Baltimore Orioles: Thoughts on the Dominant Bullpen Strategy


Oct 2, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Andrew Miller (48) pitches during the sixth inning in game one of the 2014 American League divisional series at Oriole Park against the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

During the final third of the 2014 season, while watching the Baltimore Orioles bullpen largely dominate other teams and contribute to victory after victory, I determined to write about this topic during the offseason as a valuable strategy toward building a winning franchise. I thought I was mentally hitting on something that was beneath the obvious surface of baseball methodology.

And then the postseason happened with the Kansas City Royals and their bullpen – throwing the question of this philosophy fully and openly before the baseball world to discuss. Along with this is the intriguing question as to how much free agents David Robertson and Andrew Miller are going to gain through lucrative contracts, and with whom?

But the high-level value of a shutdown, lockdown, door-slamming back end of the bullpen is obvious to Orioles fans by just looking at the O’s two seasons prior to our recent 96-win adventure. Though our good guys in black and orange have benefitted greatly from three powerful home run seasons, much of that is counterbalanced by deficits in on base percentage and team speed. Along the way, superior defense has also been a great and underrated asset toward compiling victories.

But in 2012, the Orioles won a historically unusual number of close one-run games and extra-innings games. It was almost magical. But facilitating all of that was a bullpen that kept the team in games for inning after inning after inning … until the offense could at last come through with a game-winning run.

Conversely in 2013, it was the bullpen more than anything else that crapped out on the Birds, with the compilation of blown saves in particular making the biggest difference between the 93 wins in 2012 and the 85 wins of 2013.

So, the question is now being asked around baseball circles as to if investing in a lockdown back end of the bullpen is the missing link and magic elixir for baseball success, or – as MASN Columnist Steve Melewski recently opined in an excellent article – is it just “the flavor of the month?”  Adding to that speculative sentiment is another excellent article by a Blue Jays writer named Ben Nicholson-Smith, who acknowledges that such players make any team better, but that spending money on them is not a historically-proven method to build a franchise … buyer beware.

Melewski’s article in particular presented the situation in these terms, referencing the KC pen, “If a team can build a bullpen as good, they can shorten the game to six innings.”

I think that only goes about halfway in describing the philosophy. What good is a six-inning game on equal footing?

Think of it this way: How would you like it if your team could come to bat for nine innings with 27 outs, but the other team was only given six innings and 18 outs to score? That would be great, right?

Speaking mathematically regarding that scenario, this means that your team had 60% of the scoring opportunities, whereas the other squad only had 40%. Therefore, if you were an average team relative to the others in the league in your ability to score and to hold down the opposition in their 40% of the game, you should win 60% of your games. Over a 162-game season, that would translate to a record of 97-65 – one game better than the 2014 Baltimore Orioles second-best MLB record of 96-66.

A phrase I heard in years past around the Baltimore Orioles was, “We are going to grow the arms and buy the bats.”  Maybe that was a MacPhail era sentiment.

Building a lockdown bullpen could be like saying, “We’re going to grow the bats and starters and buy the bullpen.”

So what is the answer?

I would say this: Though there is no one, single-best way to build a winning baseball team, securing a shutdown bullpen has been undervalued, even while realizing that consistent year-to-year performance by individual relievers has been difficult to come by for those not named Mariano Rivera.

In Melewski’s article, he quotes MLB Network Analyst Joel Sherman who said, “Just six teams have the same closer today they had at the beginning of the 2013 season.”

And the poster child of excessive relief pitcher spending is former Orioles bullpen ace B.J. Ryan, who was signed for five years at $47 million by the Blue Jays in 2006 after two very strong seasons with the Orioles. He was fantastic his first year with a 1.37 ERA, 38 saves and WHIP of 0.857 … but then it all came unglued, with injuries and an inability to ever get back on track. He pitched a grand total of 155 innings in Toronto; so, figure his services came at about $330K per inning.

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B.J. Ryan aside, I think I’d do it if I were a GM … I’d spend $40 million for four years on Andrew Miller and do everything else possible to build a bullpen of five outstanding short-innings arms. It seems to me to be a cheaper way to spend with a mid-level or lesser-resourced franchise. But the Baltimore Orioles are simply not going to do this.

I know. It is really easy to spend someone else’s money. And yes, it could certainly blow up, but I don’t think it is any more risky than possibly seeing FA signings of Nelson Cruz or Nick Markakis blowing up.