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Bullpen remains source of pride for Orioles

Tasked yet again to carry the burden that is the starting rotation, the O’s bullpen continued its sneaky dominance. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, the new hardware ain’t so bad either...

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Watching the World Series as well as the entire MLB postseason has brought to life two realizations.

I miss Andrew Miller, like, so so much.

Yeah, our time with the 6’7 lefty was short, but well spent. His long relief stints this October, as vicious as they’ve been glorious, bring back the 1.35 ERA in 20.0 regular season innings Miller tossed with the O’s in 2014. Oh, and there was the 7.1 scoreless innings and 33.0% strikeout rate Miller owned that postseason as well.

He’s essentially been that good for like like four years now, and all that’s happening now is the postseason is providing him the proper platform for which to showcase to everyone else how dominant he is. But to this day, I’m still mad the Orioles made him shave. If you are gifted with the necessary genetic makeup in order for this top hair/face hair combo to happen, it should debunk all team rules.

Secondly, all this rising focus on the importance of a good bullpen can’t help but to reinforce how the Orioles helped pioneer this contemporary movement.

Since 2012, the Orioles own three of the top 14 bullpen seasons measured by fWAR (2012, 2015, 2016), and a lot of that has to do with the savvy approach the organization has taken in constructing one of baseball’s best relief units.

Trading for Brad Brach, converting Mychal Givens from shortstop to sidearming power righty, claiming Darren O’Day off waivers, drafting Donnie Hart in the 27th round, and most importantly, asking Zach Britton to pitch every other day rather than every fifth day, make up a late-inning core that in recent years has been just as important to the team’s five year surge as the team-wide power. And as it turns out, they were pretty good yet again.

Long Relief

Despite a -0.1 fWAR and having the unenviable ability not to strike anyone out, Vance Worley provided a very solid service for the Orioles. Logging 64.2 innings and turning them into a 3.20 ERA, Worley was Buck Showalter’s primary long man.

When you’re on the same team as Yovani Gallardo, Wade Miley and first-half Ubaldo Jimenez, you’re job more or less is to maneuver out of a lot of trouble early in ballgames, and at the cost of a waiver claim, he was pretty good at limiting damage. A man who eats as many innings as he does anything else I’m sure, Worley cut, sank and spun his way to a solidly underrated year.

Before being moved into the starting rotation, the Orioles used the bullpen as a springboard for Dylan Bundy, where he pitched his first 38.0 innings. With a 3.08 ERA, Bundy managed to build up velocity and tinker with his changeup while also pitching as an effective reliever.

Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson were a little bit better out of the bullpen than they were historically as starters, but the bullpen doesn’t really hold a future for Wilson, and while Wright may have the arm to pitch late in games, who knows if he’ll ever harness his unrepeatable delivery.

T.J. McFarland is lefty and breathing, so naturally he tricked his way into 24.1 innings out of the bullpen. His 6.93 ERA and unbelievably low 6.3 K% were bad, which is probably why he only made one appearance after the All-Star break. Speaking of bad, Odrisamer Despaigne was bad, and he was so bad that the Orioles simply couldn’t take it anymore. In early September, he was sent to the great beyond, also known as DFA heaven.

Worley could very well end up being non-tendered his figure this winter, which estimates at $3.3M. A doable salary however, Worley is nonetheless replaceable. With Bundy in the starting rotation for the foreseeable future, Wright and Wilson will enter the offseason again with a chance to make the big league club, though Gallardo, Jimenez or Miley may also be forced as the long man in 2017. McFarland will probably be driving the Norfolk shuttle at a $700K projection.

Middle Relief

Mychal Givens was a fast riser through the system after switching positions, and he is apparently a fast learner as well. After only 22 appearances a year ago, Givens was third on the team in appearances (66) and second in relief innings (74.2 IP), flashing the power arm capable of such a hasty big league adjustment. His 3.13 ERA fluctuated as the cause of increased walks, home runs and BABIP, but he maintained his absurd strikeout numbers (30.7%) and seemed more willing to mix in his changeup later in the year. He’s going to keep getting better.

