(Note: Originally this wasn't even a multi-part series, but now here we are at part three of at least four. Ignore the subtitle, which is just a joke of mine. Part two's subtitle was the equally meaningless "Electric Boogaloo", of course taken from the Oscar-winning documentary Breakin' 2. The next part, about the starting pitching, will have a subtitle that makes sense, I promise.)
Every year Spring Training rolls around and you hear the same familiar tropes being dusted off. "He's in the best shape of his life" has become such a ubiquitous, meaningless phrase nowadays that even Tigers manager Jim Leyland said it in regards to the recently arrested for DUI Miguel Cabrera. Then you have your "the ball's coming out of his hand really great" and your "popping the mitt". My increasingly favorite one is about smashing windshields during BP. I suppose the early days of Spring Training, while romanticized, are pretty boring routines for the media and the guys talking to the media.
I would like to submit a new trope, one that I hear every single year (at least in Baltimore): "The bullpen is going to be a real strength of this team this year". It never fails. The 2006 bullpen spending spree gave so many of us this feeling of depth and strength, but the 2007 squad still ranked at the bottom of baseball in: ERA, FIP, Inherited Runners Scored, Win Probability Added, everything.
I've heard "The bullpen is going to be a real strength of this team this year" somehow for a team featuring Dennis Sarfate, old Jamie Walker, George Sherrill, and Randor Bierd. I know I heard it last year. "Oh, we overpaid by a lot for Mike Gonzalez, but we'll at least get a strong bullpen". And, yes, I've heard it this year from a lot of folks.
Not that I blame anybody. It's Spring Training, nobody wants to have their hopes dashed, and on paper every bullpen looks strong. But it's still a ridiculous thing to say. And yet, I sat down to write this very blog article, and my first thought was "well, the bullpen is probably going to be a real strength this year". Fact: I am just as much of a sheep as the people I try to poke fun at, if not more.
Another fact: the bullpen can be a genuine strength of any team. The Baltimore relievers were given a little under 490 innings to pitch in 2010 (9th most in baseball), and they put up a 4.44 ERA (24th best). The Rays, meanwhile, led the American League with a 3.33 ERA from their 'pen. If the Orioles had matched the Rays in effectiveness over their 490 innings, they would have surrendered 60 fewer earned runs. If you've been keeping track of my silly little expectation series, you would know that the Orioles pitching staff as a whole needs to shave 65 runs off to get in the neighborhood of .500.
Is ERA or even total runs allowed really a strong way to judge a bullpen? I tend to think any pitcher's job is very simply "do not let runs score", but then again should the two runs Matt Albers gives up when he's handed a 6 run deficit have the same weight as the two runs Mike Gonzalez gives up to blow the lead in the ninth? Or the two runs Mark Hendrickson allows, letting the game slip away in the 7th? Or the two runs Pedro Viola gives up when the O's have a five run lead in the eighth?
To that I say if the Orioles starters are giving the bullpen large deficits and/or the bullpen is giving up a lot of runs regardless of the context, the question of "Can the Orioles have a winning 2011?" has a really obvious answer. So I'm sticking with the context-free runs allowed. It's a little rough and inaccurate in translation to wins and losses, but let's just keep it simple here: better bullpens give up fewer runs.
The 2010 bullpen gave up 258 total runs in 488.2 innings (a 4.44 ERA and a 4.25 FIP, which are both marks in the lower third of baseball) and allowed 32% of inherited baserunners to score (which is just off of the major league average of 31%). Buck Showalter started to use the 'pen more intelligently than his predecessors, and he got a 4.40 ERA and a 3.94 FIP and only 24% of inherited runners scoring out of his relievers over 153.1 innings.
Stranding more runners obviously catches the eye a bit (especially with how it jives with duck's article), and stretched over the season it would save the Orioles' starters about 15 runs from their ERA. Which isn't a lot, really, but it is a start. I however am not convinced it was more than a hot streak. I want to give Buck some of the credit, but all of it seems like a stretch.
