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Does the Bullpen Really Help in One Run Games?

The Orioles are banking on a lot more of this to keep them in the playoff hunt.
The Orioles are banking on a lot more of this to keep them in the playoff hunt.
David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

Yesterday, FoxSports' Ken Rosenthal, put out his regular column that included a tidbit about the Orioles, who have outperformed their run differential considerably. Rosenthal included this nugget:

The Orioles’ terrific bullpen, on the other hand, enables the club to win an inordinate number of close games — the O’s are 10-2 in extra innings and 19-6 in one-run outcomes.

I was going to write about this, but then we had a terrific pow-wow in the comments of yesterday's Bird Droppings, and then SBNation's Jeff Sullivan pretty much wrote what I had to say anyway, including this bit:

There is no "myth" here. The Baltimore Orioles without question have a better record than they should based on their performance. The expectation is that they'll fade before the playoffs, and that's perfectly justifiable. But what also matters is that the Orioles are still in the hunt, and when a team is in the hunt at the end of July, you can never dismiss the possibility that it'll remain in the hunt until the very end. There's no such thing as retroactive regression. The Orioles aren't going to give any wins back. All they have to do is win games from now on, and that's easier over two months than six months.

That's pretty much what I had to say in this week's CamdenCast. Except, of course, Sullivan said it better than me. Now go tweet at him about how happy you are Ichiro is finally in New York where he has always belonged.

Sullivan also included a interesting note that I never really pondered until today, and this is where I'm going to focus my energies for now:

The Reds have had baseball's best bullpen, and they're 17-16 in one-run games. The Pirates and A's have the next-lowest bullpen ERAs, and while they've been good in one-run games, they haven't been Orioles-good. And of course, the Orioles' bullpen probably isn't as good as its ERA.

Rosenthal mentioned it, and it's kind of just been accepted as gospel, but is the bullpen - which is pretty much where the Orioles have to hang their hat - really the reason for this insanely good record in 1 run ballgames? If it is, and the bullpen doesn't regress too quickly then that's some solid science backing the idea of the Orioles as a legit playoff contender. If it isn't, then it's just more noise keeping you from an unfortunate reality.

So how do we ponder this question? I think the most robust, if not best, strategy is to consider each of the Orioles' 25 games so far this season that have been decided by 1 run. So let's get started.

1) 4/10: 4-5 loss to NYY

Wei-Yin Chen went 5.2 innings, turning it over to Matt Lindstrom with runners on the corners and the score tied 4-4. Lindstrom, Luis Ayala, Jim Johnson, and Troy Patton all saw scoreless action before Pedro Strop gave up doubles to Robinson Cano and Raul Ibanez in the 12th.

6.1 IP, 8 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 1 R, 5 H, 0 IRS, L

2) 4/17: 3-2 win over CHW

Chen this time only goes 5.1 innings, turning over a 3-2 lead to Darren O'Day. O'Day pitches out of a jam in the 6th, and then he, Patton, and Ayala provide the bridge to Jim Johnson. Johnson loads the bases in the 9th but registers the save.

3.2 IP, 2 K, 2 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 1 H, 0 IRS, SV

3) 4/22: 3-2 win over LAA

Coincidentally, Chen is again the starter. This time he goes 6.1 innings and departs with the Angels winning 1-0 and 2 runners on base. O'Day induces the double play ball to get out of it. The O's grab the lead in the next half inning, but Pedro Strop gives up a tying home run to Howie Kendrick. Fortunately, the offense gets Strop the patented "BS Win" in the 10th inning and Johnson works around a 1-out double to record his 7th save.

3.2 IP, 5 K, 0 NIBB, 1 HR, 1 R, 3 H, 0 IRS, BS, W, SV

4) 4/24: 2-1 win over TOR

Troy Patton takes over from Tommy Hunter for the start of the 7th inning, nursing the 2-1 lead and not a whole heck of a lot else happens. Pedro Strop does his part to disprove the "proven closer" thing, slamming the door on the Blue Jays in the 9th.

3 IP, 3 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 2 H, 0 IRS, SV

5) 4/30: 1-2 loss to NYY

The pen does what it can, registering 2 perfect innings, but it inherited a 2-1 deficit.

2 IP, 1 K, 0 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 0 H, 0 IRS

6) 5/10: 6-5 win over TEX

Wei Yin leaves with a five run lead in the eighth, and Luis Ayala does his job, inducing a two out grounder to third to escape his inherited jam. The defense boots it, though, and a runner scores. Jim Johnson is less than spectacular himself, giving up a three run bomb to Daniel Murphy. Not a good game for the bullpen.

