It might not have been aesthetically pleasing -- to borrow a phrase from Orioles manager Buck Showalter -- but the 2015 O's have weathered an up-and-down season to contend in the tightly contested American League East. The Birds' roller-coaster ride saw them fall to a season-low six games below .500 June 3, then rise seven games above .500 three weeks later. At the 81-game midpoint of the season, the O's had the same 42-39 record as the 2014 AL East-winning Birds. Here's a look at what went right, and what didn't, for the 2015 Orioles during the first half.
To say the Orioles' offense has been an enigma would be an understatement. The Orioles swung hot bats out of the gate in April, disappeared offensively in May, returned with a vengeance in June and then suffered 26.2 consecutive scoreless innings during the first week of July. From April through June, the Orioles' month-by-month rank in the AL in on-base plus slugging percentage went from first to last to second. In runs per game, they ranked first, then second-to-last, then second. So although the O's have had an above-average offense overall, they've been prone to extended, team-wide hitting slumps.
If the first half of 2015 is any indication, third baseman Manny Machado is ready to bust out as a certified superstar. After an injury-plagued 2014 season -- which started late because of one knee surgery, and ended early with another -- Machado has returned to full health and has taken the league by storm in 2015. During his first 83 games, Machado powered 18 home runs -- already a career high -- and collected 47 RBIs, while batting .301/.360/.531/.891, on pace for career bests in every category. Machado has even added speed to his game, going 13-for-15 in stolen base attempts while settling in as the Birds' leadoff hitter.
Elsewhere, the most surprising offensive contribution has come from designated hitter Jimmy Paredes. Paredes was a minor league journeyman who spent time in four organizations before latching on with the O's in 2014. Now, he's a mainstay in the Birds' lineup, breaking out for a .305/.335/.492/.826 slash line with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs during his first 63 games.
The Orioles began the season with a slew of candidates for the vacant left field and right field positions. But after three months, none had stepped up to claim an everyday spot. Alejandro De Aza (.636 OPS during 30 games) and Delmon Young (.628 during 52 games) both hit so poorly that the O's jettisoned them from the roster. Offseason acquisition Travis Snider showed little power -- with three home runs during his first 58 games -- and David Lough continued his early-2014 struggles at the plate.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment was Steve Pearce. After a career year in 2014 -- when he batted .293/.373/.556/.930 with 21 homers during 102 games -- regression has hit Pearce hard in 2015. During his first 53 games, Pearce batted .233 with a .685 OPS and six home runs, losing his spot as a regular starter and getting relegated to a platoon role against lefties.
Coming off back-to-back excellent defensive seasons in 2013 and 2014, the Orioles were expected to be strong with the leather again in 2015. That didn't hold true in April, when the O's committed errors during 10 out of 11 games at one point, including an uncharacteristic defensive slump by the Gold Glover Machado. But Machado has since corrected his throwing woes, and the return of three-time Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy after an April disabled list stint has returned the Birds' defense to its usual sharp form.
Based on FanGraphs' advanced defensive metrics, Machado -- despite committing a team-leading 12 errors as of July 6 -- was the Orioles' best fielder during the first half, with 10 defensive runs saved and a 6.1 ultimate zone rating, both tops on the team. Ranking second in both categories was center fielder Adam Jones (five DRS, 4.8 UZR), a four-time Gold Glover himself. And Hardy, despite not making his season debut until May 7, has made up for lost time in the field, registering three DRS and a 4.2 UZR, as of July 6.
The Orioles' revolving door of corner outfielders has struggled not just offensively but defensively. The now-departed Young was pressed into extensive defensive duty in 2015, making 39 outfield starts and looking miscast in the role. Despite a strong arm, Young's range and hands were lacking. And in the infield, offseason signing Everth Cabrera -- who filled in at shortstop during Hardy's absence -- rated as the Orioles' worst defender in DRS (-4 at shortstop) before the O's cut him loose in June.
