When last we heard from my brother-in-law Brian, he was sending me text messages during the Orioles’ 4-0 start, asking, “What’s our magic number?”
Needless to say, his mood has soured.
Brian, a die-hard Orioles fan who lives outside of Baltimore, called me the other night with one of his patented news “tips.”
“Check out our pitchers’ numbers since the pitching coach resigned,” he said, exasperated.
Now, contrary to what some Orioles fans believe, I don’t spend my waking hours thinking of new ways to mock a team I covered for 14 seasons as a beat writer and columnist for the Baltimore Sun.
But who am I to ignore my brother-in-law?
I contacted my good friends at STATS LLC and asked them to research the Orioles’ pitching numbers before and after June 14, the day that pitching coach Mark Connor resigned for personal reasons.
The statistics are disturbing, to say the least.
The Orioles were 30-33 with a 4.22 ERA when Rick Adair replaced Connor. Since then, they’re 13-30 with a 5.73 ERA. And that’s not all of it.
The Orioles’ rotation ERA through June 12 was 4.16, continuing a positive trend that began when Buck Showalter took over as manager last August. Since then it’s 6.59.
Virtually every one of the Orioles’ talented young pitchers — left-handers Brian Matusz and Zach Britton, right-hander Chris Tillman — has gone backward. And now righty Jake Arrieta, the most successful of the group, likely will need season-ending elbow surgery.
What the heck happened? Did the resignation of Connor cause the entire staff to crumble?
“We’re not pitching really well. We weren’t pitching particularly well before he left,” Showalter said Tuesday night from Kansas City before the Orioles’ 8-2 victory over the Royals.
“Developing young pitching in the American League East is a challenge. It’s not for the weak of heart or for those who lack intestinal fortitude. If you can get through it, you’re definitely better. But sometimes it makes for too healthy a respect for the hitters.”
That might be part of it. Orioles starters struggle to get through opposing lineups, ranking last in the AL in innings by a wide margin. Their short outings force the team’s second-line relievers into games, causing things to turn even worse.
I spoke to several people with the Orioles Tuesday, including Showalter, who took over the club exactly one year ago. None thought Adair was the problem.
This is Adair’s fourth stint as a major-league pitching coach. In his most recent job, he helped the Mariners improve from a 4.73 ERA in 2008 to a league-best 3.87 ERA in ’09.
“I like Mark. I like Rick. Rick was kind of hand-picked by Mark. They’re from the same cloth,” Showalter said. “Mark was the pitching czar in Texas. Rick has a pretty good track record.
“Do you want to see such change? Of course not. I think that would be a convenient excuse if you wanted to believe it. I’m not allowing it here.”
The whole thing is a mystery.
Maybe the Orioles’ pitchers became too comfortable and lax after Connor departed. Maybe the revolving door of bullpen coaches — Adair, Terry Crowley, Don Werner — had an unsettling effect.
More likely, the Orioles ran into their usual problem: facing competition that was just too good.
Prior to facing the Royals, the Orioles played nine consecutive series against teams with winning records. Included in that stretch was a 10-game trip to Atlanta, Texas and Boston. The Orioles went 1-9, allowing 10 or more runs four times in a five-game stretch.
To hear Showalter tell it, none of it is exactly a surprise. He experienced similar issues as the Rangers’ manager from 2003 to ’06.
“If you’ve got six or seven guys with a chance to be pretty good and two, three or four hit, you’re lucky,” Showalter said. “It’s a lot like Texas was for a while — C.J. Wilson, Scott Feldman . . .
“You’ve got to fight through the growing pains. Some of ’em grow up. Some of ’em don’t. It’s a challenge. It’s nothing I wasn’t expecting, to be honest. But you can’t give in. You know who you are. You know how to do it. You stay true to it.”
Showalter said that Matusz is nearly ready to return from Triple A. Britton will be back eventually. The Orioles just acquired righty Tommy Hunter, a back-of-the-rotation type, in a trade with the Rangers.
The team also is excited about the promise of high-school right-hander Dylan Bundy, the fourth pick in the recent amateur draft. Bundy’s older brother, Bobby, is faring well at Class A.
“You’re never as good or bad as it seems,” Showalter said. “We’re trying to keep our grip on reality. It’s frustrating for everyone.
“I’m not going to have the players see me supportive one day, not supportive the next. It’s a process. You can’t cheat the process. Right now, the process looks slow.”
And it’s all the more discouraging, considering that this is not the first time the Orioles have gone through it.
A few years back they thought they had another promising young group: Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen, Garrett Olson, Daniel Cabrera, Hayden Penn.
How did that turn out?
Showalter would seem as good a bet as any to turn the franchise around, but this will be the Orioles’ 14th straight losing season, and the only common denominator is owner Peter Angelos.
Every year it’s something. Just ask my brother-in-law.