1.1 IP, 2 K, 0 NIBB, 1 HR, 3 R, 3 H, 1 IRS, SV

7) 5/11: 4-3 win over TB

This was the first Dana Eveland game, and Darren O'Day came on in the 7th with the Rays winning 3-2. O'Day, Strop, and Johnson were all perfect, and a timely Nick Johnson home run sealed up the win for the birds.

3 IP, 1 K, 0 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 0 H, 0 IRS, W, SV

8) 5/13: 9-8 loss to TB

Jake Arrieta logged a disaster start, and Kevin Gregg relieved him in the 4th with the score 7-1 Rays. This was a tremendous game for the relievers - Troy Patton gave up back to back homers in the 8th to quell the O's comeback efforts - but to no avail.

5.1 IP, 7 K, 1 NIBB, 2 HR, 2 R, 3 H, 0 IRS

9) 5/16: 4-3 win over KC

Tommy Hunter went 7 strong innings, but left the game losing 2-1. A wild comeback in the 9th off Jonathon Broxton sent the game into extras. A bunch of relievers got into this game, including Dana Eveland for three stress-free extra innings and Kevin Gregg for two, before the Orioles won in the 15th.

8 IP, 6 K, 1 NIBB, 1 R, 5 H, 0 IRS, W, SV

10) 5/18: 2-1 win over WAS

Jake Arrieta was great, he threw seven innings and left with the game tied 1-1. The bullpen was again fantastic giving up just one hit in the 11th. Strop got the save, working around that hit and a lead-off HBP.

4 IP, 1 K, 0 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 1 H, 0 IRS, W, SV

11) 5/19: 6-5 win over WAS

Jason Hammel left the game with the O's winning 6-1, but Luis Ayala let both his inherited runners score. Ryan Zimmerman homered off Jim Johnson in the ninth to make it close.

3.2 IP, 3 K, 1 NIBB, 1 R, 4 H, 1 HR, 2 IRS, SV

12) 5/23: 5-6 loss to BOS

Arrieta turned the game over to Ayala in the 6th with the Red Sox up 3-2. Ayala gave up a homer to his first batter and then O'Day gave up another homer in the 8th, keeping the game out of a comeback reach.

3.1 IP, 2 K, 0 NIBB, 2 HR, 2 R, 5 H, 1 IRS

13) 5/26: 3-4 loss to KC

Darren O'Day took over after Chen pitched 6 innings. O'Day had a 3-2 lead, but gave up back-to-back doubles to blow the lead. Pedro Strop loaded the bases and gave up a single to Eric Hosmer to lose the game in the 8th.

3 IP, 3 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 2 R, 6 H, 0 IRS, BS, L

Let's take a quick break. May wasn't especially kind to this particular narrative. The bullpen blew one game entirely, and were generally bad in four of the eight games in question. On June 1st, the Orioles were 29-22 and had just a +8 run differential on the season. The O's were at this point 8-5 in one run games.

14) 6/2: 2-1 win over TB

Brian Matusz was really good (believe it or not), but gave Pedro Strop a 2 on, 1 out tricky situation in the 8th. Strop loaded the bases on a walk but got the critical double-play ball. Johnson was perfect in the ninth.

1.2 IP, 0 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 0 H, 0 IRS, SV

15) 6/6: 2-1 win over BOS

Chen went 7 really good innings, and turned the 2-1 lead over to Strop and Johnson. Strop walked two in a row in the eighth but got the job done. Johnson was perfect for the save.

2 IP, 3 K, 2 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 0 H, 0 IRS, SV

16) 6/10: 5-4 win over PHI

A tremendous job by the bullpen to out-duel the Phillies after Hammel went six and departed the game tied at 4 apiece. Patton, Johnson, and O'Day were pretty close to perfect after that, as the O's walked off winners in the 10th.

4 IP, 1 K, 0 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 2 H, 0 IRS, W

17) 6/20: 3-4 loss to NYM

Luis Ayala replaced Brian Matusz with two outs in the fifth and the score 3-0. He stranded his baserunners but gave up a run in the 6th. Strop and Johnson also pitched, and they were pretty good. This was right when the O's bats went ice cold, though. Not much more the pen could have done.