Donnie Hart quickly asserted himself as the lefty-on-lefty matchup guy the Orioles looked far and wide to find, only to pluck him from Bowie down the stretch. Of the 44 lefties he faced, they batted only .122/.190/.158. Hart’s lone surrendered run was a solo home run, though he was nearly flawless in his 18.1 innings.

Despite the establishments of Givens and Hart, most of the middle relief makeup was a revolving door. Oliver Drake was up and down, Brian Duensing was here, then he adjusted his chair in the bullpen, and then 60 days later, he was here again. Chaz Roe made nine appearances, then he was DFA’d. Logan Ondrusek racked up a 9.95 ERA in seven appearances, then he was DFA’d. Even Tommy Hunter came back!

Remember when the Cubs claimed Brian Matusz and actually started him, as we cowered in fear this was going to be Jake Arrieta 2.0? Well, it wasn’t that, and it was probably never going to be. Matusz was DFA’d by the O’s after 6.0 innings, allowing eight runs and seven walks in seven appearances.

The Orioles can guarantee spots for both Givens and Hart next year, but there isn’t a whole lot of uplifting to be had outside of those two. Drake looked much more comfortable towards the end of the year, though it’s tough to see him not being used as merely a member of the Norfolk shuttle. Tommy Hunter and Brian Duensing are free agents that could be brought back, but the Orioles aren’t losing anything if they move elsewhere. There will be spots to be had in the middle innings, maybe even room to improve.

Late Innings

Brad Brach was a star, even earning his first All-Star appearance. The rare non-closer All-Star pick, though unconventional, was justified. Brach finished the year a little bit slow, possibly due to another season of 79.0+ innings pitched, but a 2.05 ERA/2.92 FIP as the end product is no joke. He cut down on walks, slightly lifted his strikeout frequency and remained one of baseball’s best kept secrets.

The primary cause of Givens’ and Brach’s extended workload was mainly due to the Orioles’ priciest reliever asset missing an uncharacteristic number of games with multiple bugaboos. Hampered by hamstring and shoulder ailments, O’Day was limited to only 31.0 innings after four consecutive seasons of at least 62.0 innings pitched.

Even when he was on the mound, O’Day never quite looked like himself. His 3.77 ERA and 9.9 BB% were his worst marks as an Oriole, as was his 17.1 HR/FB rate. A winter to recuperate will do him good.

And then there was Zach Britton.

To begin with Britton would seemingly mean to reminisce on baseball’s new favorite meme, and I for one, will not perpetuate the remembrance of Buck Showalter’s greatest managerial folly. That is, until enough time has passed when it’s actually funny and the pain doesn’t hurt. Regardless, Britton was phenomenal, and his 2016 will be remembered as one of the greatest seasons a reliever has ever had, and how quickly his greatness was dismissed.

Not only does a 0.54 ERA not make any reasonable sense, but Britton throws one pitch nearly 92% of the time. Britton also owned the highest win probability added of any reliever in baseball at 6.14. He also led all relievers in RE24 at 29.88. Throwing one pitch, 92% of the time, Britton literally bridged his team to victory at the highest rate of efficiency and assurance compared to any reliever in the league, like it or not, as a closer whose job description is just that.

Britton may not win the AL Cy Young, and there is no shame in believing a reliever doesn’t have enough of a workload to garner the award, but to dismiss his overwhelming year by writing blog entries titled “Zach Britton Wasn’t Even the Best Reliever in the AL” just seems cheap. Because he doesn’t record outs in a manner becoming of the typically dominant reliever, he is embraced halfheartedly.

Zach Britton throws one pitch. Hitters know whats coming. They can’t hit it. He won the Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year Award. He should have pitched in the AL Wild Card Game. He’s a badass. #LikeOurReliever.