Reviewing the Orioles’ first half

The Orioles were 10 games over .500 at the All-Star break last year and they are 10 over .500 this year at 52-42. But unlike last season, they are not in third place. Then they were 4 1/2 games out of first place. Now they hold first place by four games.

This is the first time the Orioles lead the division at the All-Star break since they had a seven-game lead in 1997.

Any review of the Orioles’ first half has to ultimately end with that. The Orioles are in first place. That fact alone gets the team good grades so far. Sure the American League East is down, but first place is always the goal.

Winning the AL East would be huge for this franchise. It would give the O’s their first AL East title since 1997. It would also mean they will play in a five-game series in the postseason and not have to take part in a winner-take-all wild card game.

The Orioles have a tough schedule coming out of the break. They will play 26 straight games against teams currently with winning records. It starts with a grueling 10-game West Coast trip.

The Orioles are 22-23 against teams currently with winning records and 30-19 against clubs with losing records.

A look at the O’s offense at the break the last two years:

In 2013: 4.8 runs per game, .266 average, .316 OBP, .446 slugging, .762 OPS, 132 homers.
In 2014: 4.3 runs per game, .265 average, .318 OBP, .420 slugging, .738 OPS, 114 homers.

The Orioles are pretty much who we thought they were. They don’t have a high on-base percentage and do rely a lot on homers. We knew that in March. The offense is prone to ups and downs, and lacks consistency.

The Orioles rank second in the AL in homers, third in batting average, fourth in OPS, seventh in runs and 13th in walks.

Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz are having big years. With a solid second half from Chris Davis, the O’s would have a very formidable middle of the order. Manny Machado’s bat was heating up as the first half ended and that is very promising. Nick Markakis has been solid. Steve Pearce has been amazing. The Caleb Joseph-Nick Hundley catching duo has been much better on offense in recent weeks.

With solid pitching and defense, the Orioles have enough offense to win.

The defense: The Orioles defense never rests. It is again among the best in baseball. On Saturday, the Orioles threw two Yankees out at the plate. On the first play, they executed a perfect relay, something they do often. On Sunday, they picked up their 23rd outfield assist of the year.

Davis, for all the criticism his offense has gotten, is a plus defender at first and Machado’s defense at third, which seemed subpar by his standards early in the year, is back. Machado is again a difference-maker with the glove. The Orioles seldom beat themselves, something we see other teams do nightly in baseball.

A look at the pitching at the All-Star break the last two years:

O’s in 2013: 4.39 overall ERA, 4.79 starters’ ERA, 3.68 bullpen ERA.
O’s in 2014: 3.83 overall ERA, 4.09 starters’ ERA, 3.39 bullpen ERA.

Save the most important for last, right?

The O’s are pitching much better at this point this season than they were last year at the break.

The Orioles are doing OK here, but it could be better. Their team ERA however of 3.83 ranks tied for fourth-best in the AL and that is a good stat for the team that ranks higher in the AL in ERA than in runs scored, where they are seventh.

The starters’ ERA of 4.09 is tied for 10th in the AL and just below the league average of 4.06. The O’s rank next to last in the AL with 39 quality starts. They are sixth in bullpen ERA.

But the O’s starters have been getting better in the last month or so. Over the last 33 games, they have an ERA of 3.18. Oakland leads the AL in rotation ERA at 3.13.

Chris Tillman had a strong finish to the first half and that was a great development as he quieted any talk that he is injured or lacking his previous velocity. Ubaldo Jimenez has been better since May 1, but the constant battle to find consistent mechanics can drive one crazy. He’s on the DL now, but can Ubaldo have another big second half? It would be huge if he can.

Moving forward, Kevin Gausman may be the most important player here. If they let him pitch every fifth day, the Orioles will likely end the year looking better in the team starting pitching stats. Bud Norris has been solid, while Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez have been both good and bad at times.

Will the O’s use a six-man rotation for any period of time or will someone be the odd man out here?

Do the O’s have enough pitch to win? Yes, they can take the East with this staff. Can they go deep in October? That is a tougher one to answer.

If you want to find issues with the Orioles, you can. Davis is batting .199, J.J. Hardy has just three homers, they are not getting much offense from second base and the starting pitching was inconsistent until this most recent 33-game stretch.

But there are plenty of positives, too. Jones and Cruz have been consistently good. Zach Britton has been a very good closer. The defense is airtight and the Orioles are 9-3 in extra-inning games. They are playing their best baseball of the year now, with wins in 10 of 13 and 15 of their last 22 games. They are 26-15 since May 31.

The O’s face a challenging schedule to start the second half. But the East is there for the taking. The O’s are in the rare position of being the team everyone in the division is chasing as the second half begins.

There sure appears to be a great chance that this regular season ends with the Orioles atop the AL East for the first time in 17 years.

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