In the four years going on five since the Orioles started their downturn, relief pitching has been among their more agonizing and irritating deficiencies.
How often have you seen it where the O’s, searching for a rare victory and seemingly finding it, nevertheless find a way to hand the game back over in the closing innings? Over the course of these seasons of triple-figure losses, it’s been the reason for a lot of them.
And it might still be this season. But it hasn’t been yet.
Nine games into the season, the Orioles are nothing special at 3-6, but while you can point the finger at different areas of the roster and operation - .206 team average? .597 team OPS? - for that, you can’t point it at the bullpen. So far, Baltimore’s relief game has been...well...rather relieving, actually.
Entering Monday, Orioles relievers had pitched to an ERA of 2.66, the sixth-best mark in all of baseball. Their walk rate of 3.07 was the 10th best in the game. And with one home run allowed in 44 innings - a two-run shot served up by Travis Lakins to the Yankees’ Josh Donaldson on Friday - Baltimore’s homer rate of 0.20 per nine innings is the lowest in the game, and as good a reason for the bullpen success as any.
If this sounds foreign and unfamiliar, it’s because it is. The bullpen has taken a sledgehammer to the Orioles’ chances of winning over the years, such as last season, when Baltimore’s relief pitching ranked dead last in the majors in ERA (5.70) and home runs per nine (1.47) and was second to last in save percentage (48 percent) and third to last in percentage of inherited runners scoring (40 percent).
Things weren’t much better in previous years. In 2019, the O’s again were 30th out of 30 in relief ERA (5.79) and home runs per nine (1.73), and were also last in the game in save percentage (50 percent) while ranking second-worst in inherited runners scoring (38 percent) to, oddly enough, the eventual World Series champion Nationals.
In 2018, the year that started the slide, Baltimore was fourth worst in relief ERA (4.78), 11th worst in HR/9 (1.13), tied for seventh worst in save percentage (61) and tied for 16th-worst in inherited runners scoring (31); not terrible numbers, until you remember that the year began with Zack Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day in the ’pen.
In the midst of all of that was a solid year - the COVID-affected season of 2020, which lasted only 60 games. Over those 60, Baltimore’s bullpen ERA of 3.90 was actually the ninth-best mark in all of baseball.
And maybe this season and that season have something in common - the Orioles didn’t play long enough in 2020 for water to find its level, and the only reason the 2022 Birds so far are pitching well in relief is because the other shoe hasn’t had a chance to drop yet.
And maybe that’s what’s ahead for Baltimore relievers (does anyone really expect Bryan Baker, he of the one career inning on the mound entering this season, to finish the year with a 1.93 ERA?). Some of this could be legit, however. Dillon Tate flashed some brilliance in 2020 on his way to a 3.24 ERA and 0.840 WHIP, perhaps his current 1.42 ERA is indicative of his taking the step forward that he was expected to make last year?
Jorge Lopez has been solid if not spectacular with a 3.38 ERA and rate of 10.1 strikeouts per nine, and while he went 3-14 last season, he had a 2.16 ERA over eight appearances as a reliever. Maybe, as has been the case hundreds of times before, he’s the latest example of a pitcher who can’t hack it as a starter but finds a niche in the bullpen. Britton, Brian Matusz and Andrew Miller know the feeling.
And Keegan Akin and Michael Baumann have a combined 1.08 ERA in 8.1 innings, and maybe it’s a matter of time before they’re knocked around. But they’re also former high-ranking pitching prospects, and if more highly-regarded young arms sure come to Baltimore over the course of the season, maybe the Orioles’ long relief will become a sure strength for the team.
We’ll see. But it’s hard not to be pleased so far.