Honestly, Buck largely benefited from getting Mike Gonzalez, David Hernandez, and Jim Johnson back healthy, and even more from getting a couple of strong weeks from Matt Albers. He was a lot smarter in what matchups he went with, but he got to use a healthy pitching staff. Platoon splits and smart matchups are no match for a good, healthy pitcher at your side.
And that brings us to the first real imperative for the bullpen: Stay Healthy. Last season, the main Orioles relievers were:
That group accounts for 68% of the bullpen's total innings. They put together a combined 4.13 ERA and 4.06 FIP. The bullpen as a whole wasn't very good, and these guys led the charge. Guys with more talent like Jim Johnson, David Hernandez, and Mike Gonzalez didn't contribute as much because they were hurt for significant periods. This was one of the impetuses for signing Kevin Gregg to such a lucrative offer. The guy's been a workhorse. Not that that guarantees he'll be healthy in 2011.
In 2011, we're looking at an ideal bullpen of Gregg, Gonzalez, Johnson, Koji, Berken, and Jeremy Accardo. If those guys can stay healthy and split 68% - or more - of the bullpen's innings between them, that's a good gain over the 2010 staff. Those seven pitchers have a combined career ERA of 3.37 and a FIP of 3.49. That would potentially save the Orioles around 25 fewer runs allowed in 2011 from the main relievers. That seems like a best case scenario, given the health and effectiveness problems of all six of those pitchers at various points in their careers.
Working through this exercise has given me a couple of depressing/interesting angles on things. For example: we all know in our heart of hearts that Alfredo Simon was awful last year. We don't even need to look up his 4.93 ERA to know it. And we have this vague notion that while Kevin Gregg isn't exactly Mariano Rivera, he's got to be a lot better than Weak Sauce, right? But over a 50 inning spread, Gregg and his 4.03 career ERA gives up just 5 fewer runs than 2010 Simon. That's it.
The moral of the story isn't that Kevin Gregg is way overpaid but rather one of sample sizes. Not only do the small number of innings relievers get in a given year lead to large fluctuations of production (for example, Jim Johnson was sent to AAA Norfolk after ten games last season because he had a 6.52 ERA in 9.2 innings*) but they also severely limit the benefits of replacing pitchers. I mentioned before that the '10 relief corps had about 490 innings. Over 490 innings, here's how ERA drops translate to drops in raw runs allowed:
|Fewer Runs Allowed||ERA Drop|
*Fortunately, the Orioles "learned their lesson" and ran Frank Mata out there twice as long to worse results later on in the season. It's this sort of backwards-thinking ("We need to send the good pitcher down to get right! We need to keep running the bad pitcher out there!") where I think and hope that Buck Showalter will instill some much needed common-sense and really make his mark, even if ultimately 17 innings of 7+ ERA don't mean a whole lot. If for nothing else, then for my psyche, Buck!
So the Orioles will need to have a truly elite bullpen for it to make a big difference in terms of runs allowed, and they don't on paper. They instead have a modestly improved bullpen, which is still nice. There are however a couple of ways that a modestly improved bullpen can look like an elite one.
If the Orioles benefit from more fluky good seasons than fluky bad/injured seasons out of the bullpen, then the bullpen really would be a real strength of this team. Similarly, if the starters take more innings for themselves, the lesser relievers won't be given the ball as much as the late-inning pitchers, and the whole unit will look stronger. But I don't feel comfortable counting on good luck, and I don't think you should either.
So, do you want me to give some sort of "official" prediction in terms of runs allowed? I have temporarily misplaced my crystal ball, so you should use yours, though I suppose I would be comfortable expecting about a 15 run improvement from the bullpen. Honestly though, I would not be surprised by a better year nor a weaker year. Bullpens are just inherently volatile. But let's keep playing along with 15 runs. That leaves, by my guesses, about a 50 run improvement needed from the starters. Is that reasonable? The answer to that lies in the next part (coming soon!).