With eyes on ‘playing an extra month,’ Orioles’ six-man rotation exceeding expectations – Boston Herald
The Orioles’ use of a six-man rotation isn’t only to get the team’s inexperienced starters through the regular season. Baltimore has its eyes on what will follow.
“We’re planning on playing an extra month,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We’ve got to get there first.”
The way the change has worked thus far, it’s hard to envision the Orioles not reaching the postseason. In the 16 games since left-hander Cole Irvin made his first start back in the rotation to stretch it to six, the Orioles’ starters have a 3.30 ERA and 1.047 WHIP. Baltimore ranked fourth and second, respectively, in those metrics among all rotations in that span even before right-hander Dean Kremer allowed one run over six innings in Tuesday night’s 9-3 win over the Chicago White Sox.
Asked whether the sextet has met his expectations, Hyde responded, “and then some,” then knocked on the table in front of him in hopes of avoiding a jinx on the early return.
Kremer was among the primary reasons the change was deemed necessary, with most of Baltimore’s starting candidates either approaching or surpassing their previous career highs. Three of their primary seven starters this season have set high marks, with the possibility blossoming ace Kyle Bradish joins that group with his next outing.
But beyond Tyler Wells — optioned to Double-A with fatigue before the six-man format was adopted — it’s that group of starters who have had the most success since the change. With Kremer’s start Tuesday, he, Bradish and prized rookie Grayson Rodriguez have a combined 1.96 ERA in nine starts with the expanded rotation.
“That’s what we need,” Hyde said. “These guys have made such growth in the last couple years, and the command is way better, and the confidence is a lot better, pitch mix.
“They’re giving us a chance almost every time out, and not only just giving us a chance, but pitching extremely well.”
In truth, the success for each extends beyond the six-man rotation. Bradish has a 2.23 ERA in his past 13 starts, Kremer a 2.90 in his past 10, and Rodriguez a 2.32 in his past seven. But the extra rest could enable them to continue this performance over not only the next month, but also the one after that.
“Getting that extra day, extra two days depending on off days and whatnot, it’s definitely big at this point in the season,” Kremer said. “August is usually the dog days, so getting that extra 24 hours or 48 hours is huge for all of us.”
Kremer acknowledged he felt he had “a little bit of a hump to get over” in the range from 110 innings to 130; in a four-start span from mid-July to early August that took him from 104 frames to 125, Kremer completed the sixth inning only once while allowing 11 runs and 12 walks. His four outings since — a stretch that took him beyond his career high of 134 1/3 innings — have all been quality starts.
Coming off a year in which he missed three months with a right lat strain, Rodriguez has pitched almost 60 innings more between Triple-A and the majors this year than he did last and topped his previous maximum by more than 30. But he also is pitching the best he has all season. The five starts he has averaged the highest fastball velocity have come in his past six appearances.
With Wells now in Triple-A working toward returning to Baltimore as a short reliever, the rest of the Orioles’ projected starters for down the stretch have yet to surpass their career highs. Both Irvin and veteran Kyle Gibson averaged more than 175 innings over the past two seasons and have space before reaching that mark. Bradish, meanwhile, is less than seven innings away from reaching the 145 1/3 frames he pitched in 2022.
In 2019, Jack Flaherty, who the Orioles acquired for three top 20 prospects to bolster their rotation at the trade deadline, pitched 213 1/3 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals between the regular season and playoffs, but he didn’t match that total over the next three seasons combined, including minor league outings. His 129 1/3 frames between St. Louis and Baltimore are twice as many as he pitched at any level in 2022, and he had a start pushed back last week with what Hyde described as “general soreness.”
The group could get further help with the return of left-hander John Means, Baltimore’s top starter during its rebuild who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction in May 2022. Means is scheduled to make his fifth minor league rehabilitation start Thursday for Triple-A Norfolk, pitching six days since his most recent outing after his previous appearances came every five days. He’s being built up as a starter, but both Hyde and general manager Mike Elias said Means’ role with the Orioles will largely depend on the team’s situation when he’s ready to return sometime early next month.
But Means won’t be the only pitcher the club monitors extensively throughout September. As Kremer and Rodriguez showed the past two nights — combining to allow one run over 12 innings against an offensively inept White Sox team — pitchers can surpass their career highs for innings and still perform. Hyde said the challenge is knowing how far beyond they can go.
“That’s the case-by-case, super delicate question that nobody has the answer for,” Hyde said. “Predictors, medical, anybody. There’s not a certain number that you know what’s going to happen.”
Hyde said he consults with pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes, pitching strategy coach Ryan Klimek, head athletic trainer Brian Ebel and strength coach Trey Wiedman about each pitcher’s workload, including those of relievers. He was initially worried about how the change to a six-man rotation would impact the bullpen, with MLB’s limits on roster size meaning the larger starting staff came at the price of one fewer reliever. The circumstances become tougher with the loss of All-Star closer Félix Bautista with a potentially season-ending elbow injury.
But the rotation has helped ease the burden, going six innings 11 times over these past 16 games. The Orioles’ starters have tied those of the National League-best Atlanta Braves for the most wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, as Baltimore has gone 12-4 in this span.
“I think whenever you go into a six-man rotation, you’re super worried about the bullpen and being able to keep guys as fresh as possible and having one less guy down there and how that would be affected,” Hyde said. “But when our starters go six or more innings a night, that’s been really, really helpful. And they’ve all done a great job.”
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