Lots of things didn't go quite right as the Orioles lumbered to a 3-4 start to the 2015 season. A lot of them were things that were known to start the year -- the starters didn't go deep in ballgames, the offense was feast-or-famine with the long ball. But one of them was more unexpected -- the bullpen struggled, giving up at least one run in each of the seven games. Considering that the team mostly has the same guys who have locked things down the last few years, and considering that the payroll is devoted heavily (as a percentage) to those guys, these are not the struggles that fans expected. But it will get better.
The number one argument that the bullpen will get better is also the number one caveat on all of the statistics below -- this is seven games. It's the definition of a small sample size. So you can choose to believe that the bullpen can't possibly be this bad for the rest of the year, full stop, and call that the end of it. But let's look a little deeper.
You can look at any basic stat and it's clear that the 2015 bullpen has kicked off the year in a funk. ERA, BA/OBP/SLG, K/BB, WHIP -- almost any way you slice it, things haven't been good. So what's the silver lining? Why believe that this isn't the end of the line for the Orioles' improbable run of shutdown bullpens?
It isn't the core guys
While the bullpen has struggled as a unit, Zach Britton and Darren O'Day have pretty much been their usual selves. They're the most important members of the bullpen, as they'll routinely pitch in the highest leverage situations. Brian Matusz has actually been fine, too, although he let some inherited runners in. The only "core" guy who has struggled is Tommy Hunter, who got beaten by lefties as he always has. Reserve judgement until he sees more right-handed batters.
The bullpen as a whole has really been torched by lousy work from Brad Brach, Wesley Wright and Kevin Gausman. Of the three, Brach is the only one to really be concerned about. Gausman is a special case -- he should be starting, and most of his innings came in garbage/mop-up time; T.J. McFarland can slide in his place anytime and stabilize things. Wright was almost immediately revealed to be hurt after his struggles. Brach was a critical cog last year, not in pitching true setup duty, but in his flexibility to plug in against batters of either handedness, in long or short work. If any of these guys are the classic example of "never trust a reliever," it would be Brach -- and that would be at least somewhat bad.
They've been overexposed
During the heady run-up to Opening Day, there was a lot of talk about the starters working on getting deeper into ballgames. That's a nice talking point, but the reality is that the Orioles have a whole rotation full of mid-rotation guys, and a top reason for that is their propensity to throw too many pitches and get knocked out early. And indeed, the rotation so far has not just failed to get deeper into ballgames, they've been run out earlier. The 2014 rotation averaged about 5.8 innings per start -- the 2015 rotation went just five innings per start in the first seven games. Any bullpen that has to cover four innings per game is going to have its soft middle exposed. Imagine where they'd be if Jason Garcia hadn't largely impressed in his first appearances above A-ball.
They can be replaced
It's a cruel world, but as we all know, Dan Duquette simply has no ... cares to give. As long as Britton/O'Day/Hunter/Matusz (or at least three of them) are working fine, there is time to plug other guys into low-leverage work and figure out who will and won't stick. And for the ones that won't stick, replace them. Although giving up the farm for relievers hurts, the fact is that relievers are always available from losing teams at the trade deadline, and if the Orioles are contenders at that point, middle relief is a place where holes can be easily plugged, from within or without.
So worry if you must, Orioles fans. It's not fun to watch a team come back from a division championship and then stumble out of the gates. But worry about the rotation, or the team's on-base skills, or Chris Davis. Don't worry about the bullpen. Because relievers will break your heart, but on this team, the important ones won't, and the ones who do will be gone soon enough, or at least won't be trotted out nearly so often.