One of the traits that former Orioles manager Buck Showalter was routinely lauded for during his tenure in Baltimore was his handling of the bullpen. He tried to avoid using pitchers on back-to-back days if possible, hated to warm up an arm and not use it in the game and did everything in his power to put players into positions where they felt most comfortable. So far, it seems, rookie skipper Brandon Hyde plans on doing things a bit differently.
Through three games, Orioles relievers have thrown 16.1 innings, the seventh-most in baseball, and a full four innings more than any other team that has played three or fewer games. On top of that, the O’s lead the entire league with a little over 5.1 relief innings per game.
But it’s not just the group numbers that jump off the stat sheet. A few Orioles relievers have already turned in individual performances that would cause an onlooker’s heart to skip a beat or two.
On Saturday, Jimmy Yacabonis put in a third inning of work despite a strenuous second inning and the fact that he was starting his second trip through the Yankees lineup. Mychal Givens set a career-high on Sunday with 49 pitches in one appearance. He had previously never thrown more than 42 pitches in a single outing. And rookie John Means got stretched out in the series-clincher as well, tossing 3.1 innings and 79 pitches in just his second career MLB appearance.
Would any of those decisions have come from a Showalter-led dugout? It’s impossible to know, but it feels unlikely. At the same time, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this is actually Hyde’s style or simply being done out of necessity.
It’s no secret that this Orioles pitching staff is less than impressive. There isn’t a single member of the staff who can routinely be counted on to throw six effective innings. That means that whether Hyde incorporates the opener or bullpen-game strategies with regularity or not, the relievers are going to be taxed. It’s simply the nature of the beast when a team lacks top-of-the-rotation pitchers.
The widespread concern over teams moving away from traditional starters and leaning more heavily on their bullpens is sustainability. Can this work for an entire 162-game season without jeopardizing the health of the pitchers involved? The Rays turned it into 90 wins last season, but one incidence of success is far from enough evidence to prove this is a repeatable process.
The obvious answer is that no one really knows. Even the Rays couldn’t go entirely to the opener system. They needed a solid half-season (96 innings) from Chris Archer, and it was also handy to have the AL Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, throw 180.2 innings as well. These Orioles do not have anyone in the same stratosphere as Snell, and maybe no one even approaching Archer. It would be a much bigger ask of them to sustain such a strategy all summer.
However, the Orioles have constructed their roster with flexibility in mind. They were well aware of their pitching deficiencies entering the season, and while winning MLB games in 2019 is not the end goal of their current rebuild, taking care of the players within the organization will always be of paramount importance.
According to Roster Resource, the only pitchers on the Orioles current 40-man roster with no minor league options remaining are Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb and Mike Wright Jr. Those first three are likely only leaving this roster via trade anyway, and the team seems set on giving Wright Jr. as many opportunities as possible to prove himself in the bigs.
Every other hurler can be sent between Baltimore and Bowie or Norfolk throughout the year. It would surprise almost no one to see current MLBers Yacabonis, Means, David Hess, and Paul Fry each make at least one trip back to the minors before the season ends. Likewise, Cody Carroll, Branden Kline, Luis Ortiz, Evan Phillips, Yefry Ramirez, Josh Rogers and Tanner Scott (among others) will each get their chance to trade in their Norfolk green for Orioles orange at some point in the months to come, provided they pitch well enough.
All of this is very boring. Seeing a different player jog out of the bullpen every two innings is nowhere near as gripping as witnessing the same pitcher dominate an opposing lineup for eight innings before handing the ball to the flame-throwing closer, who strikes out the side to seal the victory in the ninth. But this is the reality of modern baseball and being a fan of the Baltimore Orioles.
How Hyde and new GM Mike Elias juggle the roster while keeping their players healthy and not rushing the youngsters will be a huge test of their regime. Again, that was something that the previous duo of Showalter and Dan Duquette did rather well while maintaining a competitive team for the majority of their time in charge. It’s only natural, although perhaps a bit unfair, for fans and members of the media to compare the two tandems.
Through three games, Hyde seems to have struck the right balance in the management of his pitching staff. He didn’t allow Richard Bleier to blow a late lead on Saturday, he limited Dylan Bundy to two trips through the order on Sunday and has put Givens, the team’s best bullpen arm, into crucial situations regardless of the inning.
It hasn’t been perfect, of course. Perhaps he pulled Givens too early on Saturday and then left him in too long on Sunday. Andrew Cashner’s leash may have been a bit too long on opening day.
But this is normal second guessing that will happen for any manager, let along a rookie. Remember, these are pitchers that Hyde is just getting to know. He’s learning what they look like when everything in their arsenal is working and, even more importantly, when nothing is working. That will all come in time, and there will be growing pains, but that’s all part of the “fun” of rebuilding a major league organization.