The margin of error for the 2018 Baltimore Orioles is going to be razor thin. Who knows what to expect from the starting rotation? Who even is the fifth starter? Will Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis bounce back? Who will play right field? Questions abound. Adding to the difficulty is the long-term injury of all-star closer Zach Britton.
Don’t expect Britton back on a mound until the end of May at the earliest. In the meantime, Brad Brach will take over as Baltimore’s finisher. It’s a role he played several times last season as Britton missed significant time with two other injuries.
Over the last three seasons, Brach has compiled 21 saves, the most on the team behind Britton, in 33 opportunities. That comes out to a 63.6 percent save rate. That is, uh, not great to say the least. But that doesn’t mean Brach can’t handle the job full-time.
The right-hander has flashed “closer stuff” time and time again. He has a career 9.66 K/9 rate, which is only a touch worse than Britton’s 9.94 K/9 mark during his historic 2016 season. Brach’s fastball has maintained it’s velocity over his tenure with the O’s. From 2014 through last season his average four-seamer looked like this each year: 94.7 mph, 95.3, 95.7, 95.3. The pitch Brach uses to complement the fastball is his “turbo change”, which he has also kept consistent: 86.2 mph, 87.4, 87.4, 87.3. Both offerings are above average pitches that routinely challenge hitters.
However, there is some concern about Brach taking over the closer job during what may be the toughest stretch of Baltimore’s season. Of course, the blown saves are worrisome, but saves are also a dumb stat anyway, so you can’t put too much stock into them.
Beyond that, in 2017 Brach’s K/9 dropped (from 10.48 to 9.26), his BB/9 jumped (2.85 to 3.44) and so did his HR/9 (0.80 to 0.93). He also allowed more hard contact (29.6% of balls in play) than he ever has as an Oriole. Perhaps the biggest problem is that opponents aren’t swinging on pitches out of the strike zone as often. His O-Swing% dropped from a career-high of 37.9 percent in 2016 to 30.3 percent in 2017, his worst mark since his days as a Padre. This could force Brach to throw more strikes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means better pitches to hit and that could very well lead to more runners on base and more runs allowed. Not good.
Brach will turn 32 years old on April 12. He is still a very good pitcher that would be a useful bullpen piece on any roster. It’s possible he stops his regression. Heck, maybe he even reverses it, goes back to how dominant he was two years ago and shows that 2017 was a fluke. But Buck Showalter and company need to be ready to pull the cord on “Brach the closer” if there are significant signs of struggle in the ninth inning. Buck likes his guys, but his team will need every late lead to hold.
Showalter says he hasn't made a decision on closer. Says Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Mychal Givens and perhaps Richard Bleier can all do the job. None, he said will compare with Zach Britton. #Orioles— Rich DubroffMLB (@RichDubroffMLB) January 9, 2018
It is the opinion of many who follow the Orioles (including yours truly) that Mychal Givens is the team’s closer-in-waiting. In fact, he may already be the best reliever on the team. Of course, that doesn’t mean he should close. On the contrary, if he is the best, he should probably pitch in the most crucial parts of the game, which isn’t always the ninth inning. However, Showalter does what many big league managers do. He gives his best relief pitcher save opportunities and does whatever he can to wait and use them when those chances pop up, sometimes to a fault.
Conventional thinking indicates that Givens will begin the season in the set-up man role with Brach as the closer. If Brach struggles, the two could very well flip flop. Givens is coming off of the best season of his career. Last season he did see a dip in his strikeout rate, but he still posted a 10.07 K/9 and he did it while boasting a 2.86 BB/9, a marked improvement from 2016 (4.34 BB/9). All the while, his fastball velocity is increasing, up from 95.3 mph in 2015 to 95.8 mph last year, according to FanGraphs.
However, Givens’ home run-to-fly ball ballooned up from 8.8 percent in 2016 to 12.7 percent last year. And he benefited overall from a meager .251 BABIP, compared to his career mark of .279. He was lucky to end the year with a 2.86 ERA as his FIP was 3.72 and his xFIP was 3.85. Despite all of this, Givens was the most valuable reliever on the team in 2017, posting a 2.3 WAR, based on Baseball Reference’s model, the fifth-highest of all Orioles.
If Showalter prefers to use Givens in the same way that Terry Francona uses Andrew Miller, then that could open up the ninth inning for someone else. But after Brach and Givens, the options become far less appealing.
Darren O’Day bounced back from a tough 2016 season to be a useful reliever once again last summer. He posted a 127 ERA+, 3.43 ERA and 3.48 xFIP while striking out hitters at a career-high rate (11.34 K/9). But he still allows too many home runs (1.19 HR/9) and pitched mostly in low-leverage situations last season. His xFIP in high-leverage innings (4.78) is significantly higher than it is is low (3.37) and medium (2.86). Showalter was protecting O’Day last year, and that’s OK. The 35-year-old has settled into a middle innings role, and that’s where he should stay.
The final legitimate option that Showalter has mentioned by name is Richard Bleier. The lefty had an unexpectedly awesome 2017. Over 63.1 innings, he posted an ERA of 1.99 and served as a calming presence in the bullpen that always seemed to get outs with little issue. But his peripherals paint a different picture; 4.35 xFIP, 3.69 K/9 and an average fastball velocity of 89.5 mph. Of his 63.1 innings, 48.0 came in low leverage situations and only 3.1 came in high leverage situations. Bleier is a middle innings pitcher. He can bridge the gap from a mediocre performance by the starter and get the ball into the hands of the late-inning relievers. That will be a necessary role on this team and shouldn’t change.
There is no real point in discussing pitchers other than those mentioned by Showalter. Britton will be back at same point and will once again be the Orioles closer. Next offseason it will be time to talk about Tanner Scott and his 100 mph fastball at the back-end of the ‘pen or maybe Jimmy Yacabonis and his 42 career minor league saves. For now, the O’s need to hope that Brach and crew can handle the load. If not, this could be an even longer summer than many are anticipating.