Things feel good in Birdland right now. There are six games remaining in the 2016 season. And both the Tigers and Blue Jays lost on Monday, giving the Orioles a little playoff wiggle room. But if the momentum is going to stay in the O’s favor, they will need to continue relying heavily on a bullpen that has been magnificent down the stretch.
Steady as she goes
Throughout the season, the relievers have been dynamite. As a unit, their 3.42 ERA makes them the fourth-best bullpen in baseball. That includes August, where the whole team was bad, but the bullpen especially so, amassing a 6.43 ERA and a WHIP of 1.614 over 92.1 innings.
It has been since the start of September where the importance of such a strong cavalcade of arms has proven invaluable. This month, the Orioles relievers have a combined ERA of 1.56, a WHIP of 1.000, have allowed 60 hits and struck out 74 batters in 81.0 innings.
There are a few reasons they are performing so much better this month than last. First, the decision-makers in the organization trimmed some of the deadweight from the major league roster. Second, Buck Showalter is going with the hot hand, limiting the exposure of the underperforming and highlighting the standouts.
Gone are T.J McFarland, Parker Bridwell, Odrisamer Despaigne and Logan Ondrusek. Meanwhile, the veteran and oft-injured Darren O’Day has been shielded. And the big three of Mychal Givens, Brad Brach and Zach Britton has emerged.
With Givens, Brach and Britton protecting the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, late leads feel safe and games appear shorter. Over 32 appearances between them this month, they have allowed only two runs over 31.1 innings of work while striking out 34 and walking seven.
Britton’s season by itself has been a marvel. The man has allowed just four earned runs in 64.1 innings pitched and has thrown up nothing but zeroes since August 24 against the Nationals. Prior to that, he hadn’t allowed any runs since June 21. You get where this is going. It’s safe to anoint him as the “Best Closer in Baseball” for the moment. The southpaw could even have a chance to nab the Cy Young Award. He will certainly get a few votes.
Having these defined roles late in the game has allowed the remainder of the bullpen to fall into place with little effort.
Donnie Hart is the new Brian Matusz but, ya know, in a good way. He will be tasked with getting the other team’s best left-handed hitter in a pinch. David Ortiz, Jason Kipnis, Mitch Moreland, Michael Saunders: meet your match...I hope. Lefties hit just .143 against Hart.
Tommy Hunter is your gapper. He slots into the fifth or sixth innings when the starter runs out of gas a little early. Is Dylan Bundy pitching? You can pretty much guarantee you see Hunter. Believe me, we are all as scared about him coming into the game as you are. But he has just a 0.96 ERA in September and a WHIP of 1.18.
Oliver Drake has joined Hunter in those middle innings, but may be even better. Over 10 innings of work, the righty has sat down 13 batters on strikes this month.
Vance Worley is the long man. Very useful in the regular season. But if you see Worley pitching for the Orioles in the playoffs, they have likely already lost.
And Darren O’Day slots in somewhere, but it’s just not really clear where. He has struggled to stay healthy this season and his stats aren’t eye-popping, but his track record shows just how good he can be.
Reasons for worry
As impressive as the bullpen has been, there are always causes for concern. Most players don’t prefer to be relievers. They want to start. That’s where the glory and money is. The trouble for many is, they aren’t good enough to start, so they must relieve. The Orioles bunch is not immune to this fact and it shows up from time to time.
-Using Hunter as a man tasked with handing a competitive game off from the starter to the late-inning crew is a dicey proposition. While his ERA has been nice in September, he also has a .294 batting average against and, despite his big fastball, has struck out only four batters in 9.1 innings while allowing 10 hits. Drake may be the better choice, but he has less experience. You know Buck stands by his vets.
-There is a week left in the season and it may present Showalter a chance to get O’Day’s confidence, in the proper situations, of course. If he does well, would he go back into consideration for being used in nail-biters?
-With young pitchers, their ability to continue being effective into the fall is always a concern. Neither Hart nor Givens have ever pitched in the MLB playoffs. That said, Hart should be able to handle just one batter at a time. And Givens has 14 more innings to go before he reaches the amount of baseball he played a year ago. He should be fresh.
-Britton. He has been so, so good this year. But in the playoffs back in 2014, he struggled, allowing five hits and walking five in just 4.2 innings of work. He also struck out five in that time and is now two years wiser. Are the playoffs too big for him, or was he just getting comfortable?
Most championship teams have at least one thing they are really good at, probably better than anyone else. For the Orioles, they have two; hitting home runs and shutting their opponents down late in games. They will need both to make noise should they reach the playoffs.
Thanks for reading! Hope you don’t feel like I jinxed anything. I tried to stay a tad pessimistic since I would rather be surprised then disappointed. Oh, who am I kidding, I will be disappointed either way.