The Baltimore Orioles bullpen was something to behold last season as they performed remarkably well as a unit and really came through in the clutch. Jack Moore, a contributor for FanGraphs, recently wrote a piece discussing the Orioles bullpen and fleeting greatness among great bullpens. Here is what he had to say specifically about the Orioles bullpen in the clutch and overall:
Baltimore’s greatness came on the back of a great — and particularly great in the clutch — bullpen. This greatness has, in the past, been the toughest to cling to. Baltimore’s plus-13.86 WPA in 2012 was the highest mark a bullpen has posted since 1974 (the extent of our data); its plus-7.19 clutch score was the highest recorded as well.
He’s certainly correct when he says that the Orioles performed as well as a team because of how phenomenal their bullpen was last season. That’s actually only part of the story though because they were a team that relied on timely hitting, strong defensive play, and the overall will to win in the second half more-so than luck or a clutch bullpen; although having a clutch bullpen and luck certainly help. That’s where I believe Jack sort of misses the point with his article because even though the bullpen is unlikely to repeat their record in one-run games or extra-innings that shouldn’t automatically mean they’re anything less than they were in 2012.
If we want to focus solely on the bullpen then we can certainly argue that closer Jim Johnson is unlikely to save another 50+ games in 2013, we could argue that Pedro Strop has some serious command issues and was rather fortunate in some cases, and we could even argue that neither are likely to be as successful going forward as they were in 2012.
However, completely discounting the Orioles as a serious contender in 2013 based solely on the fact that there is some regression likely to take place in regards to the bullpen is something that I find rather lazy. And that’s not to say that I don’t respect and appreciate Jack’s work and analysis of the game, because I do, but in this particular case I feel like he focused a little too narrowly on a point he was trying to make and wound up ignoring other factors that will come into play this season just so he could make his point.
Again, staying with the theme of the bullpen for the moment – the team has far more depth for the bullpen heading into this season then they did at any point last year. In addition to that added depth the starting rotation also comes into this season healthier and with more depth than last season. The improved, with a year of experience playing winning baseball under their belts and more competition, rotation alone will help spare the bullpen from throwing too many innings early on and draining them dry by mid-season. Finally, Buck Showalter did a masterful job of managing the bullpen last season and are we to believe he suddenly forgot how to do that (especially with the added depth)?
Sorry, but I just don’t buy it.
Moving on from the bullpen now; we can focus on just one thing and cite regression and statistical analysis and history as a guideline for saying the Orioles are a 76 win team but that’s discounting far too much and to make an appropriate, and responsible, judgment of any team you have to take more into consideration then just one aspect of the game. The defense is also much improved from last year and it’s something that everyone could not only see with their eyes from August on but also statistically measure from then on as well.
Making the assumption that the Orioles will be a vastly worse team this year means that you believe the improved defensive play from August on is going to regress even more then the bullpen. That’s another assumption that I don’t believe fans should jump on board with either because defensive ability is far more stable and predictable than relief pitching is (and feel free to disprove this if you can or want to try).
The impact that having at least a league average defense has on a pitching staff has been shown to help prevent starting pitchers from getting blown out early in a game, thus causing the bullpen to come in and put some fires out by the fourth or fifth inning. An average defense, or better, is able to turn more fielding chances into outs, turn double plays with greater frequency, and helps prevent the pitcher on the mound from throwing too many pitches without having the outs to show for their efforts.
Then of course we have the offense, which dealt with its own slate of injuries and inconsistent performance but still managed to finish around middle of the pack in terms of runs scored and overall efficiency. There’s obvious room for improvement though and having certain players who were injured for much of, or all of, last season healthy this year will only benefit the team that much more. Furthermore, seven members of the Orioles projected lineup or bench for this season are under the age of 30 and the mainstays of the lineup such as Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis are coming into their prime at 27 years old.
Even a conservative improvement from the offense as a whole would give this team a top 12 offense in baseball and when you couple that with an improved defense, a deeper bullpen and starting rotation then I don’t understand how you can only look at regression from the bullpen in clutch situations as enough of a reason to warrant making a prediction of 76 wins. The Orioles were no worse than a .500 team last year when you take away the “clutch” wins and the “clutch” performances of the bullpen, yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that they are worse than that for this coming season.
Again; sorry, but I just don’t buy it.