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The Orioles bullpen has been a strength early this season

Relievers seem to be settling into roles and Cesar Valdez has provided stability at the back end of a bullpen that has been a pleasant surprise.

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles
Right-hander Cole Sulser delivers a pitch for the Orioles at Camden Yards.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

With two days left in April, the Orioles (10-14) find themselves in last place in the American League East. The offense has been underwhelming, and the pitching staff ranks middle of the pack among all 30 MLB teams in ERA and WHIP. But the relief pitching specifically has been a shining light for the club as the opening month of the 2021 season comes to a close.

In all of baseball, the Orioles bullpen has the fifth-best ERA (3.00). They rank fifth in left-on-base percentage (78.4) by limiting damage and stranding runners in relief. The ‘pen has also shown the ability to induce groundballs — which is extra valuable when pitching in a home run-friendly park like Camden Yards — as evidenced by their 47.2% GB%, good for sixth-best among all 30 teams. And for all the WAR lovers out there, Baltimore’s relief corps ranks fourth in the majors at 1.1 wins above replacement.

Paul Fry enters play today with a 1.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 12 strikeouts in 8.1 innings. Nick Cicere wrote about the rise of Fry last week. And a couple of weeks ago, Alex Church wrote about Travis Lakins Sr. staking a claim to a bullpen spot. He’s thrown seven scoreless innings out of the bullpen this year.

How about the Orioles’ de facto closer, Cesar Valdez? In nine games, Valdez has two wins and five saves in six save opportunities. He’s allowed only two runs (one earned) in 10.2 innings. His ERA and WHIP are identical at 0.84, and with 11 strikeouts and just one walk, the junkball artist has proven his control and ability to miss bats.

Onto a flamethrowing left-hander, there are a few things that don’t line up with Tanner Scott’s numbers this year. In 9.2 innings, he’s sporting a 2.79 ERA and .171 BAA with zero home runs allowed. But his WHIP is a bloated 1.66, and he’s allowed nearly as many walks (10) as strikeouts (11).

Will he be able to keep walking that tightrope into May? Walks have long been Scott’s Achilles heel and will remain something to monitor going forward.

On the other hand, reliever Cole Sulser has not allowed a walk yet this year. Granted, he hasn’t been around the entire season, having spent about 12 days this month — split between two trips — at the alternate training site in Bowie. But he’s been effective when here. In addition to zero free passes, Sulser has struck out 12 batters in 7.2 innings. That comes out to 14.1 K/9.

Right-hander Adam Plutko has been a revelation after joining the team five days before the season started. The Orioles acquired him from the Cleveland Indians for cash considerations on March 27th.

While he may not throw gas — Plutko’s fastball hovers around 91 mph on a good night — he’s been able to get hitters out consistently. Opponents are batting .186 against him, plus he’s got a 1.42 ERA and 0.87 WHIP to go along with three walks and nine strikeouts in 12.2 innings.

Shawn Armstrong had a rough start to the 2021 season, failing to complete a full inning of work until his fifth relief appearance. Since then, Armstrong has settled in nicely. He’s racked up scoreless outings in four of his last five appearances, including four strikeouts in his last 2.1 innings pitched. His ERA currently stands at 9.00.

It’s not much to go off of, but perhaps he was able to correct an early-season flaw quickly. He proved his worth last year when he posted a 1.80, 2.99 FIP, 0.80 WHIP, and 4.67 K/BB in 15 innings, so a return to that form would be welcomed. In last night’s 7-0 loss to the Yankees, Armstrong threw 1.2 scoreless innings with one walk, one strikeout, and zero hits allowed.

In spite of a Giancarlo Stanton home run allowed a couple of days ago, Dillon Tate has had a strong start to the season. He’s carrying a 2.70 ERA and 0.90 WHIP into this afternoon’s game. But with only four strikeouts in 10 innings (3.6 K/9), he’s not fooling many hitters. At 4.48, Tate’s FIP is almost two runs higher than his ERA.

Keeping the arms fresh will be key to the longevity of the bullpen this year. As the season wears on and spring turns to summer, the most reliable relievers can fall victim to fatigue. It will come down to the creativity of manager Brandon Hyde and pitching coach Chris Holt when deploying their relievers, along with the performance of the starting rotation.