Is the Orioles' hot start to the season sustainable? Have the Twins already wrecked their season? Jay Jaffe and Cliff Corcoran take a look at each.
The 2016 season is now more than a week old, and while it’s still very early, enough games have been played for disparate results to emerge. The most extreme of those are the records of the undefeated Orioles (7–0) and the winless Twins (0–7). For the O's, that 7–0 start is their best since the franchise moved to Baltimore, besting the 5–0 start of the 1970 team that went on to win the World Series. By beating the Red Sox and Clay Buchholz on Tuesday night, they matched last year’s World Series champion Royals for the best start since 2003.
For the Twins, meanwhile, their 0–7 start is the worst in franchise history, including their years as the Washington Senators, breaking the previous 0–4 mark set by several iterations of both teams by a significant distance. If Minnesota loses to Carlos Rodon and the White Sox on Wednesday, it will double that previous franchise record for most consecutive losses to start a season and tie the 2010 Astros for the longest season-opening losing streak since the '03 Tigers went 0–9 en route to a 119-loss season.
With all of that in mind, here’s a quick look at what has gone right and wrong for both teams and the likelihood of either persisting. Jay Jaffe tackles the Orioles, and Cliff Corcoran takes on the Twins.
What's Gone Right
The big news so far within this small sample size of games is the Orioles' run prevention. Prior to Monday afternoon's 9–7 win over the Red Sox, Baltimore hadn't given up more than three runs in a game and had allowed just 10 over its first five games, though that’s also a function of the struggles of the Twins and Rays thus far. The rotation, which was (and still is) expected to be a weakness—particularly with Kevin Gausman starting the year on the disabled list due to tendinitis in his shoulder— has been solid, particularly under the bad-weather circumstances. Ubaldo Jimenez has authored the only quality start thus far, but given the way his mechanics come and go, it's tough not to get at least a little bit excited about one in which he struck out nine and walked none, a combination he hadn't managed since doing so three times in late 2013, his last strong season. At least until his next turn, you can dream on that start.
Likewise, Chris Tillman has a 10/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in seven innings; that Opening Day rain delay against the Twins, which was poorly managed by the umpires, led to him being yanked after striking out five of the six hitters he faced. Yovani Gallardo and Vance Worley have been shakier, but the bullpen's big three—Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O'Day—have been dominant, combining to allow just six hits and one run in 13 1/3 innings, with 20 strikeouts. The unit as a whole has a 1.78 ERA and 11.0 strikeouts per nine, and while they won’t keep up that clip, this is an area of strength for the O's.
Meanwhile, the Orioles' offense is hitting a combined .291/.347/.505, numbers that rank either first or second in the league; their combined OPS+ is 137. Four regulars are slugging at least .600, namely Chris Davis (whose three-run homer off Craig Kimbrel carried the day on Monday), Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard (who's played all six games, including four starts in centerfield for the injured Adam Jones), Jonathan Schoop (who has already drawn two walks, compared to nine in 321 plate appearances last year) and Manny Machado (.458/.519/.755 with three homers). Just about everything's coming up Milhouse; even Hyun-soo Kim, the South Korean signing whose dreadful spring led to an attempt to demote him to the minors (something that couldn't be done without his permission), went 2 for 3 in his major league debut on Sunday against the Rays.
Mind you, these streaks would escape notice if they happened at just about any other time during the season, and most of those gaudy numbers are unsustainable. But if the speedy Rickard and Kim can help to bolster the lineup, and if Schoop has tightened up his control of the strike zone, this could be a more multi-dimensional offense than anticipated.
What's Gone Wrong
Gallardo's five-inning, five-run start against the Red Sox—the first functioning offense the Orioles have faced—is a reminder of what a slog his season could be. To be fair, after allowing four straight singles to start the game and digging the team into a 3–0 hole, he allowed just three more hits; his lone clean inning was his final one, in which he retired Xander Bogaerts on a grounder and struck out both David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez looking.
Jones hasn't batted since the second game of the season due to what the team is referring to as a rib cage strain and not an oblique strain. Monday's ninth-inning stint as a defensive replacement is a small positive sign, but manager Buck Showalter didn't exactly sound confident that his centerfielder was out of the woods yet when he told reporters, "The more I thought about it, when he plays—maybe it's tomorrow, maybe it's the next day—if he has a big problem with it, it's not going to be five days, it's going to be 15. So I said, 'The heck with it. We're going to try to win a game here.'"
Elsewhere, Pedro Alvarez (1 for 15), J.J. Hardy (3 for 18) and Matt Wieters (4 for 20 with a .488 OPS) are off to slow starts, but again, those are such small samples that they'd escape notice if they weren't at the beginning of the season.
The Orioles should figure out Jones' status vis-à-vis the DL over the next day or two. Likewise for Gausman, who made his first rehab start for Double A Bowie on Saturday and pitched two scoreless innings but suffered a bruised left knee via a comebacker—though that happened on just the second batter of the game and he pitched through it, saying afterward, "I'll be fine." Even so, it sounds as though he would prefer to make two more rehab starts instead of one in order to build up his pitch count, which would push his return to the majors back from its current April 20 date.
