Buck Showalter & The O's Bullpen

Buck Showalter's use of the bullpen was perceived as a refreshing change from previous management to O's fans in August, as he has seemingly pushed all the right buttons. Mark Hendrickson had seemingly been sent out to pasture before this week, Alfredo Simon had receded in our memories as a bad dream, and Armando Gabino was sent packing. So Buck must have been using Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez until their arms almost fell off, right?

Actually, no. With everyone's new best friend, baseball-reference.com, one can see that's not the case. In fact, Buck had been stealthily and quietly distributing innings to every pitcher he wished to keep active in August, and those he didn't aren't here anymore.

Looking at August games under the new manager, when the team went 16-10, Buck didn't rely on any one hot hand. Granted, the starters went much deeper into games than previously, with 16 of his first 26 games as manager qualifying as a Quality Start by the starting pitcher. But even with that level of performance, plenty of opportunities abounded to screw up the bullpen. And Buck didn't do that.

Koji Uehara was indeed the most used reliever in the last month by Buck, with 11 appearances. Yet he led that category by just one appearance. He logged 13.2 innings in those appearances, with 10 of those appearances being at least a full inning and five of those being more than a full inning. According to b-r.com, his Average Leverage Index, which measures the relative importance of the timing of the appearance, Uehara had an aLI of 1.26, the second highest out of the bullpen. So while Uehara wasn’t extended much more than other relievers, his appearances mattered more.

And that makes the success he had even more remarkable. In the games from August 3rd through the end of that month, Uehara had a WHIP under 1.00, allowed just one walk, allowed just one inherited runner to score, and posted an ERA of 0.66. For one of your highest leverage pitcher to also be one of your most successful, the temptation would be natural to trot him out every time.

But three of Uehara's fellow relievers, Mike Gonzalez, Matt Albers and Alfredo Simon, logged almost as many appearances as Uehara with 10 each, and in Simon's case, almost as many innings. Simon appeared in 10 games of the 28 played through Wednesday, and logged 12.1 IP. So how has Buck used them so much without exposing them?   

The use of Mike Gonzalez has been key. While tied for second in appearances for August games under Buck, Mike’s innings were well below the Uehara, Albers and Simon. Yet his were the most important – his aLI was 1.75, by far the highest in the bullpen. Those 10 appearances and 7.1 IPresulted in just two earned runs for Gonzalez, but also only one of eight inherited runners scored. The key to Gonzalez’s success may be the length of his outings – just once was he stretched beyond a single inning, and on five occasions, he pitched less than a full inning. Buck has used Gonzalez in positions where he can succeed, but also get out the most important batters of the game to help the team. It can be argued that Gonzalez, not Uehara, was the most vital relief pitcher for the O’s in August.

Matt Albers’ appearances, however, have been, by design less stressful. His aLI is  0.97, slightly below an average appearance for a reliever. In just three of his 10 appearances was the game tied or the O’s behind by just a run when Albersmade his appearance. He’s been brought in when the O’s are either well ahead (on Aug. 4, withthe O’s beating the Angels by 8 by the time he came in) or well behind, with five of his appearances occurring when the O’s were already down by two or more runs. Simply put, Buck has rarely given Albers the chance to blow a lead for the O’s. And with the pressure off, Albers’ performance has been adequate. Yet those 10 appearances and 8.1 IP meant fewer IP and innings for the more successful relievers of the staff.

Alfredo Simon was brought in during pressure situations, with an aLIof 1.22, just below Uehara’s. His first four outings in such a situation were successful – the team either preserved the lead or the tie that he inherited. The lead wasn’t always as big as when he trotted out to the mound, but for the first half of August, it can be argued Simon did his job in situations where he could have easily surrendered leads. He gave up a lead run once and blew a tie once since then, yet Buck continued to show faith in him in close games. Only once in August did Simon appear before the 8th inning. He didn’t allow any of the three inherited runners to score for August under Buck, and despite an ERA of 5.91, he didn’t single-handedly lose any games, and suffered one blown save. So, despite the train wreck of his numbers, Buck’s managed to use Simon in ways that didn’t help the Orioles lose.  

Buck has, for the most part, used who's here and jettisoned those who don't serve his purpose. Jason Berken left the bullpen due to injury after just three appearances, but Armando Gabino was sent packing after just five appearances and 4.1 IP that had a 0.43 aLI – Buck wasn’t about to let him screw up a good thing. When he didn’t produce in even those sheltered contexts, he was sent away. Troy Pattonnever even appeared in a game during his brief call-up. Only Mark Hendricksonhas remained despite spending significant time on the bench with seven appearances and just five innings. He went from Aug. 22 until Wednesday without appearing in a game, by far the longest period of inactivity of any Oriolesreliever since Buck took over. And his aLIof 0.90 shows Buck isn’t ready just yet to trust him with high leverage innings.

Jim Johnson and Rick Vanden Hurkhave given Buck two more options since their addition to the active roster, and Buck has used both semi-regularly. Johnson had two appearances three days apart since being reinstated from the DL last week, while Vanden Hurk has been used twice since Aug. 22.

So what do these appearance and innings numbers mean? Consider this – Buck Showalter managed this team to 16 wins in 26 tries while using Alfredo Simon and Matt Albers 10 times each. He’s letting his best pitchers pitch when it matters most, but using the rest of the bullpen in ways to ensure those best pitchers are available when needed, not burned out along the way.

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