my defense, the Orioles' surprising start is enough to make a person question the very concept of truth on a metaphysical level. If a 29 year old pitcher with a career ERA near 5 (Hammel) can come to Baltimore, start throwing a two-seam fastball and look like Cy Young for six starts, what else could happen?Trying to look at it rationally, I still don't see how the Orioles could possibly compete. Most of the team is playing over their heads. There is no way that the bullpen's performance can continue to be so great over a full season. Guys like Hammel and Chen are due to come back down to Earth at some point, perhaps as soon as in this series. However, I do think that the floor, mean expectation and ceiling for the team's performance on the year have all been raised substantially. It's one thing to have a bunch of, "well, if..." thoughts before a season, but after 1/6 of the games have been played, even if it's a small sample size, you know a little something. At this point it feels like even with a regression to the mean, the O's could stay around a .500 record. O's fans haven't seen an above-.500 record since the wire-to-wire 1997 season. And if star players in the AL East keep getting hurt...
Buck Showalter spent a few years as Texas' manager -- what are your thoughts on him, and what do you think his role has been in building this team and this year's success?
After Buck's arrival in August of 2010 coincided with two excellent months to close out the season, I was fully on board with the notion that he is some kind of master wizard with secret powers to unlock a player's potential. Then, 2011 happened, which was, if not an absolute disaster, not good. So clearly Buck himself is not full of magic. I have read some stories to the effect of, "Well, it's only in Buck's second FULL year that he really has an impact." I haven't looked at that myself, but that narrative is out there and people are applying it to a 19-9 start. Eight of the nine position players and 3/5 of the rotation from the end of last year are back. The team looks better and Buck is here for it. He probably has something to do with that, but no way of knowing how much.
As for his role in building the team, there were many reports that Buck was on the committee that interviewed the few GM candidates who would actually come to Baltimore. I found it rather unusual. It's likely that he had his hand involved in acquiring some of the Texas castoffs on the roster, like Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day, Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. So far, these have been mostly good things for the Orioles. There has not been much cause for complaint about Buck.
Brian Matusz finally got himself a win, and certainly deserved it pitching well in Yankee Stadium last week. What can Texas fans expect from the former top prospect?
Matusz is the biggest enigma on the Orioles right now. How can you ever know what to expect after the guy got completely blasted last year? But he's turned in two straight quality starts now, giving us hope that maybe he can be a major league pitcher after all. On the other hand, he's still walking way too many batters, with a 4.67 BB/9 on the season, and he has always been prone to the long ball. To tell you the truth, after that 30-3 game a few years back, I find myself seeing every possible Rangers-Orioles matchup as the sequel to that one. Matusz could conceivably hold the line, maybe hitting the 6 IP/3 ER minimum-quality-start mark and giving a depleted bullpen a bit of a break. I don't have to work hard to imagine a world where a high-octane Texas offense completely blasts him, either. The orange Kool-Aid drinker inside me that gets louder with every win is shouting that I should embrace the idea that the Orioles are a team of destiny - I mean, seriously, two scoreless innings from Chris Davis in relief? - and that tonight Matusz will throw eight shutout innings to further prove it.
I think that maniac will be mostly quiet tonight. If I had to guess at a pitching line, I'd say something like 5.1 IP, 5 R, but only three earned as a pair of errors cost Matusz both the runs and in the pitch count. Enough where I don't go back to feeling like he's a hopeless cause again, but not enough to win the game.
Baltimore misses Yu Darvish, but will face Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland. Which of these four pitchers do you think will give Baltimore the toughest time and which do you expect Baltimore to have the best chance against?
I would be dishonest if I claimed to be an expert on Texas pitchers. I don't do fantasy baseball, so for the past couple of years I've only seen the Rangers if they were playing the Orioles, or once they were in the postseason. Not a ton of opportunities to absorb the qualities of those pitchers. Here's how I know each of those guys: the guy from the Teixeira trade who's always been a starter, the guy from the Teixeira trade who used to be a closer, the guy who used to pitch in Japan, Dutchstache.
The Orioles as a team strike out a fair amount, a 19.7% rate so far that's in the top half of teams. They do not excel at taking walks relative to the rest of the league, a 7.4% that's in the bottom third of MLB. They lead the majors in GIDPs with 32. When they aren't hitting home runs, they have sometimes had problems scoring runs. A quick look at Fangraphs stats shows me that all four of the pitchers I named are primed to take advantage of at least two of the previous four conditions - but only tonight's starter, Matt Harrison, gets the benefit of facing the Orioles first thing after a weekend where they played 39 innings in 3 days. I feel like the GDPs are the biggest killer for the Orioles and against a guy like Harrison who seems to have a good ground ball rate, they could be totally helpless. Potentially, I think they could have a tough time with any of the Rangers starters, but they'll likely be at their weakest against Harrison. I'll pick him.