Baltimore’s rotation’s historically lucky June


Tillman’s June performance has epitomized the rotation as a whole. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY

Chris Tillman took the hill yesterday in Game 2 of a day-night doubleheader. The Tampa Bay Rays had knocked around Kevin Gausman (to the tune of five runs in 5+ innings) in the first game, and the Baltimore Orioles needed a win to keep up with the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. Tillman delivered, twirling eight innings of one-run ball en route to a 4-1 O’s victory. However, he didn’t really pitch all that well, as his 1.13 ERA for the game obscured a 4.60 FIP. Striking out a meager two batters out of the 29 he pitched to, he was astoundingly lucky — much like his colleagues.

For the year as a whole, the Orioles haven’t pitched particularly well. Their season ERA currently sits at a mediocre 3.89, good enough for 19th in the majors. The starting pitching should shoulder most of the blame for this, as their 4.13 ERA only ranks 23rd in baseball.

Lately, though, the rotation has improved, or so it would appear. After putting up the fifth-worst ERA in MLB in March and April (4.74) and the eighth-worst ERA in MLB in May (4.29), their output has skyrocketed in June: For the month, their ERA sits at 3.36, the eighth-lowest in all of baseball. One might look at this number and conclude that the Oriole starters have actually bettered themselves, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When one evaluates a pitcher — or, in this case, a pitching staff — one must take peripheral statistics into account in addition to results. For Baltimore’s starters, the underlying numbers tell a completely different story: Their June FIP of 4.80 is the third-worst mark in the major leagues.

How have they gone about achieving this? Since June ended, their BABIP of .268 bests every other team; the same can be said of their 83.3% LOB%. Since pitchers exercise very little control over these statistics, this means they’ve been very lucky, insofar as they’ve allowed very few hits on balls in play, and have stranded most runners when they don’t.

When it comes to the statistics they do control, they have lagged behind. Every starting staff save that of the Chicago Cubs tops their 14.9% June strikeout rate; moreover, only the Texas Rangers have compiled a higher June walk rate than Baltimore’s 9.8%. By not fanning enough batters while handing out far too many free passes, they’ve concocted a recipe for disaster.

ERA reflects how well someone pitched, whereas FIP reflects how well they should have pitched. Subtracting the latter from the former creates ERA-FIP, which should indicate the level of the pitcher’s luck. For Baltimore’s rotation in the month of June, that number comes out to -1.44. In this millennium, only four starting staffs have topped that for one-sixth of a season:

  • The 2007 Oakland Athletics, who had a 2.44 ERA despite a 3.99 FIP in March and April, for an ERA-FIP of -1.55;
  • The 2005 Milwaukee Brewers, who had a 2.93 ERA despite a 4.40 FIP in May, for an ERA-FIP of -1.47;
  • The 2003 Kansas City Royals, who had a 4.06 ERA despite a 5.93 FIP in July, for an ERA-FIP of -1.87; and
  • The 2002 Colorado Rockies, who had a 4.20 ERA despite a 5.68 FIP in August, for an ERA-FIP of -1.48.

So how did those teams do from then on out?

  • The Athletics had a 4.63 ERA to go along with a 4.55 FIP for the rest of 2007;
  • The Brewers had a 4.19 ERA to go along with a 4.11 FIP for the rest of 2005;
  • The Royals had a 5.13 ERA to go along with a 4.91 FIP for the rest of 2003; and
  • The Rockies had a 5.82 ERA to go along with a 6.00 FIP for the rest of 2002.

All these clubs fell apart when their good fortune ran out. Now, as the season’s preantepenultimate month nears its close, the same could be true for Baltimore; if it is, a playoff berth probably won’t come out of the 2014 season.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, as of Saturday, June 28th, 2014.