Last season, the Baltimore Orioles bullpen carried the team to its first postseason berth in 15 years. This year, the bullpen might be the reason the O’s don’t make a return to October.
Baltimore was easily the most surprising team in baseball just a year ago. Based on how many runs the O’s scored and allowed in 2012, they should’ve gone 82-80. Instead, they went 93-69 (second in the AL East) and made the postseason as one of two wild-card teams.
So how did Baltimore accomplish so much basically out of nowhere? Well, it wasn't the offense that ranked 24th in baseball in WAR (via FanGraphs). Nor was it really the starting rotation that won 61 games, posted a 4.42 ERA and was 19th in the league in WAR.
It was the bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson with help from relievers such as Darren O’Day, Troy Patton, Luis Ayala and Pedro Strop. Collectively, the Baltimore 'pen was the third best in baseball.
Among other bullpens in the American League, Baltimore had the most wins, most saves and the third-best ERA. It was extremely difficult for any opponent to come back once the Baltimore starter left that game, as evidenced by the team’s 29-9 record in one-run games and its 16-2 record in games that went to extras.
If there were one word to describe the 2012 Orioles bullpen, it’d be spectacular.
If there were one word to describe the 2013 Orioles bullpen, it’d be yuck.
Baltimore’s bullpen enters Memorial Day with a 10-8 record, a 3.99 ERA and 7.93 strikeouts and 3.66 walks per nine innings. It is currently the fourth worst in terms of WAR in the American League.
The Orioles didn’t lose all of the aforementioned relievers to free agency, nor did they trade them. They did deal Ayala in April of this year to the Braves, but that really wasn’t any skin off Baltimore’s back. He was solid for them last year, but the chances of him putting together back-to-back good years were slim to none.
So what’s been going on in Baltimore’s bullpen?
First, Johnson has been shaky, to say the least. He blew just three save opportunities in 54 chances a year ago; this year, he’s already blown four.
You’re dealing with fractions here and there, so a little bit here and there and you get a different result. I’m going to keep working. Like I said before, that’s all I can do is keep plugging away and trusting that I can do it. I know I can. It’s just that the results haven’t been what I’ve wanted them to be lately.
Despite Johnson's recent poor performance, it appears that manager Buck Showalter is going to stick with him, according to Encina.
The most obvious problem is that Johnson isn’t getting as many ground balls as he did a year ago, as shown in the table below.
As you can see, opponents are hitting ground balls just 49.3 percent of the time this year off of Johnson, 13 percent less than in 2012. While batters are hitting more line drives too, fly balls have been an issue—specifically, the fact that 13.6 percent of them have gone for home runs.
Johnson has already allowed three home runs this season, which ties his total from last season. If three more pitches leave his hand and end up in the grandstands, he’ll have given up his most round-trippers since 2009.
The guy who came in the game right before Johnson for most of last season hasn’t been good at all either. I’m looking at you, Pedro Strop.
Late last year, I would’ve admitted that Strop was as dominant of an eighth-inning guy as you were going to find. He went 5-2 with 24 holds and a 2.44 ERA in 66.1 innings across 70 appearances. Not bad, right?
But in 22 games this season, Strop is 0-2 with a pair of blown saves, three holds and a 6.11 ERA in 17.2 innings of work. It appears that Strop has lost all sorts of control this season, and that’s shown by his average of 7.13 walks every nine innings.
Strop’s issues on the mound may be due to lingering back pain, according to Encina. Baltimore recently placed him on the 15-day disabled list. Said Strop:
I was just thinking about myself and my career and what is best for me at this time. I finally got the point where I thought, "OK, this has got to be fixed before it gets worse and instead of being out 15 days, I’m out for two months." So I prefer to get it fixed now. That was my thought.
Strop didn’t want to say that his struggles were related to the injury, though:
I don’t want to say that. But sometimes you have something going on and your day, something there is not right. I was worried and thinking about it, but I don’t want to say that my performance was because of that.
Patton has stayed healthy so far this season, but he has been just as bad as Strop. In 20.2 innings across 19 appearances, the lefty has allowed 11 earned runs on 21 hits for a 4.79 ERA. Three of his pitches have allowed the batter to round the bases, too.
The left-hander's command has been all over the place as well. He walked 12 batters in 55.2 innings last year, but he's already matched that this year. The problem, Patton says, has been his fastball (via Encina):
I haven’t been locating my fastball. I did well against lefties last year because I could throw the fastball away from them for a strike. If I don’t locate my fastball down and away to a lefty, then he knows that slider is all he needs to look for. That’s the reason my walks are up this year. They’re taking pitches, because they know I’m not locating fastballs, so all my other stuff inherently gets worse.
If Patton can’t be an effective left-hander out of the bullpen, the Orioles might look to find someone who can.
If there’s one reliever who doesn’t deserve a good chunk of the blame, it's O’Day. In 24 appearances, he’s 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 23 innings of work. O’Day has the highest strikeout rate (9.78 per nine) of any Baltimore reliever with at least 10 appearances, and his walk rate has been manageable (3.52 per nine).
But if we’re going to be nitpicky (and we are), O’Day hasn’t been good against left-handed hitters. Taking into consideration that he’s a right-hander with an unusual arm slot that has been great in the past, it’s somewhat surprising.
Last October, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote about O’Day, the "lefty killer"—understandably named, since left-handers were hitting just .202/.239/.425 off of him. This year, though, lefties have hit at a .314/.439/.545 clip.
If O’Day can’t come through in a game where Baltimore needs an out and there’s a lefty at the plate, then he isn’t worth much at all.
Encina’s Memorial Day column is about Baltimore’s bullpen and whether the problems will fix themselves. He concludes that based on what the Orioles have to work with, Showalter is obligated to throwing these guys out on the mound.
“So Orioles fan, guess you’ve just got to be patient a little longer and hope the bullpen goes back to its old self,” Encina opines.
Encina isn’t wrong. Baltimore doesn’t have great depth outside of the guys already in its bullpen. Johnson has been horrible; the rest of the bullpen has slacked off for most of the year; injuries have taken a toll.
Things must get better for Baltimore’s 'pen if the O’s still have hopes of making the postseason. Thus far, that seems like an unreachable goal despite the fact that the Orioles are just 3.5 games back in the division.
After the Orioles were the surprise team last season, it seems anything can happen, but right now it doesn't look promising.
*All statistics in this article were obtained via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.