Leaning to the left

Orioles: The club's decision to build a starting rotation stocked with left-handers could pay off for years to come in the American League East.

April 13, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

After months of whispers and insinuations, Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan finally stepped forward with an admission last weekend.

It was time to explain the eye-opening developments involving the Orioles' starting pitching staff.

In Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Erik Bedard, they have three left-handers in their rotation.

The four other teams in the American League East have two left-handed starters combined - the Toronto Blue Jays' Ted Lilly and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Mark Hendrickson.

"I used to say it's not a conspiracy," Flanagan said. "Now, I'm saying it is a conspiracy."

Though Flanagan was only kidding, it seems the rest of the division is shunning left-handers while the Orioles stockpile them at a rapid rate.

In New York, with Andy Pettitte and David Wells gone, the Yankees are going without a left-hander in their rotation for the first time since 1992.

In Boston, where the Orioles begin a three-game series tonight, the Red Sox have not had a left-hander make more than 15 starts in a season since Jeff Fassero and Pete Schourek in 2000.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have stashed three in their bullpen - B.J. Ryan, John Parrish and Buddy Groom - and have been grooming left-handed prospects such as Adam Loewen and Ryan Hannaman to complete the eventual takeover.

And this for a team that went from 1998 through 2002 without a regular left-hander in the rotation before adding free agent Omar Daal last year. The Orioles haven't had three lefties in their rotation since 1994, when they had Jamie Moyer, Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes.

"We're trying to corner the market," Flanagan said, only half-jokingly, "like the Hunt brothers cornered the silver market."

But unlike the Hunt brothers - who in 1979 acquired more than 200 million ounces of silver, more than half the world's supply, causing the price of an ounce to increase from $5 to $54 before the Federal Reserve caught on to their scheme - the Orioles have little to fear.

The ones who should be concerned are Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado and every other AL East slugger who hits from the left side.

If DuBose, Riley, Bedard and the others start having success, left-handed hitters could have a miserable time facing the Orioles in coming years.

Consider:

Giambi hit .272 with 35 homers against right-handers for the Yankees last season and .192 with six homers against left-handers.

Ortiz hit .313 with 27 home runs against right-handers for the Red Sox last year and .216 with four homers against lefties.

Delgado hit all pitchers well - .284 against lefties, .310 against righties - but only seven of his home runs for the Blue Jays came against lefties.

"We built this club for the division we're in," Flanagan said.

Even though DuBose and Bedard have struggled early in the season, the Orioles have already seen the impact.

On Thursday at Camden Yards, Boston manager Terry Francona benched Ortiz, rather than have him face Riley, and it was only the fourth game of the season.

On Saturday, when Bedard made his first career start, Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella sat speedy leadoff hitter Carl Crawford and first baseman Tino Martinez, both left-handed hitters.

The Orioles won those two games, though Riley's performance - one earned run over 6 1/3 innings - is the only one that gave the team any great satisfaction.

"It gets them out of the lineup, absolutely," said Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons. "Those guys are going to hit the rest of the year, but why not give them a day off when you're facing a tough lefty?"

The left-handed-hitting Gibbons can relate. In 2002, he hit just two of his 28 home runs off left-handed pitchers. Last season, he started hitting better against both, batting .273 against lefties and .279 against righties.

So why is it so difficult when it's lefty vs. lefty?

"Ask any left-handed hitter. It's a totally different look," Gibbons said. "You don't see them very often, and it's tough to pick up their arm angle. It's another 3 feet to my right, and I always have trouble my first couple at-bats picking up [the ball's] rotation. The more I see them, I'm usually OK. But the first time I see them, it's tough."

Of course, the AL East has its share of right-handed sluggers who can give the Orioles fits, too. Boston's Manny Ramirez (.385 vs. lefties last season), New York's Gary Sheffield (.341), and Toronto's Vernon Wells (.341) won't mind seeing the Orioles' young left-handers one bit.

But what the Orioles are doing as an organization has certainly drawn other teams' notice. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said, as a rule, any club would like to have more left-handed pitching, especially visitors to Yankee Stadium, with its right-field porch.

Then again, Epstein included left-hander Casey Fossum in the deal for right-hander Curt Schilling this past winter, because pitchers like Schilling don't become available that often.

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