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Trying Times for O's Starting Rotation

June 27, 2006

By Louis Berney

Forget the series finale last week against the Florida Marlins. In possibly the Orioles’ worst game of the season, fans witnessed a squandered 5-1 lead going into the ninth, Chris Ray’s first blown save of 2006, Todd Williams giving up the winning run on ball one of an intentional walk and Miguel Tejada playing shortstop as if he were in the World Cup.

Kris Benson leads the Orioles' staff with eight wins and 11 quality starts.  (Sabina Moran/PressBox)

Forget the fact that the Orioles “bolstered” their starting pitching three days later by adding 32-year-old journeyman Russ Ortiz, whose record over the past two years is 5-16.
Forget the fact that rookie pitching prospect Adam Loewen was less than spectacular in five starts before the Orioles banished him back to the minors.

And forget the fact that Daniel Cabrera, MLB’s leader in walks, was wilder than ever against the Washington Nationals, setting an all-time Oriole record for wild pitches in a single game with four and walking five all in under five innings.

Despite the team’s problems and the rough starts of Loewen and Cabrera, the rest of the team’s struggling rotation tried to turn things around. For the first time this season, the Orioles saw three consecutive outstanding starts. Erik Bedard, Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez combined 23 innings, giving up only 15 hits and two earned runs.

The three each went deeper into the game than usual, with Benson and Bedard each completing eight innings and Lopez going seven.

With almost half the season complete, Benson is the only starter to have recorded a complete game. Lopez, Cabrera and Benson have combined for only six complete games over the courses of their careers.
However, the Orioles’ rotation is not alone. Complete games have become conspicuously absent from baseball. The last time an American League pitcher had double digits in complete games, Scott Erickson recorded 11 for the Orioles in 1998.

“It’s a difference of philosophy,” said Jim Palmer, who completed 211 games in 521 starts. Today, the Hall of Famer said, managers allow pitch counts and their obsession with relief specialists, especially closers, to dictate the way starters are used. In Palmer's day, even when starters were struggling and giving up runs, managers kept them in until late in the game.

Ray Miller, the Orioles’ former manager and pitching coach, said young pitchers used to train themselves and become well-conditioned in the minor leagues so that they were prepared for longer starts, making pitch counts irrelevant.
In between starts, said Miller, pitchers used to run 25 laps between the foul lines every day. Now they run 10. Today, pitchers lift heavy weights to build arm strength, which Miller believes is not necessarily beneficial.
“Nobody used to lift weights,” he said. “Now they all lift weights, they have big chests. They used to have concave chests. And they get hurt all the time. Also, without the big salaries, I think guys were a lot hungrier then.”
Bedard and Cabrera, the two young starters in the Oriole rotation, are averaging less than six innings per start. Loewen was as well, before his demotion.

All three pitchers have been removed early in games because they go too deep into counts, throw too many balls and walk too many hitters. The Orioles have issued more walks than any other team in the AL and have the third-highest number of relief appearances.
Palmer and Miller think the Orioles, as well as other clubs, are too obsessed with pitch counts. Miller says teams today invest so much money in young starters that they feel the need to protect and baby them, careful to not overtax their arms. But how much of a difference does it really make, asked Palmer, if a young pitcher throws 14 or 18 pitches an inning, when he gets to rest for 10 minutes while his team is batting?
“All I know is the way we did it, and it worked,” Palmer said.

Miller thinks pitching prospects must see more innings before they are promoted to the majors. He suggested four-day rotations in the minors. “That way you learn the art of pitching, how to change speeds and read the bat,” he said. “Now everyone cares about velocity and pitch count. The art of pitching has gone out the window.”

The late Johnny Oates was a conservative field strategist when he managed the Orioles from 1991 through 1994. But he once floated a radical idea. Instead of designating pitchers as starters and relievers, Oates suggested, a manager could use every pitcher the same way by having them each throw only three innings every outing. That way three pitchers would pitch each game, and it really wouldn’t matter who threw first, middle, or last.
Perhaps Oates’ idea would suit the Orioles. With the exception of Benson, after all, the starters seem more geared toward throwing three innings than lasting into the eighth or ninth.

Issue 1.10: June 29, 2006