O's theories wide of the strike zone

June 02, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is a lot of talk around town about what is wrong with the Orioles. A lot of opinions out there. Let's see if we can name 'em all.

Lack of chemistry. Lack of heart. Lack of rah-rah spirit. Lack of organizational wiles. Lack of boom-lacka-lacka-lacka.

Now, far be it from me to argue too vehemently against any of these suggestions. After the desultory way the club played on the West Coast, there's room for as many shortcomings as you can possibly dream up.

Lack of a spring training home? Come on down!

Phil Regan instead of Davey Johnson? Coffee's on!

Gray caps? Bing-ooooo!

I must confess, however, that I find all of these explanations somewhat besides the point.

More than "somewhat," in fact. Make that way besides the point.

My tendencies in the ever-popular blame game lean more toward measurable quantities. Hitting and pitching. You've heard of that?

In my baseball book, chemistry and heart and spirit are things you start pointing to as problems when your pitching stinks. The Orioles are a classic example of this.

Let's start at the top of their starting rotation, Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. Two givens in the puzzle, right? Two guys you can count on, right?

Oops.

McDonald needed seven starts to record his first win of the season Wednesday night. And Mussina, supposedly a Cy Young candidate, has blown a four-run lead and a three-run lead in his past two starts, turning wins into losses.

You can take your rah-rah spirit and your organizational confusion as explanations for what is wrong with the Orioles. I'll take the bad pitching.

Mussina and McDonald combined have won 50 percent of their starts in their careers, but this year they have won only 28 percent. That computes to three fewer wins than anticipated thus far in '95. Two by McDonald and one by Mussina.

If those three unscheduled losses were wins -- and they would be if Mussina and McDonald were doing nothing more than producing on precisely the same pace they have throughout their careers -- the Orioles would be 16-15 and in second place in the AL East, ahead of the Yankees and Blue Jays.

Just a hunch, but there would be a lot less talk about their lack of heart and their lack of chemistry and their lack of everything you can't see.

That's my problem with those other explanations. You can't prove them.

A lack of rah-rah spirit on the bench is translating into losses? Prove it. (And if it's a problem, let's get Susan Powter in uniform, quick!)

A lack of chemistry is a problem? Prove it. (And let me know when you get a glimpse of that chemistry you're talking about.)

That Phil Regan is managing, instead of Davey Johnson, is hurting in the standings? You just can't prove that. Sure, the Orioles aren't winning as often as the Reds despite a higher payroll, which would seem to indicate that Johnson is doing a better job.

But the Reds' pitchers are third in the National League in ERA (3.71) and the Orioles' pitchers are seventh in the American League (4.80). Coincidence? No.

No doubt, Regan would be a lot "smarter" if McDonald and Mussina were pitching up to their usual standards, as Johnson's pitchers are.

And let's not pick on just McDonald and Mussina, by the way. The performances of two other starters, Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes, have deserved R ratings. Absolutely not suitable viewing for minors.

I know one kid who woke up terrified in the middle of the night after watching Sid take two hours to pitch four innings.

OK, so the front office was thinking wishfully to expect anything from Rhodes. But Fernandez happens to have a track record, and, like Mussina and McDonald, he isn't matching it.

Add it all up, and four of the five starters aren't living up to expectations. On a team that lives by pitching and defense, as the Orioles do, that is the explanation for a 13-18 start.

That's not to deny that some of those other factors aren't legit. A dead bench suggests a lackadaisical attitude and an easy acceptance of defeat, which could be a problem. And the front office certainly has committed more than enough blunders, which is a story for another day.

But the point is there's no use measuring any other factor when the heart of your starting rotation -- the very foundation of your structure -- collapses on you. It's one of baseball's natural laws: When you're banking on a couple of pitchers to carry you, and they let you down, all other problems are dwarfed. Substituting other excuses is pointless.

It's the pitching, stupid.

If the Orioles start winning sometime in the coming months, it won't happen because the players start cheering for each other on the bench, or because they discover how to play with heart, or because they finally manage to overcome the fact that they didn't get in enough bunting practice in spring training because they were always on a bus.

It will happen because Mussina, McDonald and Fernandez finally start pitching like they're supposed to pitch.

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