Apr 16, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Zach Britton throws in the sixth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles defeated the Rays 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
Should the Baltimore Orioles consider reversing the pitching roles of Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton? Gonzalez has struggled greatly this season to go deep into games, and Zach Britton has probably the most effective stuff on the Orioles pitching staff at this moment in time.
Gonzalez has not been the only Orioles pitcher to struggle with this issue, but he may be the biggest offender now that the team has essentially gone through the rotation roughly six times. Each of the five starters has shown signs of breaking out of this deadly problem. But clearly it is becoming an issue that must change, and even Buck Showalter cycled back to talk about this in his brief post-game interview yesterday (Sunday in Minnesota).
So should Britton be considered to be stretched out into a starter’s role? If it is going to happen this year, it would be best sooner than later. Most Orioles followers, and management as well, have in mind that Kevin Gausman is going to be an effective rotation starter for the latter half of the season. As I wrote quickly in the last article, in my own pitching experience when dealing with pneumonia, there is a systemic weakening that comes with this malady that brings about a fatigue that does not go away quickly. All to say, maybe several circumstances and events are converging toward a shift in strategy.
As recently as a week ago I was singing a bit of a different tune: “Britton has a 1.17 ERA in 10 games with 15.1 innings pitched. Some folks are clamoring for him to become a starter. But at his current pace he will appear in 67-68 games instead of 30 or so as a starter. He is on pace to throw 103 innings – these innings being at more critical times of games than the 180 approximate total innings he would accumulate if made into a starter.”
Miguel Gonzalez is a very fine pitcher. He has been a great asset for the Baltimore Orioles, and has been that at a bargain price – lots of bang for the buck here! He is a pitcher and not just a thrower. But as such, his margins for error are small. And after a few innings when fatigue begins to set in, his margins evaporate quickly.
The truth is that this is not a recent issue; Gonzalez has often struggled to go deep into games. It is often the 5th or 6th inning where troubles suddenly multiply as the margins evaporate. He has pitched beyond the 6th inning in only 30% of his starts.
The statistics on Gonzalez clearly support the argument being made today. His BAA (batting average against) for the first six innings in a game is .237, but it balloons to .323 in the 7th inning and beyond. Similarly, in his first 60 pitches in a game the BAA is .222, but in pitches 61 and beyond it is .279.
To be honest and completely fair, it is not as if Britton has career numbers that are categorically different. Zach’s number are actually sort of odd in some regards, as in innings seven and beyond his BAA is an incredible .149 … indicating (with a sample size that is not extra large) that when he has been good, he has been very good.
But the Zach Britton we see this year does not even look that much like the person in years prior. He is in great shape and pitching at the top of his game.
So, having said all that is above, I would suggest that it is time to get Britton in a starting role, and then still use Gonzalez as a longer multiple-innings reliever, or frequent-day reliever. His personality is well-suited for this. He would end up pitching nearly as many innings, and those innings would be at a more effective total ERA.
Something will have to be done. The Baltimore Orioles are 27th in all of baseball in total innings pitched by starters. Buck said, “If we keep doing this, we are really going to need to pay the piper down the road.”
Why not pay the piper now?