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The Orioles unorthodox bullpen use is paying off so far

Dan Duquette seems like he’s always trying some crazy scheme nobody else has thought of. This year, it’s the constantly-revolving Orioles relief corps - and so far, it’s worked.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

One of the hallmarks of Dan Duquette’s tenure at the helm of the Orioles is that he always seems to be doing something that is weird that no other baseball team is doing. Whether out of desperation or perhaps even by design, he practically acts daily to try to improve the Orioles roster for any given day’s game.

This has manifest so far in the 2017 season with the heavy miles logged by the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle. The Orioles have taken advantage of a number of April off days and the new 10-day disabled list to get through the first month of the season with both a five-man bench (deeper than the usual four) and, most games, the standard seven-man bullpen.

That’s a tough thing to accomplish unless you’re willing to be optioning and calling up different players almost on a daily basis. Or, in the Orioles case, more than a daily basis. Just since the start of May, they’ve made 21 distinct moves. Many have involved the daily shuffling of the bullpen deck.

What it all adds up to is that the Orioles have already used 19 different pitchers over their first 30 games, with eight different pitchers starting a game. By comparison, the division-winning 2014 Orioles used just 20 pitchers over the whole season, with six of them combining to start 161 of the 162 regular season games.

Duquette’s dream of daily moves

This is an area where the Orioles stand alone. A quick survey of the division-leading teams in the AL, for instance, shows all of the Yankees, Indians, and Astros all having used just 14 pitchers up until now. It is fair to say that Duquette’s Orioles are doing something that nobody else is doing and perhaps something that nobody else has ever thought to do.

It’s almost hard to keep track of who is the last man or two in the Orioles bullpen for each game. Before Zach Britton was placed on the disabled list, the O’s had five relievers locked into reasonably defined roles, leaving the revolving door swinging for the last one or two spots.

This would not be possible if Duquette hadn’t spent the spring picking these players either off of the waiver wire or in small trades for a player to be named later or cash. If all of this ends up working, perhaps other teams will copy the strategy for next year, or at least stop trading their own potentially-valuable optionable arms to the Orioles.

As someone who must occasionally attempt to document how the mad plans of Duquette translate into action for the Orioles roster, I can tell you that there have been many of these little trades and all of them provoke sarcastic “Start printing the World Series tickets!” replies from a certain type of person. They all involved pitchers who can be optioned to the minor leagues this season.

Riding the Orioles roster merry-go-round

There are eight pitchers on the 40-man roster who have been added from outside the organization since January. Six of them have already spent at least one day on the Orioles MLB roster: Alec Asher, Richard Bleier, Paul Fry, Vidal Nuno, Logan Verrett, and Gabriel Ynoa. Asher, who’s pitched the most innings of this whole bunch, only joined the organization at the very end of spring training.

When you add in the optionable arms who were in the organization prior to 2017, you also get Jayson Aquino, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright. Others like Donnie Hart and Mychal Givens have options, but the O’s don’t seem inclined to send those guys down, so I’m not counting them here.

Fry and Wright haven’t even pitched for the O’s yet. They were around for a short time just in case. The way Duquette is cycling through players, it seems like their time is bound to arrive eventually.

None of this maneuvering would be worth a darn if the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle riders hadn’t been doing acceptably in the aggregate so far. The seven pitchers in this category who’ve appeared in a game for the O’s so far this year have combined to pitch 59.2 innings with a 4.22 ERA.

That adds up to about 22% of the innings pitched by the team so far. A more traditional bullpen arrangement would have many of those innings having to be eaten by the defined role relievers, making their arms less fresh for games where they could be used more decisively to help the Orioles win.

And speaking of wins, not that pitcher wins tell us a ton about pitcher quality, it’s interesting nonetheless that out of the 20 wins the O’s as a team have collected, six of those pitcher wins have gone to these seven pitchers who have ridden the roster merry-go-round. They haven’t added up to a Cy Young contender, but they are, collectively, a serviceable pitcher or two.

Another bonus: An extra spot on the bench

When the Orioles activated starter Chris Tillman from the disabled list to pitch in Sunday’s win over the White Sox, they actually went into that game with just a six-man bullpen! The standard size is seven, and teams are far more likely to go with an eight-man pen for short stretches, with a three-man bench, than they are to go to a six-man pen with a five-man bench.

What this has meant so far is that the Orioles have been able to keep both outfielder Joey Rickard and sorta-outfielder Trey Mancini on the bench at the same time, without having to choose which one to option. With Mancini batting .297/.313/.641 for the season so far, that matters. The back-and-forth of Asher, Ynoa, and everyone in between has let Mancini hit his six dingers and drive in his 18 runs for the big league team.

Past performance is not always a predictor of future success, so it’s too early to proclaim this strategy of collecting fringe optionable arms a brilliant one yet. There are any number of reasons why it could all fall apart, because after all, the fact that no one has ever really tried this before does tell us a little something.

But at least as far as I am concerned, one successful month of the long reliever/spot starter revolving door is more than I expected that they would get. It wouldn’t be the first time the Duquette Orioles have proven me wrong about something and it probably wouldn’t be the last time.