A lot has been made this offseason–and rightfully so–about the Orioles needing bounceback seasons from the majority of their rotation. We all can recite the stats of Orioles starting pitchers from memory at this point. Chris Tillman: 11-11 4.91 ERA. Miguel Gonzalez: 9-12 4.91 ERA. Kevin Gausman: 4-7 4.25 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez: 12-10 4.11 ERA. Its not hard to imagine why prognosticators have predicted The Birds to give up the third most runs in baseball.
So what do the Orioles and their fans have to give them hope that 2016 will be better than 2015? Well, history. And not just recent history.
We all know that the 2014 Baltimore Orioles won 96 games and the American League East division title. How could we forget? It was a prolifically powerful team with great pitching. Tillman and Gonzalez sported ERAs more than a run-and-a-half lower than their 2015 campaigns, and Gausman 0.61 lower. But who’s to say that the 2015 versions of these pitchers aren’t the real versions as compared to 2014? Well, all we have to do is dig a little bit, say, back to 1996.
What you may recall about the 1996 Orioles team is that they made the playoffs for the first time since 1983, winning 88 games and earning a Wild Card spot. What you may not recall is how they got there.
First, that team had the most productive lineup in Orioles history. The team mashed a then-record 257 home runs with seven players that started the season on the roster hitting more than 20, and nine overall.
That led to a team-record 949 runs scored.
What people don’t remember is that the Orioles needed every one of those 257 home runs and 949 runs, because the pitching staff gave up 903 runs while throwing just one shutout.
Remember how great Mike Mussina was? In 1996 he won 19 games. But did you know his ERA was 4.81?
In 1997, the Orioles, fresh off a loss to the Yankees in the 1996 ALCS, came back with a wire-to-wire 98-win season. That team scored 812 runs, down 137 runs from the year before (though still 5.01 R/PG), but their pitching staff gave up just 681 runs, down 222 runs from the year before.
Mussina bounced back, winning 15 games while pitching to a 3.20 ERA. Erickson bounced back, winning 16 games while pitching to a 3.69 ERA. Even David Wells, though pitching for a different team, bounced back, as he would go on to win 34 games over the next two seasons with a 3.85 ERA for the New York Yankees.
The point here is that even some of the pitchers we remember most fondly have bad seasons. Mussina in his 18-year career posted an ERA of 4.41 or higher five times. With one exception, those seasons were sandwiched between seasons with a sub-3.51 ERA. Scott Erickson is a former 20-game winner who pitched to a sub-4 ERA in two of his first three seasons with the club.
In 2015, we saw Miguel Gonzalez spend two stints on the disabled list. Chris Tillman started slowly, but from May 21-July 29, he pitched to a 3.35 ERA while going 6-2 over a 13 start span (the team was 9-4 in those games). An ankle injury sidelined Tillman for nearly two weeks after that, and he was slow to rebound upon returning. If he had never gotten hurt, who knows what his number would have been?
At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, do we believe in these starters? We know who Ubaldo Jimenez is: an overpaid number 4 that can be brilliant if he throws strikes. The jury is still out on former first rounder Kevin Gausman. Is this the year he becomes the player the Orioles envisioned when they drafted him?
Perhaps most importantly, are we getting the Chris Tillman who from 2012-2014 won 38 games while pitching to a 3.42 ERA, or the Tillman who got derailed during a hot streak in 2015? Are we getting the Miguel Gonzalez who from 2012-2014 pitched to a 3.45 ERA over 75 games (69 starts), or the Miguel Gonzalez who got hurt twice in 2015 and never had a chance to fully recover? I’m inclined to think the former on both counts.
If the Orioles can add another starter to replace Wei-Yin Chen, much like Jimmy Key replaced David Wells in 1997 (sources say they are close to reaching an agreement with Yovani Gallardo), then there is reason to believe that this team could return to the playoffs in 2016.