If there's one thing that has kept the Orioles from separating themselves from the pack in the AL East race, it's their rotation. After 82 games, O's starting pitchers ranked in the bottom half of the league in ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts and OPS against. With a cumulative 4.12 ERA, as of July 6, the 2015 Orioles starters will need to step up in the second half if they want to replicate the success of the 2014 rotation (3.61 ERA).
Two O's starters have stood out during the first half: one a quiet, steady performer, and the other a feel-good comeback story. Fitting the former category is lefty Wei-Yin Chen, whose modest 4-4 record during his first 16 starts doesn't reflect how well he truly pitched. Chen's 2.82 ERA during that span was ninth best in the AL, and his 1.10 WHIP ranked seventh. At 29 years old, Chen could be on his way to a career year -- just in time for his offseason free agency.
But most of the attention in the Orioles' rotation has gone to righty Ubaldo Jimenez, who -- after a miserable debut season in Baltimore -- is finally making good on the four-year, $50 million contract he signed Feb. 19, 2014. Jimenez has made a night-and-day turnaround from last season, going 7-4 with a 2.96 ERA during his first 16 starts of 2015, racking up 93 strikeouts in 94.1 innings. Most importantly, he's sliced his walk rate in half, from 5.5 walks per nine innings to 2.8.
Just as Chen and Jimenez have battled for the honor of most effective O's starter, righties Chris Tillman and Bud Norris have vied for the opposite title. Both have been big disappointments in 2015 after enjoying success the previous year. Tillman, who had been a reliable presence in the Birds' rotation since 2012, has gone off the rails with a 5.57 ERA during his first 16 starts of 2015, compiling his worst hit rate, walk rate and strikeout rate since 2010.
But Tillman has at least kept his spot in the rotation for now, which is more than can be said for Norris. Norris' first 11 starts of the year were such a disaster -- a 2-7 record, 6.79 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and 11 home runs allowed in 55.2 innings -- that the O's banished him to the bullpen before the All-Star break. Opposing hitters were batting .311 with a .922 OPS against Norris as a starter.
The Orioles' bullpen, like their defense, got off to a slow start in 2015. O's relievers allowed earned runs during each of the club's first 10 games of the season and compiled a 4.35 ERA in April, second-worst in the AL. But since then, the bullpen has gelled into the same steady unit O's fans have seen the past three years. As of July 6, the bullpen had lowered its season ERA to 2.86, ranking third in the AL.
The Orioles' usual eighth- and ninth-inning duo of setup man Darren O'Day and closer Zach Britton is one of the most dominant in the majors, and both pitchers were rewarded with selections to the AL All-Star team. Britton converted 23 of his first 24 save opportunities, with a 1.86 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. His devastating sinker has continued to befuddle hitters. During his first 34 games, Britton induced, on average, seven grounders for every one fly ball.
O'Day has also done his own part in locking down late-inning leads. During his first 34 games, O'Day went 5-0 with a 1.10 ERA, leading O's relievers with an 11.8 strikeouts per nine rate. If O'Day keeps up that pace during the second half, he'll have the best season of his already sterling four-year Orioles career.
Back in 2012, the Orioles converted two struggling starting pitchers -- righty Tommy Hunter and lefty Brian Matusz -- to relievers. Both were instant successes, bolstering the bullpen for the stretch run, and it seemed as if their careers had found new life. But three years later, both are losing their effectiveness out of the pen. Hunter scuffled to a 4.29 ERA during his first 32 games of 2015, allowing more hits per nine than any of his prior seasons in relief.
Meanwhile, Matusz's first-half ERA (2.36 during 26 games) looks fine on the surface, but he struggled with his command, issuing 16 walks in 26.2 innings. He has also become unreliable in close games. In situations classified as "high leverage" -- critical spots during which the game is on the line -- Matusz has walked 10 of the 28 batters he's faced this season. Barring a second-half renaissance, the O's might soon part ways with Matusz, their first-round draft pick in 2008.