Of all the gaping holes Captain Hyde and Fleet Admiral Elias need to plug to make this old tub seaworthy, the situation at closer is not the biggest. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have tough decisions to make there.
Last season, the Orioles’ bullpen was the worst in the AL by a long shot. Add to that the fact that GM Mike Elias is starting to show an increased appetite for cleaning house, what with trading veteran Dylan Bundy and cutting fan favorite Stevie “Dr. Poo Poo” Wilkerson.
You can also add the fact that, since 2017, righty fireballer Mychal Givens, in MASN reporter Roch Kubatko’s words, “wears the trade chip label as if it’s sewn onto his uniform jersey.” And the fact that Givens had his worst season ever in 2019 as the Orioles’ main closer, and the result might be a slot that’s more wide open than you’d initially think.
Givens’ struggles last season are well known. Not only did he blow almost as many games as he saved (8 vs. 11), but also for the first time in his career his WPA (win probability added) fell below zero, meaning he cost the team games when he came in to pitch. He put up career-worst numbers in ERA (4.57), FIP (4.50) and home runs allowed per 9 innings (1.9).
If you want to play detective, though—and I’m assuming you do, if you’re reading this—you might take note of the fact that Givens’ WHIP, hits allowed/9 innings, and walk rate were not career highs, while he struck out career-best numbers of batters. This leads to the conclusion that, when Givens lost games, he lost them on the long ball.
Givens did, in fact, allow zero home runs in wins or saves, while twelve of the thirteen homers he allowed last season came in a loss or a blown save. (Which could also lead you to reflect again on the fact of a juiced MLB ball, and how it may be affecting fireballing relief pitchers in particular.)
Does Givens get a chance to redeem himself this season? Of course he does. But where he fits in the bullpen is less than obvious.
What we want to ask ourselves is, were Givens’ struggles last year with the long ball the result of fatigue or of his not pitching well in high-leverage situations? If it’s the former, the problem should be resolved by giving him more rest; if the latter, Hyde should consider making him a set-up man, and not a closer.
Let’s see what the stats say. Last season, Givens was used more than any other Orioles relief pitcher: he came out 31 times in the eighth inning (where he put up a 1.93 ERA) and 40 in the ninth (a 6.69 ERA). It’s a pretty glaring difference. Fourteen of these appearances involved him pitching multiple innings: his record in these was 1-1, with six saves and one blown save.
Over the first half of the season, Givens’ ERA and WHIP were 4.76 and 1.294, respectively; over the second half they were 4.34 and 1.069 in roughly the same number of innings. His worst months, by a long shot, were May and September/October.
These results don’t clearly say to me that Givens was overused and worn down by fatigue. How about his performance based on # days of rest?
No clear pattern there, either.
Pitch count? Where Givens threw 1-25 pitches (91% of his appearances), opposing batters put up a .696 OPS. On the rare occasions he went above 25, opponent OPS jumped to .991. A difference, but not a huge one. Under those conditions, Givens’ strikeout/walk ratio dropped measurably, but he didn’t give up a ton more home runs (12 versus 1).
How about the pressure argument? Baseball Reference allows you to break down a pitcher’s appearances by how high leverage they consider it to be. Here, I think, is where you do find interesting results.
Givens had a comparable number of plate appearances in low- versus high-leverage situations (92 and 121, respectively). Moving from low- to high-leverage situations, however, opponents’ OPS jumps from .492 to 1.013, while the number of home runs allowed increases from 2 to 11. (Granted, there’s a slight circularity problem here, because the worse our man is doing on a given day, the more likely he’ll be to get into hot water, but still, suggestive.) The strikeouts and walks stay about the same.
BRef also collects what it calls “Clutch Stats” on a pitcher’s performance. It turns out that whether the Orioles are ahead or behind seems to have had little effect on Givens’ performance, based again, on opponent batters’ OPS: Orioles Ahead: .643 vs. Orioles Behind: .613. What did make a difference was being in a close situation. When the score differential was over 4 runs, batters facing Givens had an OPS of .411. Make that a tie or a one-run game, and that stat jumped to 1.042 and 1.032, respectively.
Heading into the season, the Orioles are likely to carry eight relievers on the 26-man roster, and as of right now, six are locks to make the team: Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry, Hunter Harvey, and of course, Mychal Givens. We know that this Orioles team is in a talent-scouting, prospect-hunting, long-term growth-maximizing place right now, and that Givens’ arm continues to make him one of the Orioles’ most lucrative chips, even after last season. And we know that, even as analytics change the face of the game, there remains some weird mystique around professional closers.
Still, it’s worth pondering whether maximizing Givens’ value (to the Orioles or to some other team) means letting him stretch out his magnificent sidearm away from the pressures of close, ninth-inning situations. The stats aren’t definitive, but there may be reason to think that Miguel Castro or rookie Hunter Harvey would do better with the job.