Unpacking the back-end starters’ struggles.
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Maybe if Tolstoy had been a baseball fan, he would have agreed that bad pitchers are bad each in their own way. Maybe. Because right now, the Orioles have three distinct problems in their starting rotation in Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer, and Jorge López.
Entering the season, the rotation was far from set, but at least John Means and rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer appeared to be locks for a rotation spot. After that, one great big mystery. Then, spring training shook up just about everything: Akin pitched himself out of a job, Kremer’s unsteadiness bumped him down to the fifth spot, Bruce Zimmerman came out of nowhere to nab the third rotation spot, and Jorge López and the just-signed Matt Harvey surprised a bunch of people by making the rotation, too.
So far, the results of this great switcheroo have been mixed. John Means is looking like a rock star. Matt Harvey is improving with each start he makes, according to manager Brandon Hyde, and he’s managed to keep this team in the game each time.
But two starters do not a rotation make. And the back-end trio of Bruce Zimmermann, Jorge López, and Dean Kremer, with a combined ERA of 6.98, has been problematic, to say the least.
Jorge López is divisive. He flashes potential, but has never delivered on those results. Still, there are some undeniable positives for López in 2021. One thing he’s doing really well is avoiding hard contact. Between 2020 and 2021, López’s hard-hit percentage dropped a whopping 13.1%, and his average exit velocity is down 5.3 mph. He’s also getting more swings and misses than ever in his career, with a whiff rate of 44% on his changeup and 33% on his fastball, which ranks in the 80th percentile in velocity (up about one mph since last season).
Unfortunately, López’s signature is becoming the fifth-inning collapse. Opposing batters are hitting .200, .143, .267, and .200 against him in the first four innings. In the fifth, that batting average balloons to .545. López’s ERA in the 5th inning: 48.60. Batters’ OPS in the 5th: 2.006. Same with OPS.
Jorge López has now faced 16 batters in the fifth inning of games this year. 11 of those 16 batters reached base, a .688 OBP. Brandon Hyde is aware of the trend and gives López the hook after two men reach today.
— Camden Chat (@CamdenChat) April 29, 2021
The numbers are just unreal.
On Thursday, against the Yankees, López pitched himself in and out of danger until the fifth inning, when he put two runners on, and got a swift axe from Brandon Hyde. Hyde has learned his lesson. And this might be just how it has to be. López may be most valuable to the Orioles as an “opener,” not a starter, targeting four innings per start while paired with a long relief man like Adam Plutko or Travis Lakins Sr.
Another pitcher struggling with length is Bruce Zimmermann. On Zimmermann’s third time through the lineup, opposing batting average against him jumps from .268 to .444. But most prominently, he’s allowing hard contact, especially on his fastball. Batters are hitting .450 against it, and Zimmermann’s max exit velocity allowed, 119.3 mph, is in the bottom 1% of the league. Bottom line, Zimmermann has gotten hit, and hit hard.
One thing he does have going for him, however, is deception. Zimmermann’s spin rates are in the top-third of the league, and his chase rate is elite (83rd percentile). He currently throws his fastball 46% of the time, his changeup 25%, his curveball 19% and his slider 11%. It’s clear he needs his off-speed offerings to set off his fastball to its best advantage, so it’s possible these proportions could—and should?—change.
Then there’s Dean Kremer. Right now, if you go by peripherals, Kremer is in the worst shape of the bunch. The good: his walk rate is down 6% since last season. That’s good. Now, the bad: Kremer’s fastball velocity is down a tick (-0.3 mph). His hard-hit percentage allowed has leapt 7.3%. Expected batting average is up from .223 to .334, and slugging has jumped, too, from .386 in 2020 to .615 in ’21. Whiff and chase rates are down against Kremer, too.
When Kremer is pitching well, as FanGraphs notes, he can use his curveball as “an early-count weapon,” and can locate his cutter for strikes. Like Zimmermann, command of his off-speed pitches is crucial in order to set off a not-so-zippy fastball. Command has been one of Kremer’s strengths in the past, and could be again, but he needs better execution than he’s been showing.
If all the above is correct, a few conclusions result. Keep an eye out for a short leash for Jorge López in the fifth inning; if he can provide length, great, but there’s zero evidence at this point that he can. Bruce Zimmermann needs to locate his off-speed pitches, and perhaps throw them more often than he’s been doing so far. Dean Kremer, similar deal: command, command, command, and more changing speeds. That’d be a start. There are no guarantees of improvement, but all three of these starters have the potential to do better than what they’re showing so far.