The Orioles finished April near the top of the American League East, and while no one is clamoring for playoff tickets just yet, it has come as a pleasant surprise the O's are doing as well as they are. We‘re taught since birth that the keys to winning baseball are pitching, pitching and more pitching, so here's a look at how the O's have fared in the pitching department one month into the season.
While we're all just beaming at the team's collective 2.83 ERA as of Thursday to start the year, a look at the numbers shows there's not been many dominant performers among the O's staff. It's more a case of everyone doing his job, with one or two performing exceptionally well. Jason Hammel's 208 ERA+ is certainly due, in large part, to his new-found two-seam fastball, but he's by far the exception among the starters. Wei-Yin Chen has been a revelation, with a 185 ERA+ and a 2.22 ERA, but the WHIP of 1.315 is OK, not eye-popping. Three of the five starting pitchers have an ERA over 3.50, two of the five have an ERA+ under 100 (which is league average), and three have a WHIP over 1.30. Two starters having great starts can't account for a 16-9 record by themselves, especially when Chen has already been skipped once in the rotation. So, why the hot start?
Because, even with league average numbers, no one on the starting staff is getting blown out. Not a single O's starter has been pulled before he threw at least 80 pitches. Think about it - we've had 25 games started, and not once has a pitcher needed to be pulled before 80 pitches. Brian Matusz was lifted after 4.0 IP against NYY on April 9, but for the most part, starters are getting to at least the 6th inning and often the 7th. There have not been many disasters for the O's, where the team shuffles its way to a 12-2 loss, destroying its stats along the way. The starters are giving the team a chance to win. Sure, that shouldn't be considered a Herculean task, but for O's pitching corps of the last 5 years, that's yeoman's work.
When starters do their job, it makes Buck Showalter's job of managing the bullpen easier. He can use pitchers when needed, yet not tire them out unnecessarily. We remember all too well the start to 2010, when the O's went out 1-11 and Dave Trembley was trotting out to the mound, lifting a starter by the 4th inning seemingly every night. By July 15th the bullpen was used up, and the O's used a total of 12 pitchers in the bullpen for the year.
Showalter doesn't have to do that this year. Much like his ballyhooed September 2010, his starters are pitching deep enough he can use relievers in a manner that makes sense. We all know Kevin Gregg sucks, for example. Apparently, Buck does, too, because Gregg's Average Leverage Index (aLI) as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com is .723, which is significantly below league average. Basically, Showalter isn't letting him or Troy Patton (.464 aLI) into games that are still in the balance. Darren O'Day is being used in low-leverage situations as well, with an aLI of .850.
Those three pitchers, however, account for 28.1 IP out of the bullpen's 57.0 IP. Almost 50% of the bullpen's innings are being eaten by pitchers we'd probably would prefer weren't on the staff. But those innings are coming in games that have, for the most part, already been decided.
There have been a few stellar performers this year in the back end of the bullpen rotation. Jim Johnson, food poisoning notwithstanding, has been exemplary. His aLI of 2.843 shows he's getting by far the most stressful innings, and he's getting the job done. He's tied for the lowest average pitches per appearance at 17, and hasn't had an earned run score against him. That said, he's never entered this year with a man on base, has only entered 2 of his 10 games with the team either tied or losing, and has never been asked to throw more than 3 outs. That aLI of 2.843 is an outlier for sure, but your closer typically will have the highest aLI. That ERA won't stay 0.00 forever. But JJ has proven a much more dependable option that any other currently residing in the O's ‘pen.
All in all, the length of the starters' outings has allowed Buck Showalter to use the bullpen pretty much as I would guess he'd imagined in Spring Training - Jim Johnson will close, Pedro Strop will get the 8th and can close if needed, Troy Patton is the designated LOOGY and can be used in long relief, Kevin Gregg gets used when the house is already on fire and falling down, and the others are pretty much interchangeable parts for innings 6 and 7 as needed.
If the starters continue to do what they've been doing - and for the most part, it isn't that much of stretch to imagine they may, with the exception of Jason Hammel coming back to Earth - the Orioles may be able to continue something close to the success they've achieved in April.