Going into Monday night's game against the Rangers, the Orioles surprisingly have the best record in baseball at 19-9. They've gotten a great performance from the starting rotation as well as from many of the position players like Wieters, Davis and Reimold, which has led to the great start. I'm not going to talk about any of that today though. What I want to talk about is the great performance the Orioles have received from the bullpen so far this year. For years, the Orioles bullpen has been terrible causing the team to lose games in the late innings that they should have won. That hasn't been the case this year.
For starters, the team bullpen ERA is an unbelievable 1.41. I can't really believe I'm typing this, but the Orioles are first in the league in bullpen ERA by far. Just for comparison's sake, last year the team had a bullpen ERA of 4.18 which ranked 27th out of 30. Now, there is no way that the Orioles are going to finish the season with a bullpen ERA under 2; it's just not going to happen. So while it's great and we should enjoy it for now, the bullpen has gotten its fair share of luck so far. The bullpen as a whole has a 3.03 FIP and a 3.59 xFIP. The two ERA estimators scream that the regression is coming. So while we know that this performance won't last the whole season, lets take a look at how we got here.
Jim Johnson has been the Orioles closer this year except for the few games he missed with food poisoning. Johnson hasn't given up a run yet this year and is a perfect 7 for 7 in save opportunities. It seems that he's adjusted to the closer's role quite nicely, and may add more credence to the sabermetric argument that any good pitcher can close. With an outstanding 72.7% ground ball rate, Johnson's approach is more groundball centric than most closers. Closers typically get many of their outs via the strikeout, but Johnson has success getting guys to beat the ball into the ground. To get these groundballs, he's using his 2 seam fastball 75% of the time. It seems to be working. Johnson has a FIP/xFIP/SIERA of 2.64/3.17/2.33.
Pedro Strop has emerged this season and claimed the role of the Orioles set up man. He even got a couple of saves when Johnson was in the hospital. The Orioles acquired Strop towards the end of 2011 as the player to be named later in the Mike Gonzalez trade with the Rangers. He has been coming at hitters primarily with a 2 seam fastball that he throws 55% of the time, with about 20% 4 seamers and 20% sliders mixed in. The 2 seamer has been an extremely impressive and effective pitch for him. He averages 96.7 mph with the pitch and has been getting a lot of swinging strikes it. Overall, his swinging strike rate is an excellent 11%. The only concern with Strop is keeping his walks under control; he's carrying a 3.71 BB/9. For his career, he's at 5.08 BB/9. If he can keep the walks under control with his dynamic stuff, he'll continue to be effective. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 3.19/3.14/3.07.
Matt Lindstrom is one of 3 Orioles relievers yet to give up an earned run this season. Throwing his 95 mph heat most of the time, he has legitimately been excellent. Following the Orioles bullpen theme, he's been throwing tons of sinkers, about 50% of the time. Along with Darren O'Day, he's one of the two Oriole relievers to average over a strikeout per inning. To support his 9.69 K/9 rate, he's also getting 10.9% swinging strikes, which is far above average. Coming to the Orioles along with Jason Hammel in the offseason trade for Jeremy Guthrie, he has been more effective than even the most loyal O's fans would have believed. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 1.72/2.66/2.26.
Of the 3 Orioles relievers yet to give up an earned run, Luis Ayala has been doing it the most with smoke and mirrors. Ayala has now pitched 15.2 innings without giving up an earned run. However, his strike out rate of 5.17 K/9 doesn't support this kind of performance. His walk rate is solid at 2.30 BB/9, but he hasn't been getting tons of groundballs either with a GB% of 49%. That's above average but not spectacular. So how's he been having this kind of success, you ask? Well, the luck dragons have been awfully kind so far. Ayala has a tiny .208 BABIP, a 93% LOB%, and a 0.0% HR/FB%. Those marks just can't last throughout the season. He also only has a 5.3% swinging strike rate. Look out for some regression for Ayala in the near future. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 2.76/4.24/3.87. His FIP looks good because he hasn't given up any homeruns yet. The other two ERA estimators approximate the number of homeruns he should have given up based on his fly ball percentage, and show the chinks in the armor.
Darren O'Day has been under the radar this year, but he's been excellent. Coming at hitters with a side-arm release point, he's been striking out 9.64 K/9 this year with a strong walk rate of only 2.57 BB/9. His walk and strike out rates are almost exactly where they were last year, so there is some precedence for his success. Like many of the Orioles relievers, he's a fastball, sinker, slider pitcher. The difference with O'Day is that it's coming side-arm and his fastball is only 84 mph. Nevertheless, he's had a lot of success so far. He's getting 10.8% swinging strikes, and batters are swinging at 37.4% of his pitches out of the strike zone. Look for his ERA to come up a little bit but he's been very good so far. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 2.81/3.05/2.59.
The lone lefty in the pen so far has been Troy Patton. Even though he's been the only lefty in the pen, he hasn't been used to face only lefties. He's faced 25 left handed hitters and 27 right handed hitters, so Buck is certainly not saving him for the difficult lefties late in the game. Patton has only struck out 4 of the 52 hitters he's faced for a dismal 2.84 K/9. He's only walked 2 batters so he's not giving up the free pass either. Currently, he's only getting 7.5% swinging strikes so he's got some work to do on missing bats. Troy hasn't distinguished himself yet and has some work to do if he wants to be a long term option in the pen. He's got some leash because he's the only lefty but if he doesn't miss more bats he's going to be in trouble. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 3.82/4.19/4.25.
The last member of the pen is every Oriole fans favorite pitcher, Kevin Gregg. Though he had a good series against the Red Sox, he has been dismal for the rest of the season. Buck has pretty clearly decided that Gregg was the last man on the totem pole in the bullpen giving him only 8.2 innings while everyone else in the bullpen has pitched over 12. The problem with Gregg's way of pitching is that he doesn't have faith in his stuff and he nibbles around the strike zone instead of attacking hitters in the strike zone. That is still the case this year, and he's amassed an ugly 5.19 BB/9. He does have 8 strike outs in his 8.2 innings so he is missing bats. It's hard to believe that a year ago, Gregg was the Orioles closer. There is no way he should ever get close to the role again. Gregg has clearly defined himself as a below average reliever. If he's making a small salary as the last man in the pen, that's fine. When he's making $5.8 million to provide below average work, he's hurting the team. We'll save the debate over what the Orioles should do with him for a different day. His FIP/xFIP/SIERA is 5.03/5.41/4.16.
As you can see, the Orioles have received some legitimately great performances out of their bullpen so far allowing them lead the league in bullpen ERA. A large part of taking 5 out of 6 from the Yankees and Red Sox was due to the stellar work of the bullpen. However, while the Orioles have gotten great performances from Strop, Lindstrom, O'Day, and Johnson, there is regression coming from guys like Ayala and Patton. The Orioles enter play Monday night at 19-9 and with the best record in baseball, thanks to a great bullpen so far. However, don't be shocked if the bullpen starts to give up some runs in the next few series. They have 3 really tough opponents coming up in the Rangers, Rays, and Yankees. As a whole, they're just not ready to be the best in baseball yet. But enjoy it while you can O's fans.