The Baltimore Orioles won’t go away in the American League playoff race—in fact not only are they not going away, they’re still holding down the second wild-card berth as they enter the finale of a big weekend series in Detroit today. And not only are they not going away and still holding down a playoff berth, they’ve been getting better in the second half of the season. The biggest reason for this is the bullpen.
Baltimore’s relief pitching is third in the American League this year, only trailing Tampa Bay and Oakland—the latter of which is the other team that keeps hanging in the race in spite of public skepticism. What’s more the Oriole bullpen is deep, so it’s not a case of having to carefully handle one or two pitchers. While some are obviously better than others, manager Buck Showalter has a lot of arms at his disposal.
Jim Johnson is the closer and has been one of the more underrated relief pitchers in the American League for at least five years, starting with his work as a setup man in 2008. Then you mix in Matt Lidstrom, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day and Troy Patton. All have worked about 50 innings this season and all have ERAs below 3. Patton is currently on the disabled list, but is expected back in late August.
A good closer and four reliable setup arms—including one with playoff experience in O’Day, a part of the Texas Rangers’ staff the last two years—is pretty good on its face. But we haven’t yet got to the crown jewel and that’s Pedro Strop. The young righthander has worked 53 innings and posted a dazzling 1.51 ERA.
Baltimore’s starting pitching hasn’t overwhelmed anyone this year, although with Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman pitching well, it’s getting better. The offense ranks in the bottom half of the American League in scoring runs. But the Orioles have a team that, if you don’t beat them the first five innings, are very tough to take out in the second part of a baseball game.
What it adds up to is a team whose record in one-run games is a stunning 23-8. To put that figure in perspective, no one else in the AL East is over .500 and no one else in the American League overall is more than four games over .500. The common statistical interpretation of this is to say its luck, an example of the balls bouncing Baltimore’s way. If this were the middle of May, I’d agree with that and say let’s wait for things to even out. When it’s the middle of August you have to at least be open to the idea that there’s a reason for it—and when the Orioles excel in an area so obviously vital to winning close games, you can’t just casually dismiss it.
So what does this mean for the future, both the next six weeks and the future of this rebuilding organization? In the short term, the Orioles are going to need better starting pitching, or at least for Gonzalez, Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen to continue to pitch well. As the season reaches its finish line the games resemble a postseason series, and in those games its starting pitching that defines success. Bullpens win you games over the long haul. Starting pitching wins in the short haul.
For the future, Showalter can feel good about Strop, Johnson and O’Day as the foundation for his pen, though it is risky to keep counting on a bullpen this deep over time. The team will realistically need to acquire another starter or have Zach Britton fulfill his potential.
But those are concerns for December. For now, it’s time to stop asking why Baltimore is in a playoff race. They’re in it because they have a deep corps of relief pitching and a manager who knows how to maximize its use.