Zach Wilt: Cobb’s arrival will benefit both offense and mound staff

After enjoying a much-needed off-day, their first since March 30, the Orioles are headed north to square off against the first-place Red Sox for a four-game weekend series that includes the annual 11 a.m. Patriot’s Day game on Monday. It feels like the Orioles always play that game. The Birds took just one of three in their quick home series against the Blue Jays. Baltimore’s offense scored only two runs in the first two games of that series before finally breaking out in the finale with five runs in the victory.

Overall it’s been a slow start for the O’s bats. In their first 13 games this season, the Orioles offense has scored two runs or less in six contests. Not surprisingly, they are 0-6 in those games. It’s hard to win when you score two runs. In 2017, the Orioles scored 743 runs in 162 games. That’s an average of 4.59 runs per game. So far this season, the Birds offense is averaging just 3.38 runs per game. It’s about time to go those bats going.

There’s plenty of good news though despite the 5-8 start. I don’t think anyone believes that Baltimore’s offense will continue to rank in the lower third of the league in runs scored. At least, I don’t. The better news though, is that the Orioles starting rotation looks darn good and is about to get even better when Alex Cobb makes his 2018 debut on Saturday.

In three starts against Toronto, the Orioles rotation recorded three consecutive quality starts from Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Kevin Gausman. In case you forgot - or just blocked it out from your mind completely - the Orioles rotation struggled a bit in 2017. They had baseball’s highest ERA (5.70), pitched the fewest innings of any staff in the American League (846 IP) and led the AL in walks per nine innings (3.74 BB/9). All of that added up to a disappointing 75-win season.

Bundy has lowered his ERA to 1.35 (1.95 FIP) in three starts this season. He’s making batters look foolish with an rate of 11.25 strikeouts/nine innings and has done an excellent job keeping the ball in the ballpark with a 0.45 home runs/nine innings. All three of those stats are improvements over his totals from 2017. It’s early, but Bundy looks dialed in. The data shows that he’s fooling hitters with his stuff. Opponents are swinging at 38.4 percent of the pitches he throws outside of the zone and making contact on just 66.7 percent of his total pitches. He leads the Orioles staff in those categories and has also recorded the team’s highest swinging strike percentage (17.1 percent).

With each start, Cashner seems to get better and better. He went five innings in his debut against the Twins, six in the next start in the Bronx and seven most recently against the Jays. By my calculations, we should see a complete game here in two starts. Maybe that’s not how it works. Either way, Cashner has been a nice compliment to this rotation and has allowed just five earned runs to three of the American League’s toughest offenses.

Wednesday night was Gausman’s first quality start of the season and he, too, much like Cashner, has seen improvement in each of his outings. Gausman showed his best command against the Blue Jays, with a 44.3 zone percentage and as a result picked up a season-high seven strikeouts. For him, it’s all about repeating what he did in the second half of 2017. He posted a 3.41 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break, struck out nearly two more per nine (9.6) and lowered his WHIP from 1.763 to 1.204. The Orioles could really use that guy through all of 2018.

On Saturday, the Birds rotation gets another improvement as newcomer Cobb makes his debut in orange and black. Cobb is no stranger to the difficulties of pitching in the AL East, all six of his years in the big leagues having been with the Rays. His career 3.50 ERA makes him an anchor atop the Orioles staff and on Saturday he faces a Red Sox team that he has seen 14 times over his career and held to a .233 batting average.

There’s reason to be excited about the Orioles starting rotation. No longer does it feel like the offense has to produce five runs or more to come out on top. This staff can limit the damage and hopefully take some pressure off an offense that is still warming up. I still believe the bats will come around, the only direction to go is up, but in the meantime, it’s nice to see that the rotation can limit the damage and preserve the bullpen. That’s been a challenge for the Orioles over the last five seasons.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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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