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Two Up, Two Down: What's Gone Right, Wrong For Orioles Pitchers

July 11, 2019
You know about surprising All-Star John Means, and you know about the disastrous season of Dan Straily. In between, there have been some encouraging pitching performances for the Orioles, but mostly some not very good ones. I'll examine two of each below. 

Up: Andrew Cashner

It's pretty well documented that the Orioles lack quality trade chips. There's no Manny Machado or even Kevin Gausman here. Still, Andrew Cashner is putting together a nice bounce-back year and arguably one of his best seasons. 

Cashner currently has a 3.83 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 96.1 innings pitched. His 1.8 fWAR is also right behind John Means (1.9). Compared to last year, Cashner's ERA is nearly 1.5 runs better, and his FIP is more than a run lower. His walk and strikeout numbers are also improved, plus he's inducing more ground balls and keeping the ball in the ballpark: 

2018: 14.5 K%, 9.5 BB%, 13.6% HR/FB, 40.4 GB%
2019: 16.5 K%, 7.3 BB%, 10.6% HR/FB, 49.2 GB%

How's he doing it? First, his four-seam fastball, which he's throwing nearly 46 percent of the time, hasn't been nearly as bad. By pitch values, Cashner's four-seamer last year rated in the bottom 10 among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings. It still rates as a below-average pitch, but it has still been better. And he's also all but ditched his two-seam fastball and opted to throw the four-seamer more.

But the real weapon has been Cashner's changeup. Before this season, he had only thrown the pitch more than 21 percent one time -- and that came in 2012. So far, he's throwing it a quarter of the time. Cashner's pitch trails only two other starters' lethal changeups in terms of pitch value: Luis Castillo and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Yes, that means it rates better than Means' changeup.

Cashner's changeup is generating the most whiffs per swing (28.9 percent) among his offerings and the second-highest grounders per ball in play (55.8 percent). That has made it his most effective pitch by far, with a .208 wOBA and .281 xwOBA. 

Cashner has been somewhat unlucky, as his .256 BABIP would be a career low. His xwOBA (.340) is also 52 points higher than his wOBA (.288), which puts him just outside the top 10 in expected difference. Still, even if you can't fully buy in, the improved changeup is an exciting development, and some contending team could come calling soon for a back-end starter.

Up: Shawn Armstrong

It's a little sad that it's come to this. Armstrong has been a competent relief option for the O's in the first half. But because of how bad so many other O's relievers have been, by default, that means Armstrong has been one of their best weapons out of the bullpen. 

With a 6.21 ERA and 5.57 FIP -- both MLB worsts -- the bullpen has been a complete dumpster fire. No one expected this group to be dominant, but it was far from a stretch to consider the bullpen the strongest part of a weak team. But, nope, it's been the weakest. 

Since essentially swapping places with Mike Wright, who was traded to the Mariners a few days before the O's selected Armstrong off waivers from Seattle, Armstrong (aka "New Mike Wright") has put up a 4.39 ERA and 4.36 FIP in 26.2 innings.

If you want, this is where you can stop and just focus on the positives. But if you drill down a little more, it's worth wondering how long Armstrong can keep this up. His xwOBA (.362) is in the 11th percentile among pitchers. His hard-hit rate (39.3 percent) is also below average, and he's getting barreled up at an alarming rate (14.3 percent, in the bottom 1 percent of the league). 

One interesting thing about Armstrong is that his one elite trait this season has been the high spin rate on his four-seam fastball. It ranks in the 98th percentile, with only 13 other pitchers registering more spin with the pitch. However, his average four-seam velocity is 93 mph, which is tied for 242nd. He has been getting more whiffs with the pitch compared to last season, but it's also not something he hasn't done in limited samples in previous years.

Armstrong has been far from dominant, but he was picked up for nothing and has been fine. Unfortunately, that it's noteworthy at all says more about the underachieving arms around him.

