Baltimore Orioles and the Back End of American League Bullpens


While waiting for some Baltimore Orioles news to break – which may have me waiting a while – some thoughts here have turned again to the manner in which the back ends of bullpens have become such a necessity and talked-about commodity in this offseason.

I am also today digesting the overnight news that Jon Lester is out of the American League for $155 million in six years with the Chicago Cubs. As I wrote in the last post, it is not a bad thing for the Orioles to have Lester out of the AL. Although, for a team to be the best at the end of the day, sooner or later you are going to have to beat the best.

Even with all their other additions, the Chicago Cubs are said to maybe have some more money to spend. Joe Maddon is certainly now swimming in different financial waters. And hopefully this Lester resolution breaks loose the signing of some of the other free agents in order to provide some clarity.

Regarding bullpens, without doubt it was a great strength for the Baltimore Orioles in 2014. The Birds ranked third in the league with a 3.10 ERA. Showalter spoke of the strength of the bullpen as an extension of the starters, saying …

"“I do know that we plan to be seven, eight pitchers deep by the time we break camp with our what-ifs. Have some people at Norfolk that we feel like can come up and help us. Same way in the bullpen. That’s something we’ve been attacking daily. It may not be up on the stage announcing it, but they’re key moves for us. You saw some we made last year that nobody really paid much attention to that came into it. I really feel like we’ve got to stay on top of our bullpen in the offseason to make sure it’s still a strength for us.”"

There are so many moving parts that are involved in what constitutes a great team, including the offensive production, the ability of starters to consistently go deep into games with minimal damage, and the ability to “defend” (as Showalter so often puts it). And statistics are impacted by the ballparks in which a team plays and even the manner by which bullpen ERAs can explode quickly on just a few bad outings.

But seeking to bring some order to this discussion, note this following chart …

American League bullpen ERA and won-loss stats when team is leading after a number of completed innings…

TeamAfter 6After 7After 8
Royals 3.3065-472-179-1
Angels 3.5276-1077-484-3
Blue Jays 4.0976-1077-484-3
Orioles 3.1072-775-780-4
Tigers 4.2970-876-577-5
Mariners 2.5968-872-677-3
Yankees 4.2967-1068-569-2
Indians 3.1267-767-567-3
Rays  3.7161-767-467-4
Athletics 2.9165-1165-969-7
Twins  3.7352-553-659-3
Red Sox 3.3352-953-656-2
White Sox 4.3851-1056-961-7
Rangers  4.0245-950-755-2
Astros  4.8054-1657-1161-8

I have attempted in the graph to rank and rate the bullpens in regard to their strengths in the final three innings of games. There is some subjectivity involved, but what is surprising is that there is less one-to-one correspondence between total bullpen ERA and effectiveness in the final three innings regarding holding onto leads.

For example, the best AL bullpen ERA of the A’s has them only ranked sixth here in late-inning effectiveness. Some of this is the early season troubles of our old friend Jim Johnson, and some of it is the lousy canyon ballpark in Oakland.

But seeing the numbers associated with the Royals certainly argues strongly for the value of shutdown relievers at the end of games, and this means more than just one closer (see Boston).

The strength of the Dellin Betances / David Robertson bullpen for the Yankees is seen in how they lost 10 games they were leading after six innings, but only two when going into the ninth ahead of their opponents.

It is a surprise to see the Blue Jays rate as well as they do on this chart, as their bullpen is not thought of as extraordinary. Though they had a total of eight relievers record saves, the bulk of them were by Casey Janssen, who did not begin the season until May 12th.  His ERA was a mediocre reliever’s number of 3.94, but if you take out his two worst appearances over his 50 games, it would be 2.75. So the Jays had a sort of “bend but not break” bullpen.

Of course the trick is to have the talent in the organization to have multiple choices late in a game, and then to discover as early as possible in the season which of the mostly single-inning pitchers have their stuff working for them with consistency. The latter point addresses the common understanding that the bulk of relievers are a notoriously inconsistent bunch when considered year to year.

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To accomplish this discovery, it would seem that an effective GM strategy would be to stockpile arms, set up the competition, and see who rises to the top. And the Baltimore Orioles have perhaps the best GM for such a set-up.