SARASOTA, Fla. - In handicapping the fifth starter competition, some have labeled Jake Arrieta the favorite, or at least one of the top pitchers with the best shot to win that job.
Arrieta has pitched well during spring training with an ERA of 2.38. Over 11 1/3 innings he has allowed seven hits and three runs with six walks and seven strikeouts. He has pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings over his last two outings. In his past three outings, counting three innings against Spain's WBC team (not counted in the regular stats) on March 6, he has thrown 11 2/3 frames without allowing one earned run.
But what, if anything, can we read into Buck Showalter's recent comments about the right-hander?
On March 11, Arrieta pitched four innings of shutout two-hit ball against Pittsburgh. Among Showalter's postgame comments, he said this about Arrieta:
"Jake was OK. He only had four first-pitch strikes. That's something he's going to have to get better at. That's why he had some deep counts he shouldn't have had, but statistically, the results were there. He's got to get some counts in his favor."
Five days later - last Saturday at Dunedin - Arrieta pitched 4 2/3 innings of three-hit shutout ball against Toronto. Here is what Showalter said after that outing:
"I don't mean to be picky or anything, but that's an outing, carrying that kind of stuff, that he should go deep. Think he had seven three-ball counts. Only had, I think, eight of 20 first-pitch strikes. So there is room for improvement, but that tells you how good his stuff was today because he got by with it."
Is Showalter being tough on Arrieta here? Maybe he is just demanding more from a talented pitcher that he knows can deliver more. Or is he questioning Arrieta's lack of pitch efficiency and wondering if running up a high pitch count is a real concern. The sooner any team has to go to its bullpen, the more outs that 'pen has to cover and that can impact games the next day or next several days.
So while Arrieta's results are very good - you can't do better than not giving up any runs - is the pitch count going to keep him from winning the fifth starter's job? Should it?
These are all great questions and while Showalter is often very insightful with his postgame comments, he is not going to come right out and handicap this race for any reporter. We have to glean from that what we choose to and that doesn't mean we will be right or wrong, just that we are speculating.
If competition can bring out the best in people, we've seen some of that here among the pitchers. Brian Matusz has pitched to a 2.40 ERA over 15 innings. Those that have projected him only for a bullpen role may need to rethink that. Zach Britton had an ERA of 2.08 before yesterday's outing against the Blue Jays. Steve Johnson has an ERA of 2.00 over nine innings. Kevin Gausman has probably pitched well enough to get the spot, but it would be a real surprise if he does as he still seems ticketed for the minors and a likely start in Double-A Bowie's rotation.
Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland should not be counted out of this race either. Over his last three outings, he has pitched eight innings, allowing three hits and no runs. He is making the O's decision about whether to keep him very difficult.
I keep wondering how the Orioles' decision on the fifth starter impacts him. No. 1, he could win that job. Or No. 2, say if another lefty gets the fifth starter's job, perhaps Matusz, does that make it easier for the O's to keep another lefty, say McFarland, in their bullpen?
Arrieta gets the start tonight for the Birds against Pittsburgh. Johnson starts tomorrow against Tampa Bay and Jair Jurrjens is also scheduled to pitch in that game.
As the days of spring training dwindle to a precious few, the intrigue in this pitching competition just increases.