With all due respect to the A’s and White Sox, the Baltimore Orioles have been the most surprising team in baseball this year. The O’s currently sit just 3 games back of the division-leading Yankees with 30 to play, and are continuing to make up ground thanks to a 7-3 record in their last 10 ballgames, a stretch in which no other AL East team has been better than 4-6. The Fightin’ Showalters are tied with Oakland for the AL Wild Card lead, 1.5 games up on the Rays and currently hanging on to a playoff spot.
At the beginning of the season, through the end of April, when Baltimore was keeping pace with the titans of the AL East, it was easy to chalk it up to a few good bounces. At the end of May, with the team still firmly in the hunt, most of the credit went to the breakouts of star hitters Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. Now it’s September, and although the stars have faded somewhat, the team clearly hasn’t. I know that I personally had low expectations for the Orioles this year, as did many prognosticators, and that those doubts largely centered around the question marks in the team’s rotation.
It’s only fair, then, to give some credit to a rotation that, while unspectacular, has been just good enough to keep the Orioles in contention in the toughest division in baseball. The team traded away Jeremy Guthrie, who was (by ERA, at least) the team’s best starter in 2011. That trade brought back Jason Hammel, who has been a revelation in putting up a career year. Hammel’s numbers were inflated as a Rockie, as he did have to deal with making half his starts at Coors, and although Orioles brass could have reasonably expected some improvement, there’s no way they could have predicted his immediate success. Hammel has been Baltimore’s best pitcher, striking out nearly a batter an inning for a career high while keeping more than half of balls in play on the ground.
While Hammel has been impressive, perhaps the more pleasant surprise for the O’s has been the workload handled by Wei-Yin Chen. While knee injuries have cost Hammel some games this year, Chen has started each of his 27 turns this year, pitching 163.2 innings with numbers that aren’t lights-out but are certainly serviceable. Chen’s striking out just under one in five batters, but is still effective because of his impressive control. Chen’s already made the second-most starts of any Taiwanese-born player in MLB history. Chien-Ming Wang, Chen’s most prolific countryman in the game, struggled when he debuted in 2005, and the country’s second best pitcher, Hong-Chih Kuo, also struggled until later in his career. Many starters who have come over from Asia in the past, including Wang, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kei Igawa, had trouble adjusting to the American game. However, in the more recent past, Kenshin Kawakami, Hiroki Kuroda, and this year Chen and Yu Darvish (among others) have found immediate success on baseball’s biggest stage.
I’m not sure what that says about Chen’s long-term success, but I can tell you that the Orioles clearly hope he just keeps doing what he’s doing. Chen has been able to provide some stability to a rotation that hasn’t had anyone besides the aforementioned Jeremy Guthrie, exiled to the hurler’s hell that is Coors, pitch 200 innings since 2007. In the future, Chen can be a very capable back-of-the-rotation starter, excellently equipped to handle 30 starts and display some consistency to take some of the pressure off of the O’s developing starters. The hope is that if Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz begin unlocking a little more of their potential, and things go as planned with the freak of nature that is Dylan Bundy, Chen is an excellent complementary piece. However, as the centerpiece of the rotation in which he’s been forced to share the spotlight with Hammel, Chen has been just good enough to help keep Baltimore in the hunt.
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.