3.1 IP, 1 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 1 R, 2 H, 0 IRS

18) 6/22: 2-1 win over WAS

Jason Hammel's signature win? Maybe not, but he was tremendous for 8 innings. Johnson looked a little shaky, but only allowed one baserunner in the scoreless ninth.

1 IP, 0 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 0 H, 0 IRS, SV

19) 6/24: 2-1 win over WAS

Arrieta went six, and turned over a 1-1 game to Patton, Strop, and Johnson, who were all very good.

3 IP, 4 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 1 H, 0 IRS, W, SV

20) 6/29: 9-8 win over CLE

Jake Arrieta's was terrible, going 3.2 innings and leaving with the game at 5-3 Indians. Troy Patton stranded runners on the corners and went on to work effective long relief, but things came unglued in the 7th inning. The O's were winning at the time 7-5, but six hits in the inning tied the game up. Johnson came on with a two run lead in the ninth and gave up an RBI single to Shin-Shoo Choo. This win was all about the bats.

5.1 IP, 4 K, 2 NIBB, 0 HR, 3 R, 8 H, 0 IRS, BS, W, SV

Okay, one more break. June was obviously a big month for the Orioles' record in one-run games. They went 6-1 in these games despite going 7-12 in all their other June games. Their run differential in June was +5, obviously, in the one-run games but -25 in everything else. This was a big month for beating up on the run differential thing.

21) 7/3: 5-4 win over SEA

Chen leaves with a runner on 2nd in the eighth and 1 out. The O's are winning 4-1, but Pedro Strop pours gasoline on the game. By the start of the 9th it is 4-4. Robert Andino homers and Jim Johnson gets 3 quick ground ball outs for the win.

1.2 IP, 0 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 2 R, 3 H, 1 IRS, BS, W, SV

22) 7/6: 3-2 win over LAA

Darren O'Day starts the 8th inning with a 3-1 lead. He gives up a homer to wunderkind Mike Trout, and then a triple to Torii Hunter, but that's it for the Angels. Johnson picks up a routine save, his 26th.

2 IP, 1 K, 0 NIBB, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 H, 0 IRS, SV

23) 7/18: 2-1 win over MIN

In relief of Tommy Hunter, Troy Patton comes on with the one-run lead, 1 out in the 8th, and nobody on base. He works into trouble, loading the bases, but then back out of trouble. Jim Johnson picks up another ho-hum save.

1.2 IP, 0 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 2 H, 0 IRS, SV

24) 7/19: 4-3 win over MIN

The pen picks up in the 8th in relief of Wei Yin Chen, and Darren O'Day and Troy Patton let the first two batters reach base. Strop works out of the jam and Johnson throws a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

2 IP, 0 K, 1 NIBB, 0 HR, 0 R, 1 H, 0 IRS, SV

25) 7/22: 4-3 win over CLE

Luis Ayala and Jim Johnson nearly blow a 4-0 lead in the ninth and nearly ruin Zach Britton's first gem of the season. The ship is righted at the last minute, but buttss definitely got clenched in the process.

3 IP, 2 K, 1 NIBB, 1 HR, 3 R, 4 H, 0 IRS, SV

* * * * *

The bullpen's totals for these 25 games are 81 innings pitched with a 2.56 ERA and a 3.90 FIP and 5 inherited runners scored. I further break down these games like so:

Bullpen was perfect: 12 games, Orioles went 11-1

Bullpen was okay: 6 games, Orioles went 3-3

Bullpen was bad: 7 games, Orioles went 5-2

What do you make of this? To re-iterate the question, is the bullpen's strong performance so far this season what should be credited with all these one-run victories? For eleven of them, the answer is definitely yes, though certainly none of those games featured anything less than good starting pitching as well. The other eight wins, however, have a lot more to do with clutch hitting and good starting pitching than relief help.

Strong relief pitching has helped boost the record in one-run ballgames, but not satisfyingly more than strong starting pitching. Only 6 of these 25 games saw the O's as a whole give up 5 runs or more. The O's won 3 of those games, all with mediocre-to-bad relief work. Everything else featured very good starting pitching first and the relief pitching second.

This study can't say if the recipe for the racking up future one-run games is a strong bullpen, or if the 2012 bullpen is likely to continue their hot run, or if any other team's record in this type of game is indicative of bullpen quality. It also does not look at games in which the bullpen was given a close game that ended less than close. It only says that when the Orioles have won or lost by one run, more often than not a good bullpen performance was there in the spotlight, along with good starting pitching and the weird random baseball flukes of scoring just enough to win by one run.