Watching the Orioles trot out a parade of ineffective relief pitchers this season makes us long for the glory days of 2012-2016. During that span of five seasons, the Orioles’ bullpen posted an ERA of 3.25, good for third in the majors. Their accumulated WAR during those seasons was 29.9, averaging nearly six WAR per season. The relievers deployed by Buck Showalter were truly a weapon. That feels like so long ago, perhaps because 2019 has been such a long season.
Any observer of the 2019 Orioles could tell you that the bullpen has been really bad this year. But I wasn’t aware of just how bad until looking at the numbers. Especially when contrasted with the great success of the not-so-distant past.
No matter how hard you look, it’s hard to find any positive nuggets to take away from the O’s bullpen performance (with the exception being the recently-promoted Hunter Harvey). Their relievers’ collective ERA is 6.39, easily the worst in Major League Baseball. The Nationals are second worst at 6.08. The third-worst Rockies come in at 5.24. Of the 30 clubs, 24 have a bullpen ERA under five. This is not a problem that has existed for only part of the season: the bullpen ERA through June stood at 6.18.
Baltimore’s bullpen WHIP (1.59) and batting average against (.278) both rank as the worst in Major League Baseball. They are one of five bullpens in baseball to have a negative WAR. Somehow, their WAR of -1.3 ranks only as second worst behind the Marlins (-1.8).
Unfortunately, there aren’t any peripheral statistics for O’s fans to hang their hats on in hopes that results could improve in the future. Relievers are striking out 8.53 batters per nine innings, which is good for 26th in the majors. On the other hand, they are walking 4.19 batters per nine innings, which is fourth highest.
According to Fangraphs, Orioles relievers throw their fastballs at an average of 93.6 MPH. That ranks 25th in the league. At the same time, their average changeup velocity is 80.5, which is ninth highest. This indicates that the difference in velocity between fastball and changeup is not enough to fool batters and keep them off balance. Their pitches are not moving that much, either. Both horizontal and vertical movements on their sliders are measured at 0.4. Their vertical movement on curveballs is the worst in baseball.
Plate discipline data also compiled by Fangraphs confirms the aforementioned poor results. O’s relievers are the worst in baseball at getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, generating swings on 28.6% of such pitches. They rank in the bottom third in missing bats on pitches inside the strike zone. Opposing hitters make contact on 77.1% of swings they take (second worst).
Orioles relievers are definitely doing their part in the club’s march towards the record of allowing the most home runs in MLB history. They have given up more home runs (112) than any other bullpen in the league. They are also worst in the league in home runs allowed per nine innings and home run/fly ball ratio. There is a large gap between the O’s and the second worst club in each of those categories. The allowance of home runs is an area in which the O’s bullpen has seriously regressed in 2019. They were not in the bottom third in any of the three metrics listed last season.
The data is clear and reinforces what we all know: the Orioles’ bullpen is not good. Why is that? One reason is that the bullpen has been taxed all season. An overworked bullpen is one of the many detriments to having an inexperienced and subpar starting rotation. Through 126 games, the O’s bullpen has covered 506.1 innings. That the Orioles bullpen has pitched the sixth most innings in baseball is misleading, as some of the teams ahead of them utilize the opener strategy and skew the starter/reliever ratio. Either way, Baltimore relievers are being asked to cover an average of over four innings per game. That is too much. Outings like Dylan Bundy’s seven strong innings last evening have been the exception to the rule.
Another reason is that there simply isn’t much talent or experience out in the bullpen this year. Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde have given many players an opportunity to get outs this season, but very few have taken advantage. Finally given a chance to contribute for a major league team, Gabriel Ynoa and Shawn Armstrong have pitched to ERA’s of 6.11 and 5.93 respectively.
Also, some contributors from previous seasons have not performed at the level we’ve seen in the past. Mychal Givens ERA of 4.53 is over a run higher than his career average. Last season Paul Fry had reverse splits and allowed right-handed batters to post an impressive .556 OPS against him. That figure has ballooned to .723 in 2019 and his ERA has jumped from 3.35 to 5.09. Finally, there is Richard Bleier, who came into 2019 never having posted an ERA of over 1.96 in a season. His ERA is currently over six.
The lone exception currently in the bullpen is Hunter Harvey, who provides us with a glimmer of hope. His dominant performance in his debut and last night when touching 100 MPH when picking up his first career win, gives the organization a bullpen piece to build around. As Drew Bonifant observed yesterday, that needs to kickstart a trend of O’s prospects succeeding at the highest level.
The 2019 Orioles have no shortage of problems. But the bullpen is definitely a big one. As the new front office staff implements their methods, improves the organizational talent pipeline, and builds out the analytics department, hopefully we see more production out of O’s relievers in coming years.