ZachBritton1280_5yzejg67_0txe9kd6 articlefeature--baltimore-orioles

Is the Orioles bullpen still a strength?

Since 2012, the Orioles bullpen has arguably been the strength of the team. Since then, the bullpen has finished 3rd in team ERA 3 times, first once (last year) and 6th once. The year they finished 6th, the pen had a 3.52 ERA and that’s the highest ERA they have had in that time span. They have also been in the top 5 every year in terms of IP. The one thing people want to keep coming back to is that if our starters don’t go deeper into games that the bullpen is going to struggle. The numbers say that cliché is wrong, at least in terms of the recent versions of the Baltimore Orioles.

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So, what about this year? Is the Orioles bullpen still a big strength? Well, coming off of a game where they blew a late 6-2 lead to the Nats, this seems like a silly question. The O’s bullpen ERA currently stands at 3.81, which is 6th in the AL. However, the 5th place team, the Astros, is almost 1 full run ahead of Baltimore. The Orioles are closer to 11th place than 5th place. That being said, there is still a wide gap between the O’s and the 7th place team, the A’s. Now, in the early part of the season, bullpen ERA’s can be very deceiving because of small sample sizes. It doesn’t take many bullpen implosions to really hurt your overall team ERA. What about other numbers then?

As of today, the Orioles are 11th in bullpen K rate. This isn’t unusual though. Only once since 2012 have the O’s finished above 11th in this category. Even last year, when they were the best in the AL according to ERA, they were 11th in the AL. They are currently 9th in BB rate. From 2012-2014, they were a top 3 bullpen in terms of BB rate. The last 2 years, they have been in the 9th -11th range, which is where they are right now. The HR rate is currently 6th best in the AL. They finished in the top 6 every year except 2013. The HR rate, thus far, is the second highest we have seen since 2012 but again, its a small sample size. So, of the stats that a pitcher “can control”, the bullpen is essentially in line with where it has been since the team started winning again.

An important stat to look at for a bullpen is WPA. This will measure how well you are doing in high leverage situations. Outside of 2013, the Orioles bullpen has been top 3 every year since 2012. This year, they are third. So again, right in line with what we have seen for the last several years.

What about batted ball data? So far this year, the O’s pen has the 4th best LD% in the AL at 17.3%. They have a hard hit% of 25.6%, which is good for first in the AL. Outside of 2013, the Orioles pen has been in the top 4 in terms of hard hit% every year. They have also been top 4 in terms of LD% in 3 of the previous 5 years. 2013 was higher and last year, they were more middle of the pack. So again, this data falls in line with what we have seen.

So, where is the bullpen being hurt? The biggest number that jumps out to you is BABIP. They have the worst BABIP in the AL, despite the hard hit data being pretty good. The bullpen BABIP is .326. In this span, the O’s have never been above 297. They were 293 twice. League average usually falls in the .270-300 area. The pen has clearly been unlucky so far this year.

Now, looking at overall bullpen ERA numbers is great and all but let’s break it down by the most important pitchers. For the Orioles, that would be Britton, Brach, O’Day, Givens and Hart. As we all know, Britton hasn’t been himself so far this year. He didn’t get a lot of ST time due to his oblique injury. When he has pitched, he hasn’t been quite as good as normal. Yes, the ERA is 1.00 and he hasn’t blown a save but he hasn’t had one “normal” outing yet. His K rate is way down, walks are way up, he is throwing fewer strikes and his swinging strike% is way down. His contact % is up 12% from last year. His GB/FB ratio is also “only” 4.25:1. For a normal pitcher, this would be great. But for Zach, it’s way off. In the last 3 years (when he became a full time reliever), that number hasn’t been below 6.35. Last year it was 9.14(!!). His LD% is way high and his hard hit% is also way up. So again, while he isn’t letting up runs, he still hasn’t been his normal self. That being said, when he has been out there, he hasn’t hurt us in terms of “actual stats”…i.e., ERA, saves, wins/losses.

