It was an idea in Orioles fans’ minds even before the Sunday afternoon meltdown. And when the home runs off the bats of Marco Hernandez and Rafael Devers landed beyond the fences at Oriole Park, it became all the more painfully obvious.
The Orioles have a problem at closer. Mychal Givens is stumbling in another crack at it. Miguel Castro has been unable to handle it. Paul Fry hasn’t looked too sharp. For most teams, closer is a set-in-stone job. In Baltimore, it’s a revolving door.
The Orioles haven’t found an answer. That part’s not debatable.
The debate is in what that answer could be.
Is the solution to keep leaning on Givens, trusting that an experienced late-inning pitcher with high-90s heat will eventually figure it out? Is it to give another option a shot? Is it to try somebody new? Or maybe to go with a committee, and let whoever closes be up to Brandon Hyde’s whims that particular night?
The idea of Givens staying in the role is troubling. He has almost as many blown saves (five) this season as saves (six), and his ERA is a swollen 5.28. He’s struggled particularly of late, blowing four of his last six opportunities, and though he’s still punched out 41 batters in 29 innings and allowed batters to hit only .241 against him, they’re slugging .509 against him this season. When they catch up to him, they pound him.
And yet, Hyde seems to think the team is at its best with Givens in that role. In late May, Hyde talked about using Givens in more relaxed situations, to get his performance back in line before having him close again.
“We need Mike bad,” Hyde said, according to the Baltimore Sun, “and we need the good Mychal Givens.”
There is no pitcher in the Orioles’ bullpen with as successful a track record in tight spots as Givens, who has been on the whole terrific since breaking into the majors in 2015, so it’s understandable why a manager like Hyde, who’s seeing his squad falter in nearly every area, could be so determined to salvage one of the few parts of the team that was supposed to be automatic.
If Givens does get bumped out of the role, though, who takes over? Miguel Castro throws hard but gets hit harder (6.19 ERA). Ditto for Branden Kline (5.89 ERA). Richard Bleier has two saves this season, but also has a 6.75 ERA, and has seemed to find some success as a middle-inning option and lefty specialist.
An intriguing option is Shawn Armstrong. Since being acquired from Seattle and making his Orioles debut May 1, Armstrong has pitched to a 1.50 ERA in 17 appearances while allowing a .156 average and .281 slugging percentage and compiling a 1.05 WHIP. Those are all important stats for a reliever — so far, Armstrong hasn’t been walking guys, hasn’t been getting hit hard, and hasn’t been getting hit often. Statistically, he has the best case for the job.
Armstrong, however, has been so good in his role that Hyde might be reluctant to move him. For the same reason that managers will leave a hitter on a tear where he is in the lineup, Hyde could choose not to mess with the one part of his bullpen that’s been close to automatic. Closing is a demanding responsibility mentally, as the slightest slip-ups seem to always snowball into game-tying or even game-winning rallies, and a blown save or two could shake Armstrong’s confidence and wreck the best thing the O’s have going in relief.
Furthermore, closing can complicate a pitcher’s availability and usage. In his current role as de facto set-up man and escape artist, Armstrong is pretty much ready to go whenever Hyde needs either a bridge to the ninth inning or a reliable arm to get out of a jam.
With closers, however, the temptation is to save them for spots that could happen (i.e. a late lead), rather than use them for the situation actually happening (i.e., a tie game in the seventh with runners on first and second). Just ask Buck Showalter, who went with Ubaldo Jimenez in the 2016 wild card game instead of a Zack Britton he was hoping to save for an eventual lead, and saw Jimenez give up a walk-off home run that still hasn’t landed.
Perhaps comparing a team currently 30 games under .500 to a playoff team is inappropriate, but the principle is the same. Armstrong could wait games for a save chance that doesn’t come, pitch a mop-up inning or two to keep his arm fresh, and then be unavailable for the next time he’s needed. Hyde could wish to always have that bullet available.
Which brings up the fourth option: using a committee. It takes away the emphasis on “being the closer,” and allows the pitcher best suited for the job to get his shot. Given Hyde’s use of openers, rather than starters, early in the season, as well as his recent fondness for small ball, the indications are that he’s willing to bend convention in order to get results from this group.
Armstrong could be the best option, but while he gets his chance, so could Paul Fry. And Jimmy Yacabonis. And Castro. And, again, Givens.
Maybe that’s the best option. Now, if the Orioles could only get themselves a few more late leads...