When we talk about the area where the Orioles will need to make the biggest improvement from 2011 to 2012, we usually wind up talking about the pitching staff. The Orioles’ team ERA of 4.89 last year was the worst in Major League Baseball.
The ERA of the starting rotation was an awful 5.39 and the Orioles’ 60 quality starts were the fewest in all of baseball. No other team had fewer than 71.
In looking for those stats to get better, fans and reporters often discuss which pitchers could be acquired to help the staff. But I feel the biggest chance for the Orioles to improve in this area may be with the pitchers that are already here.
If the big three young hurlers - Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton - don’t take steps forward next year, I’ll be surprised. All three can be better and it’s not like it would take a career year or performance from any of the three for that to happen.
Matusz went 1-9 with an ERA of 10.69 so it would be hard for him not to improve - probably in just showing up. You just can’t convince me that Matusz is terrible and that all he did in 2009 and 2010 in pitching to an ERA of 4.37 was not the real him. He can get back to pitching like that, or maybe even better.
Whatever theory you have for Matusz’s struggles last year, some of that had to be on him. Whatever he needs to do better for next year - whether it is show up in better condition, prepare better or have a more confident outlook - I sense he will take care of that. Only he knows for sure if he fully prepared himself to pitch in 2011.
Arrieta went 10-8 with a 5.05 ERA last year. His batting average against of .253 was the best among all O’s starters and showed me that Arrieta is tough to hit. I think when he truly learns to trust his stuff, which is some of the best on the staff, his command will improve and so will his other stats. He walked 59 in 119 1/3 innings last year and it’s time for him to attack more hitters as he realizes how good he can be.
Plus, Arrieta had bone spurs removed from his right elbow at the end of last season. How much difference will that make for him? Arrieta downplayed that the spurs impacted his pitching much, but a pitcher with a healthy elbow probably has a better chance to suceed and his should be 100 percent sound for spring training.
Britton probably got as much of an education last year in going 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA as any rookie pitcher in recent memory. He had to overcome a mid-season slump and a couple of trips to the minors, not to mention one to the disabled list also.
The guy absorbed back-to-back first-inning beatings at New York and Boston in July where he gave up 17 runs over a total of one inning. His ERA was 3.87 minus those two starts.
Britton showed how mentally tough he is in coming back from that. I don’t think it was a fluke that he went 5-2 with an ERA of 2.14 in his first nine big league starts.
Of the three young pitchers, I probably have the most confidence that Britton will take a step forward in 2012.
Jeremy Guthrie could improve on his 4.33 ERA and Tommy Hunter is a pitcher that went 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA in 22 starts for the 2010 American League champion Texas Rangers.
Some of the late-season bullpen acquisitions like Pedro Strop, Zach Phillips and Willie Eyre look like players that can help next season also. Plus, Troy Patton finally got his chance last season and pitched well.
The Orioles’ pitching should improve even before they add anyone. It all starts with Matusz, Arrieta and Britton. Going into last year the club was banking a big part of its future on this trio of young hurlers. They still are.
None of this is to say the club doesn’t need to acquire pitching help for next year. That is almost a given for this offseason. But there is also a decent chance that the pitching can get better with what is already here.