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Orioles pitching is going through its worst stretch this season

The bullpen has regressed, and so have the starters. Is it the heat?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

April is the cruelest month, they say, but May hasn’t been so hot, either. In the last two weeks, the Orioles have an abysmal .182 winning percentage. They’ve allowed 68 earned runs in 11 games. Their team ERA is 6.29, including an 11.00 ERA against the Rays. It’s pretty terrible.

Baseball is full of slumps and hot streaks, peaks and valleys, but almost all of the Orioles pitchers seem to be going through rough spots right now.

Last Saturday, Jorge López gave up five runs to the Yankees in just two innings pitched. On Thursday, Dean Kremer gave up four runs in three innings. His command got worse as his start went on. On Tuesday, Matt Harvey gave up six runs. His command got worse as the start went on. On Wednesday, even John Means looked mortal. He gave up four runs and … yeah, he seemed to lose his command, too.

The relievers haven’t looked this bad all year. In the last week, the Orioles’ bullpen ERA of 6.21 is the fifth-worst in the majors. Only two relief corps, Colorado and Arizona, have allowed more runs in the meantime.

On Wednesday, Adam Plutko got put in during the seventh inning with a 6-3 lead against the Tampa Bay Rays. That lead promptly disappeared, leading to Plutko’s first blown save of the year, and leading some fans called for manager Brandon Hyde’s head. The correct response, however, is what Matt Kremnitzer tweeted in response. Not Hyde’s fault when everyone in the ‘pen seems to be swooning collectively.

What’s going on? Fatigue is a good guess. The data is still out on whether the post-COVID innings bump in 2021 is having an effect on pitchers, but according to one take on this, there’s some truth to that.

The best data available draws a subtle but important distinction: there doesn’t seem to be evidence that an innings bump, ALONE, increases the likelihood of injury, but pitching while fatigued or improperly ramped up does. So, then, it’s not hard to see how the two things could be tied together – you ramp up too quickly so as to reach a certain innings level, and you get hurt. Or you wear down later in the year earlier in your starts, which causes you to pitch while fatigued more often, and you get hurt. Neither case is strictly and solely about the innings bump, but there’s a relationship there.

This rings true for Baltimore. Orioles starters are not going long lately, and the bullpen is being forced to cover a high amount of innings. Orioles management’s already-aggressive strategy of regularly rotating arms suggests that managing the innings bump’s effect on arms is a real, live concern. On the other hand, if this were all of it, a lot of teams would be experiencing statistical regressions right now.

Another factor is strength of schedule. The Orioles have played 22 of 43 games against the AL East, the only division in baseball with four teams with a record above .500. (Hint: none of those is the Orioles.) The Orioles have baseball’s third-hardest schedule, give or take, and the latest stretch of games has been typical of this challenge. Nine of the Orioles’ last eleven games have been against AL East teams, seven of the last twelve against Top-5 offenses, and twenty-four straight games were against teams with winning records.

Finally, there’s the hypothesis that the Orioles’ recent badness is what CamdenChatter jim66 calls “Achieving your destiny,” or what statisticians refer to as “regression to the mean.” Is April (the good) the true Orioles or May (the bad)?

One way to look at it is in terms of expected team outcomes. According to Fangraphs’ 2021 predictions, the Orioles are a 67-95 team that should score 4.23 runs per game and give up 5.02. So far, the record is more or less right, but the runs scored prediction is high—even as the offense has picked up—and the team, even at their current rate, isn’t giving up as many runs as predicted. This could mean that Orioles pitching will get worse, in line with pre-season predictions. Or it could mean that all bets are off in a year where offense has gone missing, league-wide.

Happily, it looks like the latter. At the individual pitcher level, it’s hard to generalize across the staff. But by looking at the difference between pitchers’ actual ERA and expected ERA (or FIP), you get a sense that many Orioles pitchers have actually been unlucky thus far: Paul Fry, with a 2.81 ERA, Keegan Akin, whose ERA is fully double his FIP, and many others: Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, Jorge López, and Shawn Armstrong. On the other hand, there are some pitchers likely due for a regression at some point: Tanner Scott, John Means, Bruce Zimmermann, Adam Plutko, Cole Sulser, and César Valdez.

Overall, though, the truth is optimistic for this team as a collective. According to FanGraphs, the Orioles bullpen is better than it’s pitching right now, given an xFIP that is way lower than their ERA. The same is true for Orioles starters. Plus the bullpen’s K/9 rate (12.41) is third-best in the majors, another good sign for the relief corps: if the peripherals are good, even when the results are bad, statistical improvement is likely.

All in all, what can be taken from this is that, with pitching dominant throughout the league right now, and many Orioles throwers underperforming their expected totals, it’s plausible to think that this team will get better. Let’s hope so—and that the improvement is timed to coincide with decent offense—because the last week, the team’s been almost unwatchable.