Five biggest Orioles surprises of the first half

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Though standing at just 44-44 and in third place in the American League East, the Orioles have benefited from their share of surprises as they now look toward the second half of the 2015 season.

A staple of the prosperity during the Showalter-Duquette era has been the emergence of at least a couple relative unknowns to make key contributions each season while counting on established players to either rebound from previous disappointments or to take their talents to a new level. Even if their season hasn’t gone exactly to plan through the All-Star break, the Orioles have experienced a little bit of everything in terms of pleasant surprises.

Below are my five biggest individual surprises of the first half of the season:

Honorable mention: Darren O’Day, Ryan Flaherty

5. Zach Britton

Why does an All-Star closer with an ERA just a shade higher than it was a year ago belong on the list of surprises? A deeper look at the numbers shows just how dominant Britton has been in his second year as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man.

Relying on a heavy sinker to induce grounder after grounder last season, Britton converted 37 of 41 save opportunities and pitched to a 1.65 ERA, slightly lower than his 1.72 mark this year. However, the lefty benefited greatly from opponents batting .219 on balls in play (BABIP) in 2014, much lower than the league average of .297.

Such numbers would have made it reasonable — if not very likely — to expect some regression similar to what fellow sinkerballer Jim Johnson endured in 2013, but Britton has been even more imposing despite not being nearly as fortunate. Opponents have a .304 BABIP against Britton, but he’s overcome that with an improved slider to help increase his strikeout rate per nine innings (7.3 in 2014 to 10.1) while decreasing his walk rate per nine (2.7 to 2.0).

Simply put, Britton hasn’t been nearly as “lucky” as he was a year ago, but he’s pitching to less contact and still inducing a boatload of grounders when opponents do hit the ball. Britton had a great season in 2014, but he’s established himself as one of the best closers in the game by converting 23 of 24 save chances so far in 2015, numbers that rightly earned him a trip to his first All-Star Game.

4. Manny Machado

It was difficult to know what to expect from the 23-year-old third baseman after he suffered a second serious knee injury in less than a year last August. Machado’s defense and gap power established him as an All-Star-caliber player in 2013, but he’s blossomed into one of the best players in the AL this season and the kind of performer the Orioles hoped he might become one day.

Serving in the leadoff role out of necessity — who else could even handle the role right now? — Machado is hitting .298 with a .361 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 35 walks, and 13 stolen bases, numbers which are all already career highs. And while the Orioles will continue to knock on wood and keep their fingers crossed for his health, Machado has started all 88 games at third base and you’d never know he has two surgically-repaired knees while watching him play.

Machado has been the club’s best player by a significant margin, continuing to play Gold Glove defense and providing the kind of offense that’s turned him into an MVP candidate in 2015. According to Baseball Reference, the 2010 first-round pick ranks second behind only Mike Trout in the American League with 4.8 wins above replacement.

Taking nothing away from Adam Jones who is having a fine year and has been the club’s best player for several years, we could be seeing the passing of the torch this season with Machado emerging as the kind of rare superstar who makes the game look easy. The Orioles and their fans just pray the injuries are finally behind him.

3. Chaz Roe

Though it’s also a reflection on a disappointing winter, I doubt anyone would have projected the minor-league signing of a 28-year-old reliever with a career 4.44 ERA last December to be their best offseason addition so far in 2015.

Beginning the season at Triple-A Norfolk, Roe quickly established himself as a viable option for manager Buck Showalter in the late innings with a two-seam fastball and a devastating slider that’s helped him strike out 30 hitters while posting a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings with the Orioles.

Roe has struggled of late by allowing six earned runs in his last five outings, but it’s clear the Orioles saw something in the right-hander as he’s throwing his two-seamer more than ever and the movement on his slider has baffled hitters since he was called up in May. His stuff should allow him to remain an effective member of the bullpen even as he’ll need to make adjustments in the second half.

2. Ubaldo Jimenez

Perhaps his track record suggests his rebound shouldn’t have been so surprising, but anyone who watched Jimenez pitch in 2014 couldn’t have easily imagined him being one of their two best starters in his second season in Baltimore.

Simplified mechanics, the heaviest reliance on his two-seam fastball since his 2010 All-Star season with Colorado, and a dramatically improved walk rate (just 2.9 per nine innings this year after an awful 5.5 in 2014) have made Jimenez the pitcher the Orioles envisioned when they signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract last year. His improvement is a major reason why the Orioles remain firmly in contention despite poor seasons from Chris Tillman and Bud Norris.

After throwing his two-seamer just 16.4 percent of the time a year ago, Jimenez has used the pitch more than a third of the time (37 percent) this year to induce more grounders while still striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings. It was a brilliant adjustment to make for the 31-year-old to better take advantage of one of the best defensive infields in baseball.

In the second half, consistency will be the key for Jimenez as it has been throughout his career, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for much better from him than a 7-4 record with a 2.81 ERA and a 3.21 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark that is easily the best of the rotation. Other than maybe only Wei-Yin Chen, there’s not another starter Showalter would want to take the ball more on a given night as Jimenez will make the first start of the second half in Detroit on Friday.

1. Jimmy Paredes

Who else could it really be?

After hitting .302 in 55 plate appearances late last year, the 26-year-old was a name of interest in spring training but hardly someone most predicted to make the 25-man roster. Paredes was out of minor-league options and lacked a position with the defensive-minded Orioles, but he stated his case by hitting .364 with a 1.005 OPS in 55 Grapefruit League at-bats before a back injury landed him on the disabled list to begin the year.

Once Jonathan Schoop went down with a knee injury in mid-April, Paredes got the call and hit an astounding .353 in his first 143 plate appearances this year. A 4-for-41 slump that dropped his average 59 points in two weeks appeared to signal the end of a nice story, but the switch hitter has bounced back to hit a very steady .310 in his last 91 plate appearances dating back to June 12.

Clearly better from the left side of the plate, Paredes hinders Showalter’s lineup flexibility with his defensive limitations — the Orioles want him to learn to play the corner outfield spots this winter — but it’s difficult to nitpick a man who was such an unknown. Paredes is hitting .299 with 10 homers, 39 RBIs, and an .809 OPS in 277 plate appearances this year and has been the club’s third-best offensive player behind Machado and Jones.

His 69 strikeouts are the highest on the club behind only Chris Davis, but Paredes has drawn six walks in his last 51 plate appearances, which the Orioles hope is a sign of improved discipline at the plate. Time will tell whether Paredes sticks, but it’s hard not to be impressed — and really surprised — with what he’s accomplished so far in 2015.