A key date to look at, for Brad Brach, is April 15.  That is when Britton went on the DL for the first time. He came to pitch in 2 games and promptly went right back on the DL after that.  Brach took over the closer role when Britton went out. Through April 24th, Brach had only given up 1 hit all year. He hadn’t been scored on; he had walked 4 and had struck out 13. That was a span of 10 innings. Since that time, he has pitched 9 innings. He has given up 13 hits, walked 4, struck out 5, given up 8 runs in which he allowed 2 homers. His overall numbers are down. The K rate is way down. The walk rate has jumped a lot since last year. Like Britton, he is missing fewer bats but he is actually throwing more strikes. The contact% against him is up almost 4% from last year. His LD% and hard hit% are way down and his 255 BABIP reflects that.

Givens has also seen in a dip in some of his stats. His swinging strike% is 10% down from last year. His K rate, which has been 11.4 or higher so far in his career, is at 9 so far. His contact % is almost 10% higher this year vs. last year as well. His LD% is way down from last year but he has seen his hard hit% jump up overall. That being said, his BABIP is .294, so he is in line with the league averages there. Now, he is throwing the same number of strikes he did last year and his walk rate is way down. His numbers have remained relatively steady since Zach went out.

Donnie Hart had a small sample size last year. So far, he has improved in most of his stats. The Ks are up, he is missing more bats, the contact rate is down and the walks are better. However, he has a 387 BABIP. Now, his ERA is still only 2.45 but his FIP is 2.03. He has been a little unlucky.

O’Day’s biggest issue is the walks. His BB rate is over 5. Another issue for him is Ks. His current K rate is the worst it has been since 2010. It’s down almost 4 Ks per 9 IP from the previous few seasons. Like Givens, his swingstr% is way down. Its down 10-12% from the previous few seasons and currently is the worst of his career. He is a guy that normally throws close to 67% of his pitches for strikes. This year, it is under 64%. His LD% and hard hit% are in line or better than his career numbers. His BABIP is at 293. But, like Givens, the contact rate is WAY up.

So, what are we seeing here? We see a TEAM bullpen that is in line with what it has been outside of BABIP. When we break down to the key individuals, we see that these guys are collectively missing fewer bats, allowing more balls to be put in play and thus creating more opportunities for hits. The contact rates are way up and while most of these guys aren’t giving up a lot of hard hits, they are still allowing the ball to be put in play and when you do that, you risk giving up hits and then runs.

Now, why is this the case? Is this simply just a small sample size? Is this a case of a new pitching coach wanting these guys to pitch to contact? Is the Britton injury causing issue for these guys? (I only buy that it could be a mental thing for Brach).

It will be interesting to continue to track this as the season goes. If we continue to see a bullpen that is pitching more to contact, you have to wonder if there is more of a philosophy change with McDowell. For the time being, I think we can chalk it up to a fluky early season trend until we see more of a sampling of innings from our key guys.  

It’s also hard to judge them when the best closer in baseball has been out, although I do find it interesting that the bullpen ERA in May is almost 1 run better than it was in April.  Obviously, Britton was around more in April.  As I said, I think only Brach has maybe been effected by Britton’s absence but still, not having him out there certainly has hurt us at the end of a few games, last night included.

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Written by Rob Shields
7 months ago
Baltimore Orioles, ,

Rob Shields

A former co-host of Sports Tonight with Rob & Chris on BSL Radio, Rob has interviewed guests from outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, FOX Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Athlon, Sporting News, MLB Network, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Info Solutions, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Sports on Earth, Grantland, NFL Network, FanGraphs, Football Outsiders, ProFootballFocus, etc. etc. The Baltimore native lives in Perry Hall with his Wife Lindsay, and two young sons. In December 2015, he became BSL's Senior Orioles Analyst. He has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan, Q1370, and WNST 1570.

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