Down: Mychal Givens

Orioles 2019: Mychal Givens (Opening Day)
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

On the flip side, there's Givens. With an ERA and FIP that are both close to 5.00, his first half was one to forget. But unlike Armstrong, who has decent results that weren't really expected, Givens was supposed to be the one reliable arm in the O's bullpen. It hasn't played out that way.

Givens' issues have been twofold: walks and home runs. His walk percentage of 11.2 is close to his career high (11.5 percent) back in 2016. That's coincided with him striking out more batters than ever (34.3 K%), but he's also allowing 2.1 home runs per nine innings (previous career high of 1.1). More than a quarter of the fly balls hit against him have left the ballpark (previous career high of 12.7 percent). 

Givens fares very well when looking at some of the Statcast numbers. In 2019, he rates above average in fastball velocity, fastball spin, strikeout percentage, exit velocity, xwOBA and hard-hit percentage. But he's allowed barrels almost 12 percent of the time, which is in the bottom 6 percent of all pitchers. His previous career worst barrel percentage was about half that in 2017. 

Givens is surely a better pitcher than what he's done so far this season, but it's also worth wondering if maybe he thrives in a situation where he's a team's third- or fourth-best reliever, and not the go-to guy. Throughout his career, he's done much better when he pitches in low- or medium-leverage situations instead of high-leverage ones: 

High leverage: 138 tOPS+ (403 PA)
Medium leverage: 87 tOPS+ (292 PA)
Low leverage: 78 tOPS+ (510 PA)

That pattern has been even more lopsided this year, with Givens posting a tOPS+ of 157 in high-leverage situations and one of 51 or below for low- and medium-leverage ones. That doesn't always have to be what Givens is, but it's what he's been. And that blemish, along with his underwhelming first half, will almost certainly limit the return the O's can get for him at the trade deadline, even with him having two arbitration years remaining.

Down: David Hess

Orioles 2019: David Hess (arm out)
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Hess is the only pitcher here who isn't currently on the O's roster, and it's almost remarkable how swift his downfall has been. Grading on a curve considering how terrible the 2018 Orioles were, Hess' rookie season, in which he finished with a 4.88 ERA in 103.1 innings, was somewhat interesting. He started 19 games and didn't completely fall on his face, and that, combined with good health, earned him a spot in the 2019 rotation.

Hess got off to a promising start, throwing two scoreless innings out of the bullpen as the season just got underway, and then, most notably, getting the start a few days later in Toronto and throwing 6.1 hitless innings before being removed from the game. Factoring in the short rest and the outing being Hess' first start, the hot takes surrounding the move were rather misguided. 

Regardless, those first two appearances were the only times Hess didn't allow a run, and he eventually lost his place in the rotation, and then on the team. Altogether, he posted an awful 6.95 ERA and 6.81 FIP in 66 innings. He also allowed 2.73 home runs per nine innings, though somehow that's only third worst among all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. (If you lower that threshold to 40 innings, Straily's absurd 4.15 HR/9 blows everyone out of the water.)

Hess' days of starting may not be completely over, but he's now pitching in relief for Triple-A Norfolk. The early results have been encouraging: In 13 innings, he has a 3.46 ERA, 2.71 FIP, and is striking out one-third of the batters he's faced while walking less than 6 percent of them.

Looking at what we know about how the new O's regime values player development, it's likely they'd believe Hess never completed his development. Hess graduated from High-A Frederick in 2015 and then spent parts of three seasons pitching for Double-A Bowie. Then, he pitched fewer than 50 innings for Triple-A Norfolk in 2018 and was optioned four separate times.  

It remains to be seen what Hess will be. A failed starter becoming a useful reliever is well-worn territory, and that would be an acceptable consolation prize for an Orioles team in which fairly good pitching would be a significant upgrade. Like many of the other interesting arms currently on Norfolk's roster -- including Cody Carroll, Branden Kline, Hunter Harvey, Evan Phillips, Tanner Scott and more -- there's time to get things right.

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox