In less than a week, all 30 Major League Baseball teams will begin the 2023 season. As such, most teams are finalizing their rosters for Opening Day and announcing the starting pitcher that will take the bump to begin the season. On Friday, the Orioles announced that Kyle Gibson would make his Orioles debut as the Opening Day starter at Fenway Park against the Red Sox.
Kyle Gibson chosen as opening day starter for the Baltimore Orioles
All offseason, there had been speculation amongst Orioles fans as to who would earn the nod as any one of five different pitchers within the organization had compelling arguments. Ultimately, Brandon Hyde and company decided to open the season with a veteran who has yet to pitch a regular season game in an Orioles uniform.
So, was this the correct decision? Many fans believed that Dean Kremer would earn the nod after a strong 2022 season in Baltimore and an impressive, yet brief, showing for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. After a strong finish to 2022, Kyle Bradish had a compelling argument, and another newcomer, Cole Irvin, was a dark horse candidate after several productive seasons in Oakland. While this never seemed likely, I argued during the offseason that Grayson Rodriguez even had a case for opening day starter despite having yet to make his big league debut.
To begin, Gibson is coming off a fairly lackluster season in Philadelphia where he pitched to a 5.05 ERA in 167.2 innings pitched. Experience seems to be the biggest factor working in Gibson's favor as he entering his eleventh season in the big leagues and this will be his 262nd career start. The O's have a relatively inexperienced rotation and Gibson provides a veteran presence similar to Jordan Lyles last season.
With John Means still recovering from Tommy John Surgery, the Orioles lack a true ace in the rotation and Gibson provides the most meaningful experience as he pitched in the World Series last year while most other starters in Baltimore have no postseason experience. Despite his struggles in 2022, Gibson did represent the Rangers in the 2021 All-Star Game as he had a 2.87 ERA in 19 starts for the lowly team in Arlington.
Outside of his experience and longevity, nothing stands out about Gibson. The metrics suggest that he was a bit unlucky last year as he had a 4.28 FIP and 4.46 expected ERA. He has a standard five-pitch mix with below average fastball velocity. Between his four-seamer and cutter, he uses his fastball 62% of the time mixed with a slider, changeup, and rarely used curveball. He does have an above average chase rate and does not walk more batters than necessary, but also has a low strikeout rate and high expected batting average.
Elsewhere in the rotation, most fans were yearning for Dean Kremer to get the nod on Opening Day. After a terrible 2021, Kremer bounced back last year and was easily one of the O's most effective starters down the stretch that allowed the team to stay in Postseason contention. In 21 starts, Kremer had a 3.23 ERA and 3.80 FIP along with a complete game shutout late in the season. Limiting the home run ball was the key to Dean's success as he only allowed eleven homers in 2022, compared to seventeen in less than half the innings in 2021. Kremer also got the nod as the "ace" for Team Israel as he started their first game and held Nicaragua scoreless over four innings in an eventual 3-1 win.
Of course, the changed dimensions in Camden Yards helped Kremer's success in 2022. He also changed his repertoire and relied on his four-seam fastball and curveball far less frequently in '22 than '21 and relied more on his cutter and changeup which also helped him. In 2021, Dean threw his four-seamer 55.7% of the time while his changeup was only used 7.5% of the time. His curveball was his second most used pitch in 2021 but rarely used in 2022 and he used his cutter and four-seamer interchangeably, instead of relying solely on his four-seam fastball. He ranked in the 72nd percentile for fastball spin with these changes which made him much less predictable and much more difficult to square up on. His new repertoire also means that he is not a victim of any of the three true outcomes much but relies on his solid defense behind him.
Personally, I felt that Kyle Bradish was deserving of an Opening Day start due to his strong finish to 2022. His season stats do not look great as he finished last year with a 4.90 ERA and 82 ERA+ in 23 starts, but his splits tell a different story. Bradish was acquired by the Orioles from the Angels in the trade that sent Dylan Bundy to Anaheim and made his MLB debut last season.
Bradish struggled mightily in the first half of the season, with a 7.38 ERA in 46.1 innings and 10 starts. In the second half, he reversed the trend to the tune of a 3.28 ERA in 71.1 innings pitched and 13 starts. Similar to Kremer, he also saw improved results as he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark much more effectively between the two halves. He allowed eleven homers in the first half and only six in the second despite the 25 extra innings pitched and three extra starts.
There are plenty of concerns with Bradish, namely his lack of deception as he ranked in the ninth percentile for chase rate. Part of the issue is the lack of an offspeed pitch as his changeup sits at 90 miles per hour and his fastball at 95. His fastball is an effective pitch with above average velocity and spin, but he needs to develop better secondary pitches to be truly effective.
As I wrote about after the acquisition, Cole Irvin is similar to the other options as he is not overwhelming and relies on weak contact and longevity more than deception. Irvin was acquired from the A's in January and has had a solid Spring Training. In four starts, Cole has pitched to a 3.14 ERA in 14.1 innings only allowing one homer and one walk and striking out nine. Clearly, this was not enough to sway Hyde in his decision to go with Gibson.
As I wrote in December, Rodriguez was always an unlikely candidate for Opening Day and it seems that he hurt his case with a mediocre Spring Training. In five starts, GrayRod pitched to a 7.04 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched and allowed 3 homers along with 7 walks. On the positive side, Rodriguez continued to overpower hitters as he has throughout the minors with 19 strikeouts in those 15.1 innings.
Ultimately, the Orioles lack a true ace in their rotation with John Means still injured and Grayson Rodriguez still raw. The O's opted to start the veteran Gibson on Opening Day despite his relative struggles compared to Kremer and Irvin last season. I personally would have preferred to see one of those two get the nod as they have shown more prowess and potential.
As I mentioned, Kyle Bradish also had a strong finish to the season but an abysmal Spring Training likely took him out the running. This season is critical for the Orioles as they have shown their potential to be a postseason-caliber team and they will have a full season from young phenoms like Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman for the first time. The first chance to see this team comes on March 30 at Fenway Park against the Red Sox.