One other thing worth keeping an eye upon is the distribution of playing time between Wieters and Caleb Joseph behind the plate. Wieters has started four of six games despite having experienced trouble with his surgically-repaired elbow during spring training. The O's need to be careful not to overload him, particularly as Joseph is now the superior defender.
What's Gone Wrong
Minnesota’s 0–7 start can be placed directly at the feet of its offense. The Twins have scored just 13 runs in those seven games, an average of 1.9 per game, which is dead last in the majors. They have scored no more than three runs in any single game thus far and managed to accomplish that total just twice, both in 4–3 losses to the Royals and one of which required extra innings to settle.
Having played only the Orioles, Royals and White Sox, the Twins can’t make excuses about running into great pitching; Edinson Volquez is arguably the best starter they have had to face. Baltimore threw Chris Tillman, Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez in the opening series; Kansas City followed with Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy and Volquez; and the lone Chicago starter that Minnesota has gone up against is Jose Quintana. There are good pitchers in that group, but no true aces.
Not every Twins hitter is guilty here. Joe Mauer and shortstop Eduardo Escobar are off to strong starts, with Mauer going 9 for 24 (.375) with a homer and five walks and Escobar going 10 for 27 (.370) with four doubles. Reserve infielder Eduardo Nuñez has also chipped in, reaching base five times in seven plate appearances. After that trio, however, the best hitter on team has been Brian Dozier, who is hitting .192 with an 86 OPS+.
That brutal performance from the lineup has magnified the less extreme struggles of the bullpen, which has taken three of the team’s seven losses thus far. The first was a walk-off loss on Opening Day, with setup man Kevin Jepsen giving up a walk and two singles to the Orioles. His next outing was worse: Called in to protect an 3–2 lead in the bottom of the eighth against the Royals, Jepsen gave up a single and an RBI triple in his first four pitches, then let the winning run score on a sacrifice fly. Two days later, Jepsen successfully protected a 3–1 lead over the Royals in the eighth only to watch closer Glen Perkins give up two runs in the ninth on another RBI triple and sacrifice fly.
Jepsen and Perkins aren't the only relievers to blame. Former starting prospect Trevor May lost Minnesota's last game against the Royals in the tenth via a walk, his own throwing error and a wild pitch. In his previous outing, against the Orioles, May entered in the seventh with a 2–1 lead, men on the corners and no outs and allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to score on a wild pitch and a single. Altogether, the Twins' bullpen has posted a 4.70 ERA and walked 5.5 men per nine innings.
What's Gone Right
The good news for the Twins has been the performance of their starting rotation. Entering Tuesday’s action, Minnesota's starters had a 3.22 ERA, the sixth-best mark in the majors. Ervin Santana had his Opening Day outing cut short by rain after two scoreless innings and 39 pitches but brushed off that false start by holding the Royals to two runs over six innings and striking out seven on just three days rest. Phil Hughes turned in a quality start in his lone outing, and Ricky Nolasco was surprisingly excellent in his season debut, holding the Royals to one run over seven innings on just three hits and no walks, striking out five. Altogether, the Twins are one of just six teams yet to have a starting pitcher allow five or more runs in a game this season.
As a team, relievers included, the Twins have allowed more than four runs in a game just once all season. Due in part to that shaky start from their bullpen, however, they have allowed exactly four runs in five of their seven games—a run total their offense has proven unable to match.
The Twins will win a game, then another, then dozens more; that’s obvious. Early-season extremes are just that, but there are more reasons to be worried about the offense and the bullpen than there are to be encouraged about the starting rotation.
The hitters who are struggling the most are Miguel Sano (22 OPS+), Byron Buxton (28), Kurt Suzuki (34), and Byung-ho Park (54). Those are not the sort of hitters you can just assume will revert to their usual standard. Park is a Korea Baseball Organization veteran but is completely unproven in the United States. Sano was brilliant as a rookie last year but is still a 23-year-old sophomore who has had to deal with learning to play rightfield despite never having played the outfield as a professional. Buxton is a 22-year-old who has yet to show he can hit major league hitting despite his elite prospect status. Suzuki, meanwhile, posted a 64 OPS+ last year and now has a 78 OPS+ since the start of the 2012 season.
Sano and Park are likely to figure things out, but I’m not sold on Buxton doing so without more time at Triple A. He has played just 13 games at that level in his career and has struck out 11 times without drawing a walk in his first seven games this season, giving him a 55/6 career strikeout-to-walk ratio in the major leagues. Giving 24-year-old John Ryan Murphy more opportunities behind the plate is an obvious move with regard to Suzuki, but centerfield is more of a conundrum, as any replacement for Buxton would be a defensive downgrade in an outfield already carrying Sano in right, and the alternatives are largely underwhelming.
The lone exception there is yet another prospect, 23-year-old Max Kepler, who is 1 for 8 in his major league career and is better suited to an outfield corner, which would require Eddie Rosario to shift to center. Nonetheless, when Danny Santana hit the disabled list with a right hamstring strain, it was Kepler whom the Twins called up to take his roster spot.