Daniel Clark: Taking stock of a division leader, inconsistencies and all

More than a quarter of the 2014 season has now passed and the Orioles are sitting on top of the American League East with a record of 23-20. Despite holding the divisional lead, there has at times been an overwhelming sense of frustration among Orioles fans as in between the moments of brilliance, there have also been periods of lackluster performances. It’s been these periods which have halted the Orioles just as they were threatening to open up a significant lead on their divisional rivals. With this inconsistency come talking points and there have been many of those thus far, with some of the more major focuses of discussion surrounding the following.

Where has the long ball gone?: In 2013, the Orioles had hit 212 home runs at an average of 1.31 per game, which was enough to put them on top of all major league teams. This huge tally was largely due to Chris Davis, who hit 53. He was well supported by Adam Jones (33), J.J. Hardy (25) and Matt Wieters (22). In total, 16 Orioles recorded a longball during the course of the season.

In 2014, despite the four bombs last night against the Pirates, it has been an entirely different story, as the O’s have cleared the fences on just 40 occasions, at an average of just 0.93 per game. Of these instances, 13 have been by Nelson Cruz and just nine Orioles hitters have recorded at least one.

Zach Britton in career-best form: Without doubt, the most impressive performer of all Orioles thus far has been Zach Britton, who in 18 appearances (23 2/3 innings) owns an ERA of 0.76 and WHIP of 0.89. Of the 71 total outs he has induced, a staggering 92 percent are from groundouts (50) and strikeouts (15). The key to his success has been a faster and better located sinker, which has been so effective that he has now assumed the closer role in light of Tommy Hunter’s struggles.

Training room and doctors are keeping busy: Adding to the frustration experienced by the Orioles thus far has been the seemingly never-ending list of injuries that has seen Nolan Reimold (neck), Hardy (back), David Lough (concussion), Davis (oblique), Wieters (elbow) and Manny Machado (knee) all have stints on the disabled list. At least five of these six would be regulars, so having them missing for periods has certainly affected the team balance.

Rotation appears settled after finding consistency: After some early struggles during April, especially from Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez, all five Orioles starters have lowered their ERAs to respectable marks.

* Chris Tillman: 56 2/3 innings, 3.34 ERA, 4-2 record, 43 strikeouts
* Jimenez: 52 innings, 4.50 ERA, 2-5 record, 48 strikeouts
* Wei-Yin Chen: 46 1/3 innings, 3.69 ERA, 5-2 record, 33 strikeouts
* Gonzalez: 45 2/3 innings, 4.53 ERA, 2-3 record, 42 strikeouts
* Norris Norris: 50 1/3 innings, 3.58 ERA, 2-4 record, 33 strikeouts

Norris has been the biggest improver from 2013 and his record of 2-4 does nothing other than highlight the lack of run support he has received. Chen also appears to have improved this season and has probably been the most consistent of the five thus far. Tillman experienced a few tough outings earlier this month, however his complete-game shutout last week against the Royals indicates he is back on track as the team’s ace. As noted, Jimenez and Gonzalez both had a horrible month of April, but their form has improved over the last few weeks.

Unexpected opportunities bring pleasant surprises: Steve Pearce has experienced a roller coaster of emotions in the first part of the season, having made the 25-man roster before being released in late April. Just two days later though, he was re-signed and provided more opportunities due to Davis’ injury. The ups and downs haven’t affected his performance on the field, as he is hitting a very respectable .271/.327/.848, with three home runs and six RBIs. His impressive start to the season ensured the temporary loss of Davis wasn’t overly costly.
Steve Clevenger has also been given more opportunities than originally expected, due to Wieters’ injury, and like Pearce, he has also been quite reliable. In 20 appearances he is hitting .254/.299/.711 with seven RBIs and in doing so, has ensured the loss of Wieters hasn’t been that